This is Hanover (but it doesn’t have to be)

July 8, 2019 11:02 pm

A small group of KKK members rallied in Hanover last weekend outside the county courthouse. (NBC12)

Hanover County is my home.

At least seven generations of my family were born and raised here; freedmen founded our community’s church 151 years ago. I was horrified and disgusted to witness the tail end of a small Ku Klux Klan gathering 10 minutes from my house on Saturday.

Horrified and disgusted, but not surprised.

This is, after all, Hanover.

One of America’s most famous founding fathers, Patrick Henry, was born in Hanover County. Henry launched his career as a lawyer at Hanover Courthouse, and argued his Parson’s Cause case there; it was one of the earliest oppositions against English rule in the American colonies ahead of the Revolutionary War.

On Saturday, members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from North Carolina stood outside Hanover Courthouse, waving Confederate flags, wearing white robes and holding up signs that read “America for Americans.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the KKK as “the most infamous — and oldest — of American hate groups,” founded during Reconstruction with a long history of deadly violence against African Americans and other minorities. The Loyal White Knights who came to Hanover have established chapters in North Carolina, Florida, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia; though their numbers have dwindled through the years, they are not the tiny fringe movement that some of us claim them to be.

A small group of KKK members rallied in Hanover last weekend outside the county courthouse. (NBC12)

As a kid, I had nightmares about the KKK after learning how they terrorized people who looked like my family and me. I learned this history from my family and church, not from my public elementary school in Hanover. Black history didn’t factor greatly into our curriculum, as I recall.

In response to the outcry of embarrassed and enraged Hanoverians over the weekend, Board of Supervisors Chairman W. Canova Peterson offered a tepid statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, disagreeing with the group but pledging his “100% support” for citizens “being able to express their opinions — as long as they do it peacefully.”

This is Hanover.

Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson were southern Civil War heroes, men whose service to the secessionist, traitorous Confederacy upheld the deepest rift the country has ever endured, and firmly cemented racism and white supremacy as traditional, if unspoken, American values.

Two weeks ago, the all-white, majority male Hanover County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to oust school board member Marla Coleman from her appointed position on the board after just one term, selecting George Sutton to replace her. Coleman was one of only two school board members who voted to change the names of Lee-Davis High and Stonewall Jackson Middle Schools in 2018.

Board of Supervisors members said their decision wasn’t tied to Coleman’s vote to change the names of public schools whose monikers reflect the county’s strong tradition of honoring white supremacists. The state of Virginia, including Hanover County, still commemorates Lee and Jackson each year as an official holiday on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

This is Hanover.

There is a place in Western Hanover called N*ggerfoot. I learned of it at age 9 or 10 by eavesdropping on an after-dinner discussion between my grandmother and other elders recounting past episodes of racist violence against black people in our area.

Somebody mentioned an enslaved black man who was tortured by white men in the area; according to local legend, they cut off the man’s foot as punishment for running away. This is one of the origin stories of the place called N*ggerfoot, whose name was cleaned up as Negro Foot on historic maps, in a 1981 United States Geological Survey, in a 1990 Hanover County Historic Resources survey. I think of the agony that unnamed black man must have felt every time I drive past the area on Route 54.

This is Hanover. 

My father and I are both graduates of Patrick Henry High School in western Hanover. When he was a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his white classmates would get up from the lunch table as soon as he sat down, as if he were diseased. When I was a student, the self-proclaimed “redneck” kids wore Confederate flag T-shirts and picked fights with black kids throughout the school year.

One time, I found a note on my car’s windshield in the senior parking lot, bashing my activities as president of Hanover County NAACP’s Youth Council, signed by the “KKK.” A quick investigation revealed that a white male classmate had actually written the note; we were in AP English together and I had considered him a friend. The first time I heard the racist word “pickaninny” was from the lips of a well meaning, older white lady inside Ukrops in Ashland in the 1990s. I was grocery shopping with my grandmother, and the lady thought she was complimenting me by saying I was the “cutest little pickaninny” she’d ever seen. This is Hanover.

Racism is as repugnant in Hanover as it is anywhere, but it is neither unknown nor unfamiliar here, depending on whom you ask.

Part of the public’s response to the KKK’s brazen bigotry on display in Hanover deeply troubles me. “This is not Hanover,” I’ve seen dozens of my fellow citizens post on social media; these people are mostly white. But a quick glance at our history, or a conversation with the black people who have lived here for generations shows plainly, this is Hanover.

There is a reason the KKK felt comfortable and welcome here.

Saying “this is not Hanover” is an affront to me, my family, and all the black Hanoverians who have endured generations of racism both conspicuous and latent. In Hanover, we can’t change our past. We can, however, change our present and build a more inclusive, progressive, equitable future.

It starts with being honest with ourselves; we cannot reconcile racism if we don’t recognize its prevalence and power here, and ignoring it will not make it go away.

This is Hanover – but it doesn’t have to be. 

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

A freelance journalist with experience in broadcast, digital and print media, Samantha Willis’ award-winning writing has appeared in Richmond magazine, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Style Weekly and Glamour Magazine, among other publications. She is a Hanover County native who lives in Ashland with her husband and sons. Contact her at [email protected]