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Oral History Interview with Michael Herndon
Cook: Have you seen that happen here?
Herndon: Well, I've seen some people who have falsely accused, charged a professor or several professors. But on the other end, I've seen there've been true acts of racism and discrimination. They were so blatant and so obvious that anyone can see. It wasn't even the covert kind of racism. It was so blatant! It was laden with racist kinds of remarks, attitudes, and actions. In those cases, when I told students... I told them, these are the options you can take or you can consider. It's up to you. If you sit down on it... I can't wage this war for you because I wasn't in the class. I can support you in it but I can't go and say Professor 'Do-dad' is a 'racist pig' and then a student isn't willing to step up to the plate and make the claim and provide the evidence. But if a student does take that action, of course, I'm one of the cheerleaders. I'm one of the people in the stands cheering that person on... trying to be that person's advocate, trying to make certain that resolution is brought to that situation.
Cook: Have you, yourself, experienced any racism here?
Herndon: I have. As a graduate student, I've experienced some racism. Not a whole lot of racism but any racism is too much. But I remember I was in a situation where I was one of a few males in the class. I was one of the few black people in the class. This was a graduate course and we met every week. You had to do readings and I always read my materials and came prepared for class. There was a student... a very good friend... a white female friend... she hardly read her readings for that week. Whenever there was time for class discussion of course I would contribute because class participation was part of the oral grade. So, the professor pulled me aside one day after class and told me I was outshining Mary. I'll call her Mary (that's not here real name). I was outshining Mary and that in other words, I was making her look bad. But I couldn't tell her that Mary needs to do the readings just like everyone else. If Mary were to read the articles and the chapters before coming to class then she could contribute to the class as well. She even asked that I tone down my comments and responses to give Mary an opportunity to contribute and then she even said, I'm not saying this to you because you are black. But then I thought would she have made that same kind of statement to me if I had been a white female...
Cook: That's just what I was thinking.
Herndon: Or if I were any other kind of female or any other person of another ethnic group. But, to me, it was implicit within those comments that you as a black man, you're not supposed to know as much as Mary. You're not supposed to be in a situation where you sound halfway intelligent. You're not suppose to engage this class to the extent and degree that you are because you are black and you are male. You're making Mary look bad because Mary is supposed to be the model, the icon of virtue and so you're just kicking mud in her face. Well, I wasn't and that wasn't the purpose and she never said that to other people in the class, to other females in the class. She never said that to even other... there was no black female in the class but in fact there were only two blacks in the class. The other black male was vocal but he wasn't as talkative as I am.
Cook: In graduate school, I found that they love when people talk and contribute. That is the optimum.
Herndon: I didn't say anything for three weeks in a row. Then she comes and said to me, you're not contributing anything to the class. So I felt damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I talk, I get in trouble. If I don't say anything, I get in trouble. So what do I do?
I came back; I don't want to make Mary look bad. Then she just kind of... well, we need your participation and you contribute so much to this class. Trying to clean it up, you know. I'm like no let Mary. It's her opportunity to shine. I'm going to be in the background. Let her do her thing. She's on center stage. Not that I ever wanted to be on center stage. But, I thought, well I'm going to be part of this class. I owe it to myself and I owe it to a lot of other people who could be here, who want to be here but can't be. So I'm obligated to do my work.
That's how I look at every project, everything that I do. So, she would probably say it wasn't an act of racism or racist act. But I clearly thought... and I'm always one of the last people to call anything racist but that's one that I would put in the category of racism whether she was ignorant to it or not. It still happened.
Cook: Did you see her as favoring Mary at all?
Herndon: Yes, I always felt that Mary...
Cook: Who didn't do the reading...
Herndon: She didn't! She didn't. Mary came to class late. Mary came to class unprepared. Mary did all the "stereotypical" things that she thought I would have done. But it was just the opposite. So Mary... even with the research paper... Mary was scrambling trying to get some things together for her research paper. I even gave her some citations of some articles I have read that I didn't need and things like that. Of course, I never held any animosity toward Mary or felt that Mary was making me look bad and putting in this situation. It was really the professor of the class... because Mary and I, to this day, are really good friends. We've done a lot of things together but I don't like the way that the professor set that up... you can't be as smart as Mary attitude.
Cook: Was the professor an older woman?
Herndon: I would say middle age which really surprised me because I expected this from an older professor close to retirement and not someone...
Cook: That probably grew up in the sixties.
Herndon: Right. This person came through the sixties and at the time she started this class I think she was in her late forties, maybe about forty-eight.
Cook: Is that a singular incident or have you had other problems?
Herndon: I haven't had any other problems at Virginia Tech. But certain situations maybe in Blacksburg or outside the Virginia Tech community.
Cook: Could you talk about some of those because that's one of my questions? How comfortable do you feel in the community?
Herndon: Overall, I feel comfortable being here. I think it is a safe place. A good place for family but for example, going into a store... the same kind of things. I remember one time I was in a Sears store. Maybe I shouldn't say the name. But that's okay. I was in Sears down in New River Valley Mall and I was going to buy a Father's Day gift. I had already gone to a couple of other stores and I had maybe two bags. I was looking at these shirts for my father and these shirts were over up against the wall. All of the sudden this salesperson comes up out of nowhere and she says, "May I help you!" in a tone of voice like 'what are you doing' kind of voice. I said, "You can help me after I calm down!" Letting her know that just don't...
Cook: Her behavior wasn't appropriate.
Herndon: Yes! That's right. I ended up buying... I told her what I was doing and she automatically was so helpful showed me these specials for Father's Day and so forth and so I purchased the shirts and everything and I just told her don't come up on a customer like that and anything in this store I want, I can pay for?
Cook: Did she think you were stealing?
Herndon: That's what I thought because I had a bag from another store and I was looking up against a wall and there was no other employees over on that end and a lot of times they will either come and adjust a shirt and pretend they are straightening up a display. Usually then I start talking loud and saying stuff. Sometimes they've even gone over and said would you like me to situate this or clean this up since they've seen me have some problems in this particular area... especially when they start following me. That happened in Wal-Mart as well. There was this guy who followed my wife and me all over the place. He looked at us... it was almost like he was a stalker. So I just blatantly walked over and said you don't have anything in this Wal-Mart store that I want that I can't buy either with cash or plastic and basically stop following me. And he stopped.
Cook: Was he undercover?
Herndon: He was undercover and I just told him I don't have to deal with this when I come into this store. Another time I went to a local store. I won't call the name of that because later this lady and I have become real good friends. Went to this one store and get up in there and it's a furniture store and I start talking to her about what I want and what I need for our apartment and she said, "Oh you speak so well. Do you go to Tech?" And I said, yes, I do go to Tech. I said, "why do you say that I speak so well?" What's so different about my speech with other people who go to Tech or whatever? She never said it...
Cook: You knew perfectly well?
Herndon: I knew... that's right, she never said it and I was trying to push the envelope to get her to tell me but of course, she wasn't going to tell me. But from her perspective, in her mind, she hadn't seen black people who spoke the way I spoke. Not that I speak so well. I guess, she was expecting a certain hip hop, slang language...
Cook: She stereotyped...
Herndon: Right. That I could put a sentence together that made sense to her and to me and it was that stereotypical kind of... oh wow, you're not like the rest of them kind of attitude. Well, if I'm not like the rest of them, who am I like. Who are the 'them' that you're talking about? How do we classify this invisible 'them'? You have the black people, the Virginia Tech people...
Cook: Like that explains it... you're from Virginia Tech.
Herndon: Exactly. Situations like that but nothing really so overt where you know...
Cook: No problems finding housing?
Herndon: No problem, which was a concern. I thought that I would be rejected because of race.
Cook: When you first decided to come to Virginia Tech... how did you decide to come to Virginia Tech?
Herndon: My mother is a very spiritual person and she told me, she said if you apply to Virginia Tech, I believe that you will get in. You will get in to Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech was the last place I applied. It's not that I didn't want to come here. I love the school but I didn't want to be in Southwest Virginia.
Cook: That was my next question!
Herndon: I applied to all these other schools. I applied to that school in Charlottesville. [Laughter] They turned me down!
Cook: They didn't! Good for you!
Herndon: Hindsight really I am so glad I'm here at Virginia Tech because other things have unfolded with the kind of opportunities I have at Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech I know that I was destined to be here. Despite the things that I tried to do not to come here everything was still pointing toward 81 and here I am! So in looking back over my situation, I realize, it's divine providence for me to be here in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech at this time at this stage in my life. I applied to that school, Mr. Jefferson's school, in Charlottesville and they told me no. I applied even to other schools that weren't as competitive as Virginia Tech. For example, VCU told me no. I applied at William and Mary and they told me don't even think about it.
Cook: They tell everybody that.
Herndon: Yeah! Those are the schools I applied to. I even applied to my alma mater at Howard. I really didn't want to go back to Howard because I already had that experience there; I wanted a different experience. I didn't apply for a Ph.D. program there. I applied for another Master's program in a whole other area. I got accepted there but it still wasn't what I wanted.
Cook: What was the program?
Herndon: That program was a master's degree in Organizational Communication.
Cook: Your undergraduate [degree] was in communication?
Herndon: Right! I got accepted and that was really my back up plan and I can always go back. But why go back for another master's when I could be using that time to go toward a Ph.D. So I applied there, got accepted and then I finally applied and got my paperwork in to Virginia Tech because my mother was on my case about, well have you applied... ?
Cook: She had a vision!
Herndon: Yes so I applied here and I got in and everything else down to my furniture matching in my apartment... just those signs here and there showing me, yeah, you're in the right place at the right time. Don't you move, don't you mess up.
Cook: Were you married at the time?
Herndon: I was single when I came here. I was single for my first two years in Blacksburg. Got married two years after that. My wife came to Blacksburg and she didn't like it at first for a lot of reasons.
Cook: Where is she from?
Herndon: She's from my hometown, from my area, she's about fifteen minutes from where I live. So like a Blacksburg/Christiansburg kind of thing. She's from a town called Brookville and Brookville is about fifteen minutes from Farmville. She didn't like it initially because she didn't find the hair care products that she needed. She couldn't find stockings in the shades that she normally bought. For example, if she were to go to a store that she went to in Richmond, same chain of stores, they wouldn't have her color here in Southwest Virginia.
Cook: That's important to a woman!
Herndon: Uh huh and the same with makeup and things like that. But things have gotten better. I remember there was something on the black graduate student list serve that came out last year. It was kind of humorous but then again it just spoke to the whole situation of black people in Blacksburg. This woman sent a note out that now Wal-Mart was carrying a certain brand of panty hose in a certain shade. Apparently this brand and shade were popular among a lot of black women on campus. So that was news to a lot of people because in the past when they went to Roanoke or whenever they'd go back home, they'd stock up on certain supplies.
Cook: So get that out to the community!
Herndon: Right. It was something as simple as that. I told Jean about that whatever that model and style, brand of stockings or pantyhose and she said, "Wow, I'm going to go down now."
Cook: So she is from Farmville area but she was in Richmond?
Herndon: Well, she worked closer to Richmond but she commuted back and forth. So whenever she went to shop, because her job was only about twenty minutes from Richmond, before coming home she would go to the mall.
Cook: How did you meet her?
Herndon: I met her through my now brother-in-law. When I worked at Longwood College my brother-in-law was one of my residents. I was a hall director there and he was a resident in the building and my wife was a commuter student. He was a residential student and he said you should take my sister out.
Herndon: So it kind of started from there. She would bring goodie packages from home to leave there for him and many times he would be in class so she would bring it downstairs to my office and I would leave a note on his door that she had come by or either she would call and leave a message on his phone to pick up a package from me. So that's how we met.
Cook: Did you ever... were they goodies... like food?
Herndon: Yes, food goodies and there was always enough where my now mother-in-law put in enough for both of us... homemade pies things like that. Especially on Mondays, they'd have a lot of the Sunday dinner leftovers, which were really good!
Cook: That's wonderful! Is your wife a good cook?
Herndon: She is a very good cook.
Cook: I found that's really important.
Herndon: Yes! That's right! [Laughter]
Cook: You've answered a lot of my questions. Oh here's one. You mentioned [you worked at] Longwood College and I saw that when I was doing background research. What was that like?
Herndon: It was good. A good situation and I enjoyed it. I gave Longwood College six years of my youth and it was great professionally.
Cook: After Howard? Oh okay!
Herndon: Yes I stayed there and worked in residence life and it was a good situation both personally and professionally. I was back home and professionally it gave me the opportunity to build upon what I had learned at Howard and now the experiences at Longwood helped me to build upon what I now have here at Virginia Tech. So I liked it. It was really interesting when I came back to Farmville; I had some of the same kinds of reactions from some of the local Farmville people particularly from some of the white residents. They knew my family name but according to them I didn't sound like any one from around here kind of thing. Again how does someone from around here sound? Because I think I have a very southern accent and it wasn't like I was sounding like someone from New York.
Cook: I think you do have a southern accent. Not as bad as Sam but you do... [Laughter]
Herndon: But it wasn't anything like you know coming from New York or the Midwest but again I was saying things in such a way that whatever...
Cook: You didn't fit their definition.
Herndon: Right, right. A lot of times I like to do that just for shock value just to see peoples reactions. [Laughter]
Cook: That happens to me. My parents are from a rural community and people there... you're fine city ways or something like that. You were on the Prince Edward County School Board?
Herndon: Right. You've done your homework. [Laughter] I was on the Prince Edward County School Board and I was the first alumnus from my high school to be on the school board. All the other people who had been on the school board were retired people or people who had moved from other areas and had settled in Prince Edward County.
So I was the first person who was actually a graduate of Prince Edward County to be on the school board because before Prince Edward County High School became Prince Edward County High School, it was named after a person called R. R. Moton. Then they changed the name from that to Prince Edward County High School. See Moton was pretty much the black high school and then after integration and all these other kinds of things started coming about the county then took over the school and then it became the Prince Edward County High School.
I was the first and the youngest one on the board. I was appointed for two terms. I didn't finish the second term because I had the opportunity to come to Virginia Tech so I took that opportunity and I'm here.
Cook: Is it something you would do again... be on the School Board?
Herndon: It's something I would do again but not right now. It's a worthy position because you can affect positive change not only for students but also for teachers. You can be the advocate for every employee and student in the school system. You can be the vigilant person or the watchdog for curriculum if there's some funny things in the curriculum you can point that out. So I was glad about my Howard education and how my Howard education prepared me for that. So it is something that I would do again and it's something that I enjoyed. It was very time consuming.
Cook: Did you do it while you worked at Longwood College?
Herndon: Right. You had the regular monthly meetings but you also had committee meetings and I was also on the Student Academic and Personal Affairs Committee. That committee was pretty much responsible for hearing student judicial cases when student's had gone through all of the different chains of command from the teacher to the principal up through the superintendent and these people were coming to the school board because they had done some things that were dismissable offenses. In many cases we had to expel students for a whole academic year.
Cook: Would they come with lawyers?
Herndon: Some would but mostly they would come with parents and maybe a grandmother. These were people who did some really bad things so we had to kick them out of school but also think of alternative programs for them to pursue their education. We had an after school program that allowed them to still continue but they weren't in the regular program where they came to the regular school hours.
Cook: It's funny I don't think the media talks about that... how the school does help the students who've been expelled.
Herndon: That's right. Most of them say the school expelled the student...
Cook: And then abandoned them. They're gone. I bet your mom being a teacher in Prince Edward County was very proud that you were on the school board.
Herndon: She was very proud and it's very interesting, the superintendent who was the superintendent when I was in elementary school was still the superintendent when I graduated from college, came back home and this same person in fact at one time he was my substitute Latin teacher. He's name is Dr. James Anderson and he really came in and rebuilt the school system and I've seen him as a student. I've seen him as one of my employers/bosses because I was also a substitute teacher between college semesters and now then I saw him, as I was his boss.
Cook: You were his boss?
Herndon: Yes it was really interesting! But I'm also his peer in the sense he's an educator and I'm an educator and he's really one of my supporters back home who supported me to come to Virginia Tech and do well and finish my degree and so forth.
Cook: Do you ever want to go back home when you have children?
Herndon: There are some days when I want to go back home. Like certain weekends I just want to be there and then other times I don't want to.
Cook: Well, I mean for good.
Herndon: Oh yes, when I see myself retiring or maybe closer to retiring to go back home and settle down.
Cook: And because your wife is from there, she would agree?
Cook: So you left Longwood College and your position there to come to Virginia Tech?
Cook: Your Ph.D. program is in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies?
Cook: How have you enjoyed that?
Herndon: I've enjoyed that. Had a great time there, great time. And I'm ready to graduate!
Cook: What is that under? Is that Human Resources?
Herndon: Under Human Resources, yes.
Cook: Is there anyone on campus... I don't know if mentor is the word... just anyone that has been important to you academically or otherwise?
Herndon: I can think of a lot of people. Some of the professors from different classes. Some of the names that just pop up... Dr. Joan Hurt. She is my dissertation advisor. Dr. Don Creamer. I've taken courses with him. He's also on my committee. Dr. Elizabeth Creamer. She's another person.
Cook: Husband and wife?
Herndon: Husband and wife. I'm also supervised by her in my job here on campus. Dr. Delores Scott who is no longer here. But she was the Associate Provost for Retention and Support Programs. She's now at Virginia Union University as Vice President of Student Affairs. Another person on my committee that's been instrumental is Dr. Gloria Byrd. She's in Family and Child Development. I think of some other people, Dr. Katherine Allen has been a big sister type to me away from home.
Cook: You're lucky!
Herndon: Yes. I've had some really positive people who've encouraged me. Hayward Farrar in his special personality. He's done a lot for me and contributed to my academic and personal well being and I can think of other people like Dr. Barbara Carlisle in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.
Cook: Do you know Barbara Pendergrass?
Herndon: Dr. Barbara Pendergrass, she is another one. She and I go to the same church. Very positive, very upbeat and always the same, consistent and the way she gives to people and there's some others here on campus that I could think of.
Cook: Dr. Farrar was at University of Maryland when my sister was there. I found out resistently that he was head of the Black Student Union.
Herndon: That's right.
Cook: Very militant.
Herndon: That's right, very militant.
Cook: Before he went into the Navy. I told my sister. She said, "I know that name!"
Herndon: He was a rabble rouser then and a rebel rouser now. [Laughter]
Cook: Doesn't he always wear black to protest?
Herndon: Always. Right.
Cook: I just started to notice that and I thought Johnny Cash does that for a reason I wonder if Dr. Farrar does that too?
Herndon: Well he carries Johnny Cash's, the lyrics to that song, "Why I Wear Black" in his pocket and he also has those lyrics on his web site.
Cook: Oh, I didn't know that. I'll look it up.
Herndon: Yes and the same lyrics for the reason why Johnny Cash wears black are the same reasons why he does.
Cook: Very interesting man, Dr. Farrar.
Herndon: Yes he is. I also think about people like Dr. Myra Gordon in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Cook: I met her once.
Herndon: Yes, she's another big sister type. Dr. Terry Kershaw, he's Director of Black Studies. He's like a big brother type.
Cook: Is he doing Women Studies right now?
Herndon: Right, the Interim Director of Women's Studies.
Cook: I've heard the best things about him!
Herndon: He's very positive, very upbeat and he's the kind of scholar, researcher that I want to be. I don't necessarily want to be him or take on his persona but he is doing the kinds of things that I'd like to see myself doing ten or fifteen years down the road... that I aspire to be in terms of a scholar, an intellectual. So he is a good role model. This is what you can be like if you just set the stage (can't understand).
Cook: Does he say that?
Herndon: Well he doesn't say that but he has encouraged me to go ahead and finish and say about the different opportunities that can come about by finishing what you've started. It's really interesting that all these people that I've named from Joan Hurt, the Creamers, Dr. Byrd and all these other people. They have really; really reinforced in a way, the things I've learned at home. Although my parents didn't have the opportunity to go to graduate school at Virginia Tech but the same kinds of themes, the same kinds of life lessons are learned in both places. So it hasn't been a conflict in what I've learned at home, the values of home and the values of the University, for the most part.
Cook: You have a very positive attitude, which comes through.
Cook: As a professor too. So, you haven't had any negative problems except with that one lady professor or advisors?
Herndon: For the most part I've had a very rewarding experience. And part of that experience was the way I embraced Virginia Tech. When I came here I told everybody that I'm a Hokie too. I am a Hokie too. Whatever is out there, whatever the benefits of a being a Hokie, I'm going to take part of that. I'm not going to sit on the sideline and say I'm not going to be a part of this because or I'm not going to allow my race or gender get in the way of letting me experience all of the great things that come along with being a Virginia Tech student and member of this community. So, yeah, a lot of negative things that are out there and I know a lot of horrible things that have happened that some of my friends have told me about some situations that I know to be true, that have happened to them. I'm saying that in my experience, it may not necessarily be the typical Hokie experience, but it's been a good experience. I know some people who have really been through hell and high water to graduate because of racism, sexism...
Cook: At Tech?
Herndon: Yes, it's very... on one hand it's very covert, very subtle and some of those things that are kind of... it's like a fine line you know, talking about the example, is this really a true act of racism. Then it could be a situation where this person is an equal opportunity harasser. Maybe they harass all kinds of people.
Cook: That's hard to prove.
Herndon: Yes. I know a situation where there is this one person who just doesn't do well with people PERIOD. But if a woman were to come up... and maybe that woman would perceive it as a sexist act or if a black person or a Hispanic person... they may perceive it as a racial situation but in this particular person's situation, he really... he's a bah humbug kind of person.
Cook: That's too bad he's up there, though.
Herndon: Right. He doesn't need to be here. Those kinds of people need to be out of here. They don't need to be at Virginia Tech. Yes, you can still hold the standard and maintain academic integrity and have a rigorous program but you can still do that in a way you don't crush peoples spirits. You're not going to be mean and nasty, belligerent, hostile. You can do it in such a way you can encourage and motivate people to want to become better people and to not only improve their lives but also take those things that they've learned back to their communities. You don't have to beat a person down; you know and crush them emotionally to have them perform at a certain standard. I think that's what some people have done. They've confused academic rigor and hazing. For some people it's one and the same but I see it as two different things.
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