African American alumni returned to Woodberry Forest on January 24 and 25 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the school’s integration and to participate in a series of events that helped students and faculty learn about the school’s history.
The celebration began with a chance for alumni to meet Headmaster Byron Hulsey ’86 and hear about what’s happening today at Woodberry. Alumni then met with more than thirty students from the school’s Minority Caucus before the entire community gathered for a keynote address by Ed Ayers, a leading scholar of the American South. Dr. Ayers’ talk focused on the creation of segregation in the South during the late 1800s and the work by black Southerners to undo those unjust laws over the course of seventy-five years.
“In the 1950s and 1960s white Southerners said segregation was ‘just the way things were,’ but that’s not true,” Dr. Ayers said. “Segregation was invented sixty years earlier.”
A highlight of the event was a panel discussion featuring an African American alumnus from each decade of the school’s integration. (You can watch the panel discussion here
). John Bonhom ’99, who was introduced to the school by Tony Gould ’60, described the pressure he felt as one of only a few black students in the school.
“I felt like I was representing myself, my family, and my people,” he said. “And I had to explain a lot of things to classmates.”
Dr. Hulsey opened the evening by noting the recent death of A. Baker Duncan ’45, who was headmaster from 1962 to 1970. In 1968 Baker urged the board of trustees to integrate the school in order to lead Woodberry on “a search for greatness.” When the board prepared to vote on integration, Baker and John Stillwell ’45, then director of admission, told the trustees that they would leave their jobs if the school remained segregated.
Wayne Booker became Woodberry’s first African American student when he enrolled in summer school in the summer of 1969. He returned a year later as a new boy and graduated in 1974.
“I was going from a segregated school to an integrated school — of one,” Wayne says of his summer experience. “But I got here and recognized a great opportunity available to me…. There were a few situations I ran into where people had an opinion of where I needed to be…. But it turned out to be a very good experience.”
Not only was Greg Crowley ’88 one of only a few African American students in his class, he was also from Columbus, Ohio and didn’t share a hometown or home state with other students.
“Faculty engagement with students makes the difference here,” Greg said. “Bill Skillcorn was my advisor, and he opened his home up so I could get away because I couldn’t take weekends. I also got great support from [Chuck] Straley when I wanted to organize an event that would bring African American girls to campus.”
Damien Dwin’s path to Woodberry was shaped by his uncles, Ron Long ’73 and Rob Long ’75. He said being a Woodberry legacy made him feel accepted, but he noted there were still challenges as he adjusted to the school.
“I was the only person of color in my class…. I was challenged by the academic work, but the faculty nourished me with grace. I have so much respect for the difficult conversations that helped align my performance with my goals.”
Damien also said he never felt his status as a financial aid recipient played a role in how he was treated by the faculty. In particular he cited Corky Shackelford, the school’s first director of financial aid and an English teacher for more than forty years. “My dad was a bus driver, but Corky Shackelford always treated me with respect, and I noticed his behavior. That’s the best of Woodberry.”
Andrew Duverney ’09 came to Woodberry in the footsteps of his brother, Gary. He said summer programs helped him learn about the school and that faculty members Mary and Joe Coleman ’79 helped him succeed.
“I was lucky that I came in with some friends,” Andrew said. “Another key part of my experience was the Minority Caucus, which as I look back on it now was really a support group for me.”
The panel discussion was moderated by Joe Coleman ’79, who has served on the faculty for twenty-four years. During his time at Woodberry Joe has taught English, worked in the Office of Admission, including several years as director of admission, and served as assistant headmaster and dean of students. Joe was Woodberry’s first African American faculty member to live on campus when he and Mary arrived in 1983.
Joe told the student body that his grandmother and uncle both worked on the staff at Woodberry. He credited his success at Woodberry in part to his parents, who insisted he stay at Woodberry become a boarding student after a difficult third form year as a day student, and to faculty members like
Bob Vasquez, who Joe said “served as an advocate for all members of the community.”
Damien, who now serves on Woodberry’s board of trustees, said the school’s past fifty years were not perfect, but that he is excited by where Woodberry is today and what the future will hold in store.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. It matters that we are making progress and learning from our mistakes,” he said.