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|Oral History Interview
with Lindsay Cherry
KENNELLY: That would help. Was education important? Was that a value in your family when you were growing up beyond your grandmother teaching you the basics, but I mean did your grandmother push education when you were a child? Was that something that was made a big deal of in your family?
CHERRY: Well, when we grew up, the people who really pushed education were our teachers. From the first grade on, if you played hooky, they'd come looking for you, so you know you had a type of bonding that is unbelievable. The teachers always pushed you to learn all you can and be the best you could be and also in high school. That's why when we came here, the courses here were not tough to us. I had some other problems, you know, but the school was not tough.
KENNELLY: So you were really prepared academically.
CHERRY: I was surprised that things were not as tough as I thought they would be. But that—give credit to our teachers. They were really a great group of individuals, a great group of people.
KENNELLY: Did you have any particular mentor when you were in high school who especially had recognized that you were a person that—
CHERRY: There were two people. One was Mr. John Perry, the science teacher. I guess Floyd and Charlie would tell you that he was really a terrific guy. The other one was Mr. James Johnson. He always pushed us to be our best. He would never give you an A, Mr. Johnson.
KENNELLY: Never give you an A?
CHERRY: No, he wouldn't give you an A.
KENNELLY: So when you came to Virginia Tech, did you have a career goal in mind when you first came, when you were just coming out of high school and came over to Virginia Tech? Did you have a thought of what you wanted to do when you graduated and why you wanted to?
CHERRY: I'll tell you one day, in the Norfolk Student Government meeting, I heard the boom of a jet plane when it went through the sound barrier, and from that time on, I wanted to be a jet pilot. That's the only thing that really excited me, to be a pilot.
KENNELLY: Is that something you ever did?
CHERRY: No [chuckle].
KENNELLY: Okay. Now, Dr. Finney said that you received a letter -- I don't know if you did—with the quote, "We have decided that we can accept you at VPI to take our course in Agricultural Engineering," and I wondered if the way that the letter was—did you receive a...
CHERRY: I probably did, but I don't remember.
KENNELLY: Did you feel like, when you came to Virginia Tech, you were operating under kind of an administrative restriction? What was your first major when you came here?
CHERRY: Mechanical Engineering.
KENNELLY: Okay, Mechanical Engineering. Let's say—did you feel like you had to be in Mechanical Engineering, and if you wanted to change majors or whatever, that that's what you were here for?
CHERRY: Well, we had to remain in the engineering field. The stipulations, as I learned later were that, if you decided to take a course that was offered in a black university, you would be referred to that black university. Engineering was not offered in black schools in Virginia, so that's one reason I understand, that we were accepted. But we were not allowed, as others [were], to change from engineering if it got a little tough. Change from engineering to business administration—no, we couldn't do that.
KENNELLY: Right. Now actually it sounds like, in a way, you were recruited to come here. I guess this foundation or whatever it was—is that correct?
CHERRY: No, I wouldn't say that.
CHERRY: No. I don't think we were recruited. What it is is, when we were ready to graduate, the teachers and the administration of our school were interested in finding schools for us. I took tests for Michigan State and a black college in Atlanta [Morehouse College]. I can't think of the name. I just mentioned it earlier. But I don't think we were particularly recruited to come here. We may have been. See, that's just my story.
KENNELLY: Yes. Now, when you first came to Tech, did you visit first, or did you just come down when it was time for school, and how did you get down here the first time?
CHERRY: We just came.
KENNELLY: I mean did you take the bus down, or did friends drive you down?
CHERRY: You know, I don't remember.
KENNELLY: Do you have any memories of when you first came, how it seemed to you?
CHERRY: No, it's pretty foggy. The only thing I remember is Ernie Norcross chewing me out every day [laughter].
KENNELLY: Now, who was that?
CHERRY: He was one in the Cadet Corps, and believe me—there are so many fond memories of this place. You know as far as developing character, you can't beat Virginia Tech. You can't beat it.
KENNELLY: Because of the Corps aspect?
CHERRY: The Cadet Corps, oh yes.
KENNELLY: Yes, and you came as what they call a rat.
KENNELLY: I assume that he was a sophomore or an upper classman.
KENNELLY: That was his—did you feel that race entered into the hazing—the way you were treated in the Corps?
CHERRY: No, I didn't, but to protect us, I guess one of the reasons we were not allowed to stay on campus was to prevent having an unfortunate situation to happen. I experienced a few unfortunate things but nothing really serious.
KENNELLY: What did you experience?
CHERRY: Nothing worth talking about.
KENNELLY: Well, it would be interesting. I mean we're trying to really find out what happened, not to dwell on it, but just to see where we've come from and to see what the history was.
CHERRY: Well, I won't tell a lot of detail, but when you meet a person, you could tell basically how they felt about you, even today when you meet people.
CHERRY: For instance, you're talking to me. You have a general idea of how I feel about you, so it was—but to me, the overwhelming majority of the people were for us making it—well, to me. There were times that things happened, and so when they did something, someone would always step in to speak for me.
KENNELLY: People were kind of watching over the situation.
CHERRY: Well, they weren't watching over—I'm thinking, for instance, in the Cadet Corps.
CHERRY: Let's say if someone were to make a comment that was uncomplimentary, and someone else in the Cadet Corps, an upper classman, would say something to that person, tell them that was not the proper thing for him to do.
KENNELLY: Set the person straight.
KENNELLY: So somebody generally would come in.
CHERRY: To me, it seemed to always happen. I felt I had more friends than enemies.
KENNELLY: Ah. But still, I suppose that would be painful to have someone make the comment.
CHERRY: No, because people are people. I mean people make unfortunate statements today. That's not your fault. They have a problem. And then even during those days, to me, it was really a very small, minute number of people which was expected.
KENNELLY: Well, had you had many dealings with white people before coming to Virginia Tech?
CHERRY: Only with the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Norfolk Student Government Association, and of course, I worked around them at the naval base in Norfolk at my job.
KENNELLY: What about the National Conference of Christians and Jews? What kind of context would you have had in there?
CHERRY: I was treasurer of the group.
KENNELLY: And so that was a mixed race group?
CHERRY: Yes. There were only two blacks. Two blacks were in the group. The rest were Protestants, Catholics and Jews.
KENNELLY: And so everybody was just functioning as a person in the group.
CHERRY: Having humankind—you know, being nice to each other and understanding, which is something that we need to do today. You find often people seek to be understood, but ideally to get along, you have to learn to understand others. That should be your primary goal in life. Understand others, and everything will go well.
KENNELLY: So in that context, because people who would get into that kind of organization in the first place would be leaning more and geared to understanding in the National Conference of Christians and Jews, I would imagine. Did you feel like it was culture shock to come down here to Blacksburg? Did you feel kind of like you were in culture shock when you came down here, taken out of your environment where people were all watching over you? Your teachers were watching over you.
CHERRY: Maybe I'm giving you the wrong perception. The teachers didn't really watch over you. Yes, they looked out for you. I'll give you an example. There was a time that I left my French book at home. I had worked the night before. As I told you, I worked, and going to school that day, I didn't take my French book. You know what the teacher did? She sent me to the principal's office, and he expelled me [laughter]. So it just shows you how serious they took your learning.
CHERRY: Yes, I was expelled from school.
CHERRY: Maybe she didn't like my attitude when she asked me, "Where's your book?" so she had me expelled. She said, "Don't come back until you bring your mother."
KENNELLY: Oh my. That would be hard, too, because your mother was working.
CHERRY: She didn't come back, so I had to get in some other way.
KENNELLY: How did you get back in?
CHERRY: I wouldn't tell her that I was expelled. I have no idea what I did to get back in.
KENNELLY: You figured out something [laughter].
CHERRY: Yes. That's what you call tough love.
KENNELLY: Tough love, yes. Did you feel like, because the Corps staff, the military staff, the commander's office and all that -- was there any problem of racism from the staff in the Corps?
CHERRY: You're talking about the commandant?
KENNELLY: The commandant, yes. Right, or maybe that's the wrong word. Or his staff.
CHERRY: Well, you have to understand about the Corps. The Corps' primary purpose is to build men, develop manhood. To go through that process, first they have to tear you down and then rebuild you. Get rid of your old attitudes and things like that, so if someone comes at you in a harsh way, you can't say that that's triggered by racism or bigotry or anything like that. I feel they accomplished their goal, and I'm not looking at any underlying causes of why they did what they did. All I know is they developed a much better product when I left here. I thought I was a super product [chuckle].
KENNELLY: Now, when you weren't a rat, then, were you involved in hazing? I don't know. Hazing is probably the wrong word, but doing that same sort of thing to the incoming rat class?
CHERRY: No, I never did, but we lived off campus, so we weren't here to be a part of the general list of things that went on. But it was part of the program to break people down, get rid of the old concepts of what life was about and give them this new image that they had to live up to -- make a man out of them [chuckle].
KENNELLY: How did you feel about living off campus? Did you live with the Hoge family?
CHERRY: The Hoges, right. You want my personal opinion?
CHERRY: After Ernie Norcross, I was glad I lived off campus [laughter].
KENNELLY: You didn't have to deal with all that.
CHERRY: Right. It could be a little tough. Some of the other—it was not a black-white thing. It was a thing where, if you were a rat, you caught it.
KENNELLY: Right. That's just how it is.
CHERRY: So you can't say. I saw other guys. I felt sorry for them, but I wouldn't give them my off-campus room. It was just part of the game.
KENNELLY: Did you make any friends beyond the other black students? Did you make friends with white students?
CHERRY: Yes, I had many friends on campus. There were people who would come up to you, speak to you and engage you in conversation.
KENNELLY: Being generally friendly?
CHERRY: Yes, and when I would go into barracks, they would invite me into their rooms. We'd sit around and chew the fat.
KENNELLY: Oh yes?
CHERRY: Oh yes. In most cases, it was a wonderful experience.
KENNELLY: Did you ever eat with the other people in the Corps?
CHERRY: No, we weren't allowed to. To the best of my knowledge, we were not allowed to.
KENNELLY: So if you went to the VPI game—sometimes they have big football game trips, I think, to Richmond or Roanoke to the games up there. Do you recall going to those?
CHERRY: Oh yes, we went to games off campus. I remember marching on the street in Richmond, and when people saw us, they started clapping.
KENNELLY: They did?
KENNELLY: When they saw that there were some blacks in the Corps?
CHERRY: Blacks in the Corps, yes.
KENNELLY: Well, that must have been a good—
CHERRY: Oh yes. There are some great people in the world. I remember that, wonderful people.
KENNELLY: In those situations, did you end up all eating together then?
CHERRY: I don't remember eating. No, snack bars and things like that—we were allowed to do that. We could do that, right.
KENNELLY: Were you working when you were at Virginia Tech, working jobs?
CHERRY: I was trying to find little things to do. Yes, I used to. There was a cleaners. I used to go around and collect clothes for them on campus and get a few pennies, so yes, I would do a little work once in a while, but there wasn't that much around here to do.
KENNELLY: So they were—
CHERRY: When you say "working," I worked for people off campus, now, not on campus.
KENNELLY: When you said you were working for the cleaners.
CHERRY: Yes, the cleaners was off campus.
KENNELLY: Yes, I just wondered if you had a job to help get steady money or—
CHERRY: Yes, very little though.
KENNELLY: It sounds like there was no money—
CHERRY: I remember during the summer I would—they were in the process of demolishing some old buildings when they were starting to restructure new buildings here, and I did that during the summer one time.
KENNELLY: You stayed here during the summer.
KENNELLY: Did you take courses, too, or did you just work?
CHERRY: I think one summer I worked, and other summers I took courses, yes.
KENNELLY: Were you the first person in your family to go out and get a college degree then?
CHERRY: Remember I didn't get a degree. I went here three years.
KENNELLY: Right, but were you the first person to go to college?
CHERRY: I think so. I'll have to think about that. I don't know if Vera went to school before me or not. I think I may have been the first.
KENNELLY: Is that your sister?
KENNELLY: So one of your sisters actually had gone on to school?
CHERRY: I don't know.
KENNELLY: Did they do things like play "Dixie"—the Highty Tighties? Would they play "Dixie?"
KENNELLY: Was that offensive to you when they'd play things like that?
CHERRY: Not to me.
CHERRY: Well, you know there are a lot of things that would happen during the course of my time here, but they're not worth repeating, a lot of them. It was just part of the territory. But for "Dixie"—to me, I didn't look at it as being a racial thing. That was just their theme song or whatever.
KENNELLY: When they would bring out the Confederate flag in the football games, did they run around with it?
CHERRY: No, I don't remember a Confederate flag.
KENNELLY: Maybe that was before.
CHERRY: But they played "Dixie." I don't remember. I'm not saying they didn't.
Last Updated on: Tuesday, 17-Aug-2004 16:34:39 EDT by Mark B. Gerus