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Oral History with Essex Finney, Class of 1959
Essex Finney as a Senior at VPI, 1959

Part One

Kennelly: I would like to start off with some background. Where are you from?

Finney: Originally?

Kennelly: Yes.

Finney: I'm from Powhatan, Virginia and the small community of Macon near the Powhatan courthouse in Powhatan County.

Kennelly: That's where you grew up?

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: What about your family?

Finney: My mother was Etta Burton also from Powhatan County. My father is Essex "Eugene" Finney, Sr. We grew up on a farm in Powhatan, my grandfather's place. Born in 1937, I went to high school and elementary school in the county.

Essey Finney and Etta B. Finney, 1940's Essex Finney as a young boy with his mother,
Etta B. Finney, at the Powhatan County Fair in the 1940s.

Kennelly: What kind of farm was it?

Finney: It was a general-purpose farm. We grew tobacco, wheat, corn, hay and raised cattle, pigs, chickens and horses. It was about 200 acres. It was purchased in the early 1900s by my grandfather. My father, Eugene, was born and raised there, and he grew up there.

Kennelly: It was the family farm?

Finney: Yes

Kennelly: How many children are in your family?

Finney: I'm the only child, but my father had, I think, 13 (siblings), so there were many aunts and uncles

Kennelly: Did you help with the farm work?

Finney: Yes, it was an interesting experience and I enjoyed it. It was something to give you work incentive and to help you learn to accept responsibility. It was a very good opportunity as a child.

Kennelly: Did you start helping when you were young?

Finney: Yes, as soon as I could work. I guess one of the things I should explain is why I came to VPI because that pertains to my farm background. When I was a young person growing up on the farm after elementary school, and beginning high school, we had horses and mules to do work. That was labor intensive. While I was in high school we acquired a tractor. In fact, our neighbor earlier had acquired a tractor, one of those Ford tractors with the implements which you could lift up and transport. It was of great interest to me because it reduced the amount of hard labor and enabled you to do a large amount of work with not much hard labor involved. Not only did I farm my grandfather's farm with the tractor, but my neighbor who owned a tractor encouraged me and asked me to help do his farming.

So with a tractor and all the implements that go along with it, you could farm two or three small farms at that time. So that's why I had an interest in Agriculture because I grew up on a farm. I then became interested in agricultural engineering because of the equipment involved, the mechanization, which was a phase of engineering; I wanted to develop tractors and equipment, manufacture, and market them.

Kennelly: So you were doing quite a bit of work if you were actually doing your family's farm and your neighbor's? I mean, you weren't just going out to gather eggs in the morning.

Finney: Oh no, it was plowing, disking, planting crops, and harvesting. Even after school in the evening I would go work on other farms. For example there was a family about two miles away named the Whitlocks. Joe Whitlock, who was one of the merchants and one of the businessmen had two tractors, and in the evenings after school I would go do some of his work, plowing, disking, and planting. He even had lights on the tractor so you could work into the night. So it was fun. I enjoyed it. It wasn't that demanding; I did a lot of work and I enjoyed it.

Essex with his prized Hereford bull on his grandfather's farm in Macon, Virginia Essex and his cousin, Edward Finney
Essex grew up on his grandfather's farm in Macon, Virginia. He is shown here in 1953 with his prized Hereford bull which he exhibited at the Powhatan County Fair.

The production of hogs was an important part of the family farm operation. Here, Essex, on the right, and his cousin, Edward Finney, the high school vocational agriculture teacher, discuss the desirable traits of hogs. Edward was an important mentor in Essex's life. Edward took Essex on his first visit to Va. Tech and provided wise guidance during his college career.

Kennelly: Did people with the tobacco tend to go around to harvest one crop, put it up, then house it, and then go to the next farm and things like that?

Finney: Oh yes, let's see, there was my Uncle Spencer, Mr. Junius Venable, Mr. Johnny Hicks, and the Whitlocks, and the Worshams and the Heaths. This was during wheat-harvesting time, before they had combines, when they had binders and threshers. Those families would get together and go from one farm to the other farms to help each other, because it required a lot of people to bring the wheat in, thresh it, and handle the bags. So those farmers and communities worked together, and, of course, I worked with them in those activities.

Kennelly: Is this an integrated community?

Finney: Yes, the Worshams, the Heaths, and the Whitlocks were white. The Hicks, the Venables, and the Finneys were black families, but they worked together when it became necessary to do large operations when families had to work together.

Kennelly: Did your family hire people to help too?

Finney: No, we didn't hire anyone. Everyone was volunteer help so whenever someone helped us, we would help them, and that way it didn't require financial payment of wages.

Kennelly: Was there a big social to build a sense of community? Did you socialize together and have potlucks?

Finney: What I would say the major social activity was the wheat-threshing times. When of course everyone would get together to help, and the big meal in the middle of the day was lunch time. There were tremendous meals. The wives would fix large dinners; no wonder we didn't die, eating those big meals in the middle of the day in the hot weather. But those activities were part of the community activities.

Kennelly: Would those dinners be integrated?

Finney: Yes, the mealtime would be. That was about the only time when there were integrated activities other than work activities.

Kennelly: What kind of school did you go to when you were in elementary?

Finney: I started out in the local small school called the Pine Hill Elementary School, which was located one mile from my home. My grandmother taught six grades there in the school, so there were grades one through six. The students who were within three or four miles of the school would come for early education. So when I started school, at five or six years old, I went to that school, and then at about the fifth grade, they consolidated some of the schools near the courthouse area. Students who were in the fifth and sixth grades went to a consolidated school. There was a colored fair building, and all of the black students in those grade levels went to the fair building for their middle school. After finishing the middle grades, I went to high school, which was then the segregated high school called Pocahontas High School for grades 8 to 12. I graduated in 1954 from Pocahontas High School.

Kennelly: Was the first school where your grandmother taught, was she the only teacher?

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: Was it one room?

Finney: Yes.

Pine Hill School
The one-room school in Macon, Virginia where Essex Finney attended elementary school. His grandmother, Fannie Finney, taught here until 1947. Then her daughter, Novella Finney Ambrose (shown on the right), taught here until 1957. Pine Hill School

Kennelly: How many students were there?

Finney: I would guess about 40 or 50 students for all of the grades. At that time, the upper grade students would help with the lower grades. That is, those students who were in those upper grades like fifth or sixth grade would help teach the students that were in the first and second grade. It was quite a challenge.

Kennelly: I could imagine.

Finney: But that's the way it was.

Kennelly: Your white neighbors' kids, they were going somewhere else?

Finney: I believe there was a consolidated white school so all the elementary students that were white went to the elementary school in the courthouse area. So they had their schooling, but it was separate from us. The year I graduated in 1954 was the year the Supreme Court decision was handed down mandating integrated education in the state and also throughout the country.

Kennelly: How did you feel about the quality of your education?

Finney: I thought it was outstanding. I thought we had very good teachers. Of course my grandmother taught elementary school, but even beyond that point, the teachers we had were very dedicated teachers and very much concerned about their students and very good in terms of getting information taught to their students. Even in high school I thought we got very good instruction. I might mention, when I was in high school, a number of members of my family taught high school. The vocational agriculture teacher, Edward Finney, was a cousin; his wife Freddie Finney, taught eighth grade. I had an uncle, Emory, who worked at the school as a custodian, and his wife, Mary Florence Finney taught ninth grade English. She was also a ninth grade sponsor. So I had family members who taught in elementary and high school. The other teachers were also very good. The principal, Mr. George W. Ransome, and his wife, Alberta Ransome, taught in the high school and they were outstanding. Mr. Venable taught history, James Venable. I had another cousin Annie Willis Harrison, who that taught in the school. I'm not sure which subject she taught, but she was also a school sponsor for one of the senior classes. Anyway, I enjoyed it, we got a good education, and I thought we were well prepared for college.

Kennelly: Was there a big emphasis on education in the family?

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: The grandmother who was the teacher, that was your paternal grandmother?

Finney: Yes, Fannie Johnson Finney, my grandfather's wife, Eugene's mother.

Kennelly: Did either of your parents go to college?

Finney: No, my father didn't finish elementary school. He couldn't read or write. I have concluded that he must have had a learning disability because when I was going to school my mother and grandmother worked with him to try to get him to write, but he had great difficulty trying to write or sign his name. So he never learned to read or write. Nevertheless, he functioned well in terms of counting his money and doing the things that you would normally do; very few people would know that he couldn't read or write unless he was asked to do it. My mother went to elementary school, but didn't finish high school, but she could read and write, and function very well.

Kennelly: Was she involved with the farm?

Finney: My mother didn't do farm work. She was the housekeeper. She prepared the meals, cleaned the house, and did everything necessary to keep the house running. Of course, my grandmother taught school so she wasn't there to do much housework. And my father and grandfather worked the farm, along with myself.

Kennelly: So when you went off to college, who continued to work on the farm?

Finney: My dad did some, but the farm work gradually ceased being done because my dad, after I left, worked on the State Highway Department. He became a laborer on the county highways until he retired in 1975. So the farm work declined after I left. So that's the story of the farm.

Kennelly: Does your family still have that land?

Finney: Yes, my family still has the land. In the mid 1980s, the land was sub-divided and deeded to the heirs. That is, when my grandmother and grandfather died, they didn't have a will, so the land was sub-divided into eleven sections and each heir was given a deed of the property that they would have inherited from my grandfather. So the farm ceased being a farm; in fact it ceased being an operating farm in the middle of the 1960s. I graduated in 1954 and went to college, but in the summers I would come back and do some work to keep things going.

Kennelly: When you were growing up and in high school, did you have much contact with white people besides the people you were doing the farming with?

Finney: Only the neighbors we were farming with, and with the local business merchants. I mentioned the Whitlocks. Mr. Joe Whitlock ran a sawmill and a farm and a small business on the corner of Rt. 609 and Rt. 13 where Macon is located. Across the street on that corner is a post office, Macon post office, Macon's store, which is also a general store where we did all of our shopping. It was operated by Ernest and Bernice Nicholls and their son Roy Nicholls who took it over after they passed. So I interacted with them sometimes, cleaning the yard or washing the car, whatever was necessary when I was in school. So they were good neighbors and good friends.

Kennelly: Have you experienced any racial prejudice?

Finney: Not from the people in the community.

Kennelly: Have you experienced any from traveling?

Finney: No, I don't think I traveled that much to experience that. (However, when I entered military service in 1963, there were limited accommodations when traveling by car.)

Kennelly: So you pretty much felt accepted as a person?

Finney: That's correct. Even though we knew that it was a segregated society as you are aware, we had separate schools, so I guess there was a general recognition of what your limits were in terms of interacting and traveling and having social contact.

Kennelly: Was there any kind of restaurants or anything there?

Finney: Yes, but we never went to any white restaurants. There were black restaurants and white restaurants. That is, the restaurants that were owned by black merchants and restaurants owned by white merchants. Of course, we never challenged the tradition because we recognized what was expected.

Kennelly: Was anyone in your family politically active?

Finney: Not when I was in high school. After I graduated from high school, I had a cousin who was a vocational agriculture teacher, Mr. Edward Finney, who became very active with the Democratic Party in the county and in the state and worked for candidates that he wished to support.

Kennelly: Was anyone in the NAACP?

Finney: Yes, certain members of the family were members of the NAACP

Kennelly: You would go to meetings?

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: So there was a consciousness?

Finney: Oh, yes.

Kennelly: Was church important in your family?

Finney: Yes, we were very active in the church. The local church in the community was Pine Hill Baptist Church, which was a mile from our home and very near the Pine Hill Elementary School that I went to as a child. That was the family church. At that time, church services were only held once a month for the rural churches. At Pine Hill we would have services the first Sunday of the month, but Sunday school would be every Sunday. There would be other churches that we would go to. On the second Sunday we would go to my grandmother's church, Pleasant Grove Church in Amelia County. On the third Sunday, we would go to Hollywood, which was another church. And then on the fourth Sunday, we would go to Mount Calvary, which was the church where my father's sister Aunt Annie Willis was active [Note: She was also known as "Aunt Nita": Annie Juanita Finney Willis]. So Sundays were church times. Also, Sundays were social times where the extended family would get together. For example, Mount Calvary on the fourth Sunday, after church, the family would get together and have a big dinner at Aunt Annie Willis' home (Aunt Nita's). When we went to my grandmother's church in Amelia, on the second Sunday after church, we would visit her nieces and nephews and have a big dinner. So those were church times and social occasions. And I think the reason church was only held one Sunday a month is because these were small communities and you could go support other churches during the other Sundays when they didn't have church locally.

Kennelly: And a chance to see other people.

Finney: And a chance to visit, that's exactly right.

Kennelly: When you were in high school, what else did you do for your social life?

Finney: Well, there were small juke joints or restaurants, or places you could go and people could buy beer or have a meal or have a juke box and do dancing. So on the weekends, particularly Saturdays and Friday evenings, that's where people would congregate and have a little entertainment and social interaction. So those were the things we were involved with from a social standpoint.

Kennelly: Now you went to Virginia State for your first year of college. Why did you decide to go to Virginia State?

Finney: Well, of course Virginia State, at that time, was the black college. It was the primary black institutional land grant college. I was interested in studying agriculture and that's why I decided to go there to get a degree in agriculture. And it was locally available, it was reasonably priced, and I had a scholarship.

Kennelly: You had a scholarship to school?

Finney: I had some financial support to go to Virginia State. You may not be aware, Virginia State University is a land grant college, a black institution. Many of the vocational agriculture teachers who taught in the counties throughout Virginia had gone to Virginia State and had their training in agriculture and they were teaching in the local high schools. And those vocational high school agriculture teachers were important links to Virginia State in terms of students going there who were interested in studying agriculture. So Edward Finney, my cousin, said, "well, you should go to Virginia State, I got my degree there, it's a good school, if you want to study agriculture you should there". And he had made a recommendation to the professors and to the college and arranged for me to get financial support. I was able to get a job "arranged" working in the cafeteria, serving and mopping the floor for financial support. So that's why I went to Virginia State.

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