White Control Circumvents Black Votes

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

The divisive history of slavery and one-crop economics still heavily influences a belt of fertile counties from Southside Virginia to the Mississippi Delta. From November 16 to 20, 1986, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Jim Auchmutey and Priscilla Painton and columnist Chet Fuller looked at the contemporary economics, educational systems, politics and social relations of the Black Belt. What they found was largely a depressing story of short-circuited dreams and retarded development — "An Abandoned South," they called it, where modern forms of regressive white power limits the future for all. 


Sussex, Va. — Two years ago, after 200 years of being shut out, the black majority in this expanse of pine forests got control of county government. 

But even now, Ruth Crowder wonders if the four black supervisors are really in charge. "Does it stop right there, or do they have an overseer?" asks the black beautician. They don't technically. Yet the inherited perception here is they do. And it is largely accurate. 

On the face of it, Sussex County seems the kind of place that Martin Luther King Jr.'s crusaders dreamed of: a place where black people ascended to political suffrage and eventual rule without Supreme Court judgments, cracked heads or even particularly hard feelings. 

But it is also a reminder that in much of the Black Belt, white control still circumvents black voters, sustaining, in a contemporary way, the strange paternal intimacy that has informed race relations in parts of the South since the first slave ships arrived. 

Here, where the black majority has elected one of the few black-majority governments in the rural South, real power still belongs to a white man: state Sen. Elmon Gray. He and his companies own one of every 10 acres in Sussex; he heads its second-largest bank and is one of the largest employers. He is a lumberman with patrician manners, as comfortable contemplating the impressionist painting in his living room as he is muddying his shoes at the mill. 

Gray keeps this county in countless small luxuries — donating lumber to build black churches, buying uniforms for the black high school band. 

"You've got to say the man is helping us," says G.W. Pegram, one of a pair of black supervisors elected in 1976. "You can talk to him anytime. And he gave me permission to hunt any part of his land I want." 

If Pegram's comment has overtones of feudalism, it is because Sussex works a bit that way. Just as the timber baron takes care of the county's little needs, the supervisors do not neglect his dominion: This is a county where taxes are low on trees and high on people. It is a county where six farmers and six timber companies control a quarter of the land, and where one out of every four houses lacks indoor plumbing. 


"Go See the Boss Man" 

Marjorie Young, a grocery store owner in the Sussex town of Stony Creek, has been in the business of electing blacks for 40 years. In the 1940s, when she tried registering workers in the fields, most just shrugged and told her to go see the "boss man." 

"You just couldn't get them to understand the necessity of demanding something for themselves," she says. Eight years ago, she went out again, this time to make sure Stony Creek was represented by a black on the board of supervisors. Today, four of the six supervisors are black, but Mrs. Young is left with a disturbingly familiar impression. 

"It feels like, to me, they don't have the ability to think for themselves," she says. 'They just let others think for them and they just go right along. I guess it's a tradition that has been handed down, that they live under the supervision of whites. We never did think for ourselves and now we are trying to grow out of it." 

One reason for this lingering political timidity is that blacks here have never had a charismatic leader — one who could galvanize the four population corners of this elongated county and turn its courthouse into the headquarters of black political enterprise. 

But for generations the county has had a Gray — Elmon, 61, and before him his father, Garland. The elder Gray represented Sussex County in the Senate for 18 years, his son for the past 15. 

The mere mention of Gray's name makes people lower their voices conspiratorially or praise him as the county's benefactor. Whether they fear or venerate him, people in Sussex say that he alone, through the force of his personality and economic patronage, moves the county. 

'The county is run by one politician, one man, completely," says one of its white supervisors, who like most of the younger Gray's critics asked that his name not be used. "I go to meetings. I'm never late. But I have nothing to do with it. The shots are called by him." 

A graduate of Virginia Military Institute, Gray is perhaps the quintessential product of the Southside, this poor region that runs along the North Carolina border from the Dismal Swamp west to the Blue Ridge Mountains and north through the Piedmont to Richmond. Here in Sussex, trees are the biggest crop and roads are long, lonely corridors that open suddenly onto soundless plains of peanuts and soybeans. 

Gray's forbears built their fortunes on loblolly pine and their political careers on Harry F. Byrd, the state senator, governor and U.S. senator whose Democratic machine ruled Virginia politics from the late 1920s to the late 1960s. The Southside was Byrd's firmest bastion, and state Sen. Garland "Peck" Gray was his chief lieutenant there. 

While the elder Gray took his political strength from Byrd's "massive resistance" to integration — he headed the Senate study commission appointed to find ways around it — the younger Gray has made a success out of adjusting to the era of black political enfranchisement. 

Gray's first coup with the black community came in 1969 when, after 15 years of resistance, Sussex and several other Virginia counties finally yielded to the U.S. Supreme Court's order to desegregate the schools. That year, Gray signed a letter to the newspaper in which he and the white superintendent pledged their joint support for an integrated school system. 

"It was a very courageous stance and was a lot of inconvenience to him," recalls Jerry Semones, the man who still heads the public school system today. "Persons with means do not have to deal with the nitty-gritty of these kinds of problems." 

Only once did Gray run into trouble with blacks in Sussex, and that was the first time he ran for the state Senate in 1971. At the last minute, he was endorsed by the Sussex County Improvement Association whose president, Millard Stith, was something of a patriarch among Sussex blacks. The Virginia NAACP, for one, immediately accused Gray of having coerced the group into its decision, but he managed a narrow victory. From that day on, the senator never stopped courting Stith, making a trip every so often through the woods that led to his house. 

Over the years, Gray has made a habit of tending to the black community in what he calls "those little extra things that are important." 

"Like the band," he says. "It used to tear my heartstrings to see that little band go out with T-shirts. So they got real nice costumes now." 

For the past six years or so, he has given $8,000 to $10,000 annually to the school budget for student activities, and on two separate occasions he has dished out $35,000 for new bleachers and tracks at the Sussex Central High School stadium. 

He has also used the bank he owns to assure blacks credit; his family helped build a public pool in his town of Waverly, and on the 75th anniversary of the Gray Lumber Co., he funded the construction of public tennis courts. 

"What pleases me the most," he says in a whisper, "is that they get a lot of use from blacks and whites at the same time." 


"I'm One of His Officers" 

But none of his local philanthropic efforts compares to the $4 million he helped raise for a regional 4-H camp, an elegant playground outside Wakefield complete with riding stables, a pond and a conference center Gray donated himself. 

Only a handful of the black children in this county attended the camp this past summer. Of the 900 children who paid $70 a week, 14 were from Sussex, according to the center's director, Dr. Clarence W. Griffin. 

"It comes back to education," he says, "as to whether or not they are stimulated or motivated to be interested in this type of thing." 

Still, Gray's attentions to the black and white communities seem to have generated good will for him in both. The only time he was opposed was three years ago: The white farmer who ran against him was crushed, with 83 percent of the vote going to Gray. 

The way Pegram sees it, "the person that helps you do certain things, then you don't mind helping them do some things." So when Gray called four years ago to suggest the appointment of William J. Hopkins as the black county administrator, the black supervisor was glad to accommodate. 

"I don't think anybody else (on the board) had anybody they wanted in particular. I didn't know anybody. I didn't mind at all," he says. 

Russell "Johnny" Westbrook, a white farmer who has served on the board of supervisors for 20 years, also has no doubt where he fits into Gray's political world. "He's the colonel, and I'm one of his officers," he says. That means, among other things, going along with Gray's choices for various county positions — and the state senator frets over the smallest appointments down to the building inspector. 

"He has to work with everyone in the county, and he wants to put in the slots people he can work with," says Westbrook. 

Gray's long reach across the county is responsible for its relatively smooth race relations, blacks and whites say. The senator guaranteed the peace after desegregation, they say, and since then has kept in check the "radical" element. 

But for all of Gray's money and private diplomacy, Sussex is still a county where the poverty rate is almost double the state average. The county has no hospital, no recreation department, and its welfare office operates out of a brick bunker that once was the county jail. 

Only a mile and a half east of the Gray Lumber Co. is a twisted sliver of dirt called Goose Alley, where homes have been invented out of scratchy tar paper and the only stirring on a summer day comes from swarms of flies that lift occasionally from a piece of junk furniture to alight again somewhere else. It is as if a strange residue of stoicism — and not nails — holds this world together, with its dangling porches, its punctured roofs, its planks propped up to make outhouses. 

Here on Goose Alley, Sussex's political achievement as a black county with a black government — there are 21 in the Black Belt — seems as distant a reality as an indoor toilet. "I didn't know they had four blacks," says Ora Murphy, the 23-year-old mother of four. "I hardly ever go to the courthouse anyway. When I need help, I do my best on my own." 

If blacks find it hard to invest their future in Sussex — the county's black population has dropped 19 percent in the last 20 years — it may be because Sussex has invested little of itself in them. 

The county's 78 percent black school system is one of the worst in the commonwealth, with last year's 11th-graders scoring one-half to two-thirds below the state average on the basic skills test. The 10-year plan to upgrade school buildings is turning into a 20-year plan, with the junior high school Gray attended now 74 years old and sad; its Corinthian columns lean drunkenly against the facade. 

Whites with means gave up on public education in 1964, when Tidewater Academy opened in Wakefield. Tuition there costs $1,500 a year, and the school offers no scholarships. 

"We would like very much to have black children from the county," says 4-H center director Griffin, who heads Tidewater's parent group. "Last year we only had one, which could be called 'token,' but we would take 100 every day if they will come and pay the tuition." 

Sussex leaders such as Westbrook say the public schools may be mediocre, but they are all Sussex can afford. 

"There again, I think you have to adjust your school system to your population. You know, we're 62 percent black and in any rural, agricultural county like we are, you have students whose IQ is not as high as in big cities," he says. "I think we have a school system that everyone can adjust to." 

Such modest ambitions are reflected in the way the county levies taxes. When tax rates were raised in 1976, it was the first time in 12 years. And when they began climbing in earnest four years ago, the burden fell not on landowners but on everybody else: Since 1982, the tax rate that affects the more disadvantaged — the one that applies to personal property such as a car — increased 58 percent, while real estate taxes went up by 11 percent. This put Sussex among the 29 Virginia counties with the lowest tax on land, and among the 23 counties with the highest tax on other possessions. 

The county does have one man who describes himself as an "activist." Rufus Tyler is president of the black Sussex-Surry Improvement Association and a prudent man; he doesn't see the need for much turbulence in Sussex. "If people do it, they do it undercover," he says. "I mean, to go and corner the sheriff and raise hell doesn't do any good." 

This past July, the diminutive Tyler went to the supervisors with the only major project he says he has undertaken in the county: a local and more modest version of the federal Head Start program. 

"All I'm asking is that you give the kids a chance," he said. He wanted $20,000 so he could start a child development center for pre-kindergarteners from all over Sussex. 

That meeting, and the one that came three weeks later, were two of the most emotional ones ever to take place at the Sussex courthouse. Parents held children in their arms as they bemoaned the county's lousy schools, and Tyler cried, "That's right That's right. Shame. Shame." 

But his proposal never got to a vote; it died for lack of a second. 

It is perhaps such political episodes that have convinced Mrs. Crowder, the black beautician, to go to whites when she needs help in Sussex County. When she went looking for a second job as a toll-booth attendant on Interstate 95, she called the white Commissioner of Revenue and the white delegate to the General Assembly. 

"Well, I believe they are in the shape to help me. Whenever I go to a black, well, they don't have too much," she says. "There are very few of the blacks that are able to help one another."