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Oral History Interview with Michael Herndon
Cook: I'm interviewing Michael Herndon today and first I'd like to talk about where you are from originally.
Herndon: I'm originally from Farmville, Virginia, which is about two and a half hours from Blacksburg, about an hour from Lynchburg.
Cook: Did you grow up there?
Herndon: Grew up there, born and raised there and stayed there until I was 17 and went off to college.
Cook: Did you have brothers and sisters?
Herndon: Yes, one brother and one sister and they're all older. I'm the youngest of three.
Cook: You're the baby. [Laughter]
Herndon: I'm the baby.
Cook: Did your sister and brother go to college?
Herndon: Yes, both my brother and sister went to college. My brother and sister went to Virginia State University in Petersburg.
Cook: Both of them?
Herndon: Both of them went to the same school. I almost went there but at the last minute went to another school.
Cook: Tell me about your parents.
Herndon: My parents are both retired. My mother is a retired fourth grade teacher. She taught for 37 years in the public schools in Prince Edward County and also in Fredericksburg. My father is a retired LPN. He worked at a psychiatric hospital for a little over 30 years. He's retired... both of them are living the wonderful retired life.
Cook: That's wonderful, a LPN, he must have some good stories.
Herndon: When I always hear people talk about non-traditional roles I always talk about my parents particularly my father being a nurse. Even being teased by some of the kids at school about your father being a nurse.
Cook: My two little boy's father is a LPN. They really want male LPN's now.
Herndon: They do.
Cook: What school did your mother go to?
Herndon: My mother went to Bluefield State College in Bluefield, WVA.
Cook: Did she do that before her children were born?
Herndon: Yes. After she graduated from high school she worked for about 3 or 4 years to raise money to go to college. So she worked and went to college and in between summers worked in Vermont at a hotel resort there. She worked in the kitchen doing domestic kind of things. She did that in the middle of her college semesters because the money was better up north than in Virginia.
Cook: Did her siblings go to college as well?
Herndon: Yes she's the fourth of four children. She's the baby too in the family. My oldest aunt went to college. She went to Hampton, which is now Hampton University but at the time it was The Hampton Institute. She graduated from there and later went on... a few years later... to NYU. This was back in the early sixties. She graduated with a degree in Special Education in 1962. Then my aunt next to her got married, had three children, all of her boys grew up and graduated from high school. Not one of them wanted to go to college so she said, "I want to go to college." She had gone to a technical school and had her LPN license. She later wanted to get a bachelors degree in nursing and she later went on to the University of the District of Columbia and got her Bachelor of Science in nursing. She became a RN. She worked, I guess, at least about twenty years beyond that until she retired as a RN.
Then my uncle didn't go to college. He went into the military. He spent considerable years in the Army. He was discharged from the Army, honorably discharged, I might add. When he left the service he went back to work for them as a civilian. He worked in the food preparation services at Fort Belvoir, which is outside Washington. He did that until he retired. Then my mother, of course, went on to school.
Cook: This is a little out of context, but I want to know. Who was your childhood hero?
Herndon: My childhood hero? I have so many heroes I don't know if I could single it down to one.
Cook: You can say more than one. A role model?
Herndon: Some of the people that come to mind of course Martin Luther King. I always think about him and what he did for all Americans not just black people in this country but for everyone who has a cause you want to fight for. I think about him. I think about other people in the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks for what she did for people.
But then close to home I think about my grandparents on both sides of my family. When you really talk about heroes I always think about the real heroes, those people that touch your lives everyday in a special kind of way. So I think about my grandparents and the kind of life they led so that their children and their grandchildren could have a better way of life. I think about the personal sacrifices even within my own family.
So I think about Martin Luther King and Rosa Park's and people like Nelson Mandela and John Kennedy. Even though John Kennedy died the year before I was born but his legacy still lives on. I think about John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mandela. These are the national and international kinds of luminaries and heroes but then I bring it back to a very personal local level.
I think about my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles, people from my local church, my community, my neighborhood. Those are the people who are the true heroes because they've been able to accomplish so much with so little and how they've been able to pull something within me to make me want to do the things that I do today. Those are the people who have had the long lasting impressions on me.
Cook: Now I'm curious about your grandparents, so you have to say something about your grandparents.
Herndon: Well my grandparents on my mother's side, my grandfather went to seventh grade. Of course at that time schools only went up to the seventh grade. There were some areas where they had elementary schools and high schools and then when high schools were introduced, for the most part only the well to do white families sent their kids to high schools... but for the most part up to seventh grade. My grandfather finished the seventh grade. Finishing the seventh grade was somewhat of a big deal.
Cook: What year would that be around?
Herndon: He would have graduated from seventh grade in the early 1900s. If my grandfather were alive today he would be about maybe 105,110 I guess. My grandmother would be somewhere around that. This would be back in the early 1900s. I would say somewhere around the 1900s, 1910-1912. my grandmother went to third grade. Of course, even though seventh grade was also available, a lot of people came from agrarian families and worked on farms. There were things to be done in the fields. They were just taken out of school because they had to work for the family because that was their livelihood.
So I think what my grandparents did for me in terms of raising four kids on a meager income... My grandmother did domestic work, worked doing laundry for different families in the community. Plus she had a regular family she worked for all the time, even spending holidays with them. And of course she had her other laundry business on the side, cleaning and doing laundry for other families. My grandfather worked for a contractor, building homes in the area. Even though my grandfather wasn't a contractor but he worked with that company. He went around doing construction work and things like that.
Cook: Was this all in the Farmville area?
Herndon: All in the Farmville area.
Cook: So your history goes back.
Herndon: Goes back right... even goes back to my grandparents and great-grandparents. I'm glad I can piece that together as far as my personal history.
Cook: It's unusual nowadays.
Herndon: Right... for people to talk about grandparents and great grandparents. My mother, aunts and uncles, they tell me about their grandparents who are my great grandparents. So that's how I'm connected to them, through the oral tradition and stories that happened when they were kids, what my great grandfather did for them and different things like that.
Cook: Have you written this done yet?
Herndon: Haven't written it down. That's one of the things I would like to do as far as an oral history putting it down on paper. One of the things I really want to focus on are some of the oral traditions and some of the stories that are told of the lessons one can learn that can apply to any family or any group of people. Some of those life lessons that are told through life stories. I'd like to put that down in writing one day.
Cook: So it's not lost for your children.
Herndon: Right, right. Now my grandparents on my father's side, my father is the ninth of twelve kids. My paternal grandparents were sharecroppers. What is really interesting on that side of the family - the Herndon's in that area - the black Herndon's, of course, are descendents of slaves. When my father was born he was born on the land of the original Herndon slavemaster because the big house, if you want to call it that, was just a few yards away. So you had the white Herndon's over here who were descendents of the slave owners and then you had the black Herndon's. Of course, my father was born a free man, because slavery was done away with but that's an interesting piece of history in connection to there and these Herndon's are in the Lynchburg/Campbell County area... Amherst, some of those areas. If you were to go look in the Herndon phone book section of the area, you would be calling both white and black Herndon's. All of those Herndon's are associated in some kind of way.
Cook: Can you actually go to that area? Can you see where your dad was born?
Herndon: Yes, he took me there, five or six years ago. Both houses were torn down. The house that was the original house of the slave owners, I guess if you want to call it that. At that time, these were the sharecroppers and the people who owned the land, their home. Of course, they had the sharecropper houses or shanties spread out. He told me there was just an open field. He said, "I was born right here. Across here on the other side of the field was the man who owned the land and his family moved over there." My grandfather was born in the 1920s.
Cook: With your family - you could do a study of black/white relations in one area.
Cook: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Herndon: Originally, I wanted to do something in the medical profession but chemistry helped me to decide I didn't want to do that [laughter]. Then I thought about other areas. Ultimately, even as a fourth or fifth grader I had a desire to go to college. I really didn't know what I would major in but I knew that whatever I majored in I wanted to do something that would help people. I always saw different things that people were going through and I thought that I wanted to use my efforts and education to help other people. I think it has come through the tradition of my family. Everyone who has had the opportunity to go to college always saw it as not only an opportunity for self advancement but what can you do to contribute to your community.
Cook: What a good legacy!
Herndon: That was ingrained in me at an earlier age.
Cook: Where did you go to high school?
Herndon: I went to Prince Edward County High School in Farmville.
Cook: Was it a predominantly black or white school?
Herndon: When I went there, it was a predominantly black about sixty-five percent blacks, well about 60-40. Now it's more fifty-fifty. Well, it's really not fifty-fifty; it's much more diverse now then what it was. Pretty much it was a black/white configuration. Now we have more Hispanic students there, more Asian students. So we have a good cross-section of students who go there, so it's good.
Cook: Are you seeing Mexican migrant workers?
Herndon: There are some. We have a Mexican migrant population; small population there and they have some of their students in the school.
Cook: What was your school life like?
Herndon: High school?
Herndon: I think I had a typical traditional high school experience. It was good. I was in the band. I was in the Forensics program there. We would go to different places to...
Herndon: Yes. I enjoyed that. I was involved with... I was one of the guinea pigs of... when our school introduced the Latin language. I was one of the first students to sign up and go through the Latin curriculum there and I thought that was good. Also, I was in the honors program, which was pretty much like college prep throughout. So I had a good high school experience overall... looking back. In fact, this weekend I'm going to my high school reunion.
Cook: Oh that should be interesting! Which one?
Herndon: Now this is really interesting. It's really the eighteenth reunion but they weren't able to pull off the tenth reunion or the fifteenth and they didn't want to wait until the twentieth. So right in the middle of the fifteenth and twentieth, they're going to have the eighteenth.
Cook: How long has it been since you've seen your classmates?
Herndon: Several of them I haven't seen since graduation night. Others I've seen here and there, going home on the weekends or if we were all there on certain holidays, I would see people in the grocery store or see their parents and ask about certain individuals.
Cook: That's always interesting! Did you have both black and white teachers at your high school?
Herndon: I did. I had, I think, a good balance of both, of black and white teachers.
Cook: I think you already answered this, has Prince Edwards County changed much since you were in school?
Herndon: Yes it has changed. Test scores are higher. We have students now leaving from that high school and more of them are going to college. More of them are being accepted into more elite, prestigious universities then in the past. So things have changed and race relations have improved. So it's changed considerably.
Cook: Now, was Prince Edward County the one that closed down for a year?
Cook: Do you have any memory of that?
Herndon: Well, it closed down for five years and I was born the year the schools reopened. So I don't really have any memory or recollection. I only know what I've read and the stories people have told me.
The Robert Russa Moton Museum- "A center for the study of Civil Rights in Education, specifically as it relates to Prince Edward County..."
Cook: Your mother was a teacher during that time?
Herndon: Right. So she lost her job because when the schools were closed, all the teachers, all the school personnel, from bus drivers to teachers, principals, whomever was on the payroll of the public schools, they no longer had a job.
Cook: That must have really affected your family. I seem to remember that at some point, she commuted to another county.
Herndon: That's right, she left and went to Fredericksburg and stayed there five years and drove back and forth on the weekends with another teacher who left the area and went to Fredericksburg. The two of them car pulled together. At the time, my brother and sister weren't of school age initially but then my sister became a first grader and my mother took her. Then she came back for my brother. So they were with my grandparents.
Cook: If I can remember correctly from your class, they closed down because they didn't want to integrate. Is that correct?
Herndon: Right, right! They essentially defied a Supreme Court ruling that gave certain counties and school districts, a timeline to integrate or to have a plan of integrating for blacks and whites to go to schools together. Rather than integrate, they just said, we won't have public education anymore. So, they were really the only county in the whole country, pretty much that defied the Supreme Court ruling. So of course, they had to have federal representatives, people from the State Department and so forth to come to Prince Edward County to have the schools reopen.
Cook: And that took five years?
Cook: I remember your mother, she's amazing and your aunt as well. Which aunt was that?
Herndon: Now that's the aunt who put me through NYU.
Cook: She's a maiden aunt or did she marry?
Herndon: She married and she's widowed and she's a character!
Cook: My impression is that you have strong women role models in your life.
Herndon: Strong women role models!
Cook: I haven't met your father but...
Herndon: Strong women role models. Women who aren't afraid to speak their mind. Who have this depth of soul where they can just take on any kind of situation and they aren't afraid of anyone. They respect people and they're courteous. For example my mother mentioned a couple weeks ago that she had gotten to the age, you know, she had earned her right to say what she wanted to say. That she wasn't going to hold back anymore. That she had held back for so many years but she's now at a point where she has come to the place where she can say what she feels. She doesn't have to mince words.
Cook: How's that? [laughter]
Herndon: It's still courteous, you know, and respectful of others. But speak what's on your mind and tell it like it is. So she has encouraged me to start doing this at an early age and not wait until fifty/sixty years to get to that place. But to speak what's on your mind and to let other people know, whether they agree or disagree, that's okay but at least you've said what you have to say. Plus you're a healthier person for it because whatever was troubling you in your spirit; mind or body is released. It's no longer bottled up and that helps you in many respects. From a physical standpoint, it doesn't run your blood pressure up. From emotion to mental, there's not something on your mind that bother's you, keeps you restless at night. You go to that person if you have a grievance. You tell that person what the issues are and identify the issue and point out the issue, and not necessarily attack the person verbally or physically.
Cook: How are you doing with that?
Herndon: Doing really well with that. I'm really pleased with the way I can confront people about certain things and still walk away with my dignity and integrity intact and also with their dignity and integrity intact. Hopefully, there's some mutual respect there between the two people.
Cook: You need to teach a seminar because there's people on both sides that need to learn that.
Herndon: Yes, it's like poison in your system that's bottled up. So what I've come to the conclusion that I'm not going to allow that person to run my blood pressure up. I'm not going to allow that person to have that kind of control over me. I'm not going to allow anyone to have that kind of control over me. So in order to diffuse the bomb, get rid of the pressure, then go to that person and lay the cards on the table. If they aren't willing to listen, then I'm responsible for then taking someone else with me as a witness or at least some other person who is a neutral party who has nothing to deal with the issue, who can sit down as a mediator for the two of us to work out whatever problems we need to resolve. Then if that person refuses to come to the table and want to resolve any kind of issue, at least I've done everything in my power to approach that person and resolve that issue. My conscience is clear. The guilt is gone. Maybe the issue isn't resolved but at least I've done everything humanly possible to bring a resolution to that situation.
Cook: Is this how your mom has positively influenced you?
Cook: It has probably really changed your life.
Herndon: It's made me a healthier person. I feel so much better and you can do it in such a way that people don't have to use profanity. They don't have to get all up in arms. They don't have to use violence. They can speak at the tone of voice that I'm speaking now. You say what you mean and mean what you say. You give that person an opportunity to give his or her perspective because people can look at the same image and perceive it differently. So at least that person is given the voice or the opportunity to share how they perceive the situation. It may be totally different from the way you perceived it.
Cook: You would be a good mediator and you're very relaxed.
Cook: Was your neighborhood integrated?
Herndon: My neighborhood was predominantly black. I would say my neighborhood was more predominantly black than my high school population. I would say that my neighborhood was ninety percent black.
Cook: When you were growing up did you have white friends as well as blacks friends?
Herndon: I did. I had white friends in the neighborhood who were neighbors and I also had white friends in high school.
Cook: Did you have any negative racial experiences while living at home, in high school or other grades?
Herndon: I had some racial experiences where at the time I didn't know that's what it was called. But now looking back, I know that there were acts of racism and racial incidents that took place. So, yes, I've been able to endure some racial tensions and try to work through those and going back to the point of resolution, some of those people are dead and gone. There is no way I can go back and resolve anything with them. But, at least within myself I have peace with certain situations.
Cook: Would this be more with peers or elders?
Herndon: Elders. Some people in grocery stores, department stores, and those kinds of situations. I was a paperboy in my early high school years and the route I had was a predominantly white neighborhood. I had some situations there going to collect the money for the paper because at that time people didn't necessarily send money to the newspaper.
Cook: I had a paper route too. You had to collect it at the door.
Herndon: Right, at the door.
Cook: And hope you got a tip.
Herndon: Right, exactly. There was this one person, this man and he was like Satan's brother. I mean, he was just wicked! Every time without fail when I would go to collect the money, he would be so belligerent and nasty and his wife was equally as nasty. She worked in one of the local grocery stores and even when customers came through the line she was nasty with people. There was a noticeable difference in the way she dealt with black customers versus white customers. It was the same kind of thing although I never heard the 'N' word spoken but it was the same kind of hostility that she had in that store when I'd go to their home to collect the money. It was a nasty ordeal. Those were the reasons I quit the paper route. I felt that I'm not getting paid enough money to deal with this. There are other jobs, cutting grass and things like that.
Cook: They are probably dead and gone.
Herndon: Yes so I can't go resolve anything with them but at the same time I don't hold any anger, any animosity, any unforgiveness against those people because I'm not going to allow what they did to me cause me to go to hell. So, that's something they have to deal with between them and their Creator.
Cook: Good attitude! Where did you go to college?
Herndon: I went to Howard University, Washington, D.C. and I stayed there for seven years. I got my undergrad degree and my master's degree there. And after I graduated from graduate school there I worked at the University for a year. So wonderful seven years I spent in Washington, D.C. and Howard University! Excellent!
Cook: Did you have any problems moving from a small town to D.C.?
Herndon: I did. I did! I was a small town boy from Farmville of all places and you can imagine how I was ragged on about the name of my town. [Laughter] Going to a big city like Washington and it was a great experience but it was also a cultural shock to me. It was culture shock in the sense that people always say how could it be a culture shock for you. I mean you're black and Washington, D.C. is predominantly black. It was still a culture shock because I saw more black Ph.D.'s under one location than I'd every seen in my entire life. I saw black physicians, black attorneys, and just different kinds of black professional people that I'd only read about. I didn't see any of that in Farmville. Black college professors by the dime a dozen. These were people who had Ph.D's from Columbia, from Harvard, from Stanford, from pretty much all over the world. Also saw people who looked liked me who had different accents... my first black Englishman speaking a true, authentic British accent, people from Caribbean, parts of Africa. It was really an eye opening experience for me.
Cook: Going to a predominantly black school and experiencing it would you like your children to experience that?
Herndon: I would. I really would. I'm not saying one is better than the other. But for me going to Howard University was one of the best decisions that I have every made. Just as coming to Virginia Tech has been one of the best decisions I have every made. I think that one of the advantages for me of going to a predominantly black university was that whenever a professor got on me about not writing or anything about my work I knew that race wasn't a factor. Race wasn't an issue because math was math and history was history, chemistry was chemistry, whatever the situation was. It wasn't racially motivated. I knew without a doubt that it wasn't racially motivated. Mind you, I had white and black professors at Howard University. In fact, my freshman year, I had three white professors and three black professors. Whenever they said, Herndon: you can do better than what you're doing, I knew that it wasn't racially motivated.
I could clearly separate that this was an act or way for them to motivate me to do better than what I was doing. Whereas some freshman who come here... some students of color or minorities, whatever... which I don't really like that word but I'll tell you about that later... when some of them come here and if a professor were to say, Johnny or Susie, your writing is not up to par, they may not see it the way I saw it because they may think that this person is being racist. Why are they signaling me out? Where in fact, that person is doing the same thing that my Howard professor was doing but here because there are so many things in the environment, that people don't know what is racial, what is an act of racism, what is an act of sexism, what is an act of homophobia because there are all these different signals. All these things going on at the same time.
Cook: You're right!
Herndon: So at Howard, in a sense they controlled for race. Race wasn't really an issue because here it was a predominantly black institution so whenever they wanted to instruct me or correct me I knew that it purely was an act of instruction to make me a better student. Whereas here I think sometimes people may be confused. But since I have had the Howard University experience and now I'm here at Virginia Tech and I'm older it's now easier for me to distinguish between what is an act of racism or sexism and what is a situation where my advisor's telling me, you can do better than what you're doing. The same thing that my Howard professors told me. So I think by me being older I have an advantage of being out in the world and worked. I can read between the lines a little better than say, incoming freshmen or even the incoming graduate students who had the all white school experience.
Cook: Which makes you probably a better advisor to help people in similar situations.
Herndon: I just try to work with that to help students. When students come in and they say well I think that this person did this, that and the other, I say well a verb is still a verb and a noun is still a noun, an adjective is still an adjective. These are the rules of grammar. It has nothing to do with you being female. This has nothing to do with you being black. Has nothing to do with you being from Southwest Virginia, from Farmville, from Northern Virginia. These are the standard guidelines for evaluating a comprehensive paper in freshmen English 1105. It has nothing to do with... if you want to bring race in... to pull the race card, then you have to be really prepared to substantiate that kind of claim. You have to pull out the evidence. If you don't have that evidence you are going to perhaps falsely accuse someone who is simply trying to make you a better student. Now if it is clearly an act of racism, sexism or any other 'ism' there are channels and mechanisms within the University system and even outside the University to deal with those acts of discrimination. But if you do believe that you've narrowed that particular situation to an act of racism and it meets certain kinds of standards, than you can proceed with whatever process you want to take.
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