Photo by Les Sillars for WORLD

Climbing out of the cradle

Black History Month | Kay Coles James is rebuilding the home and the legacy of Robert Russa Moton

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

GLOUCESTER, Va.-Those who remember Holly Knoll, a home-become-conference-center on the banks of the York River, call it the "cradle of the civil-rights movement." In mid-century many of the country's most prominent black activists and intellectuals gathered at the three-story Georgian manor, built in 1935 across the York River from Williamsburg, to strategize and plan.

Activists conceived The United Negro College Fund in the dining room in the early 1940s. Lawyers for Brown of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education met there to discuss legal tactics. The "Greensboro Four" planned their 1960 lunch-counter sit-in on the premises. Martin Luther King Jr., legend has it, wrote part of his 1963 "I have a dream" speech under the huge oak tree out front.

But by the 1980s Holly Knoll had fallen into disrepair and obscurity. Kay Coles James remembers playing with dolls in the stylish bedrooms as a child when her well-to-do aunt brought her along on family trips. In 2006, after a 30-year career in public policy that included posts under Ronald Reagan and both presidents Bush, along with work at the Family Research Council and in the private sector, she returned to Holly Knoll on a whim. As she gazed in dismay at the weed-covered tennis court and dilapidated manor, she had a "Gone with the Wind moment": "I said, 'As God is my witness, I'm going to figure out how to fix this.'"

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So James founded the Richmond-based Gloucester Institute to restore the manor and grounds (both still works in progress), and more importantly, to set up a place where, as she puts it, conservative and Christian "values and principles are welcomed at the table."

Discussion in the black community is dominated by liberal and Democratic perspectives, James said, and the Institute offers a "level playing field" for ideas, especially for the 25 or so young black college students in its annual year-long Emerging Leaders program. "In my opening statement," she said, "I tell the students, I don't care if you're liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, the one thing we don't do here is stupid."

To understand the Gloucester Institute you have to know the man who built Holly Knoll: Robert Russa Moton. Largely forgotten today, Moton was a nationally known black educator and author who would have supported the aims but questioned the approach of the civil-rights activists who frequented his retirement home after his death in 1940.

Moton was born to an ex-slave couple working on a plantation near Farmville, Va., in 1867, just after the Civil War. His autobiography, Finding a Way Out, relates how by firelight his mother taught her children to read in secret until the plantation owner's wife discovered them-and then had her own daughter give lessons to Moton every afternoon.

Moton graduated from the Hampton Institute, a prominent vocational school for blacks founded by a white man, Samuel C. Armstrong, in 1890. He stayed on to teach and soon rose to "Commandant," in charge of student discipline. He also befriended another prominent Hampton graduate, Booker T. Washington, who had founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881.

Moton traveled the country with Armstrong, raising funds for Hampton and speaking on "the coloured problem." Moton and Washington both taught that through education and a determined effort to "better" themselves, blacks could eventually earn equal treatment and prosperity in American society. Blacks and whites could live in cordial segregation, "as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress," Washington said in his 1895 speech at the Atlanta Exposition, which first brought him national attention.

By 1905 Washington was the undisputed leader of black America, but the game was changing, explains Patrick Henry College history professor Robert Spinney. Right after the Civil War some whites were prepared to accept and even help blacks recover from slavery. But in the 1890s the Populist Movement started to court the black vote, and alarmed white Southerners turned to legal segregation in a backlash.

The black community had two basic responses to Jim Crow laws, Spinney said. At first most held to Washington's original strategy, to go for economic advancement first and trust that political rights would follow. Over the next few decades a slowly growing black middle class showed that economic gains were possible, despite pervasive racism.

But many black elites, led by the Harvard-educated W.E.B. Du Bois, would later dub Washington's speech the "Atlanta Compromise." Blacks must demand political and social equality in the courts, legislatures, and streets, they argued, and anything less was unacceptable, even cowardly.


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