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Oral History with Essex Finney, Class of 1959
Essey Finney, 1956

Part 2

Kennelly: So what happened that you decided to transfer to Virginia Tech?

Finney: I was interested in getting a degree in agricultural engineering. Virginia State University, well Virginia State College at the time in Petersburg, did not offer a degree in engineering. They offered some course work, but not a degree. So in order for me to get my degree in engineering, agricultural engineering, it was necessary for me to go to an institution that offered a B.S. degree. So I decided to come to VPI, at least apply and to seek admission to get my degree in agricultural engineering.

Kennelly: So did you get a scholarship?

Finney: I had some financial support from . . ., I'm not sure what organization it was from. Was it Southern States? It was some type of farm organization that gave me $200 or $100, some support. The major financial support that enabled me to come to VPI came from my aunt, my father's sister. My father has a sister named Novella, Novella Finney. Her married name is Novella Ambrose. She also lived at home when I was growing up there. My grandmother, who I mentioned taught elementary school, Fannie Finney, suffered a stroke in 1947. When she had a stroke, my Aunt Novella came home and took over teaching the elementary school in Pine Hill. I have another aunt. One of Grandma Finney's daughters, Lillian, came home to look after her because she was paralyzed and bed-ridden. So when my grandmother had the stroke, two of her daughters came home, one looked after her and one taught school. When I decided to go to Virginia State, Novella provided financial support for me because my mother died in 1954, about a week or two after I went to Virginia State. My mother had a brain hemorrhage. So Novella then began to provide the financial support and encouragement.

So she was the source of financial support. Novella paid my tuition here at Blacksburg. Every semester when the tuition came due, she sent a check to pay that. She also paid the rent for my boarding at Mrs. Janie Hoge's house. When I came to VPI, I was not allowed to live on campus, but the university had made arrangements with Mrs. Jane Hoge who lived at 306 East Clay Street. Novella paid the $60 a month lodging fee for my stay at Mrs. Hoge's house. So she has invested in me substantially over the years. That's the reason I came and how I was able to support myself through my family and through a couple of scholarships at VPI.

Kennelly: How did you come here the first time you came?

Finney: My cousin, this vocational agricultural teacher that I mentioned to you, Edward Finney, drove me up in his car. In fact, before I came up here to stay, I had made arrangements to come up to visit with the Dean of Engineering and the head of Ag. Engineering Department. And Edward drove me up and came with me in the spring of 1956 to have my first visit on campus. After I was accepted, he drove me up with his car with my clothing and trunk. That's how I arrived on campus the first time.

Kennelly: Can you recall any of your first impressions when you first got here?

Finney: Not really, I arrived at Mrs. Hoge's house and met the other students who were living there. I came on campus and arranged to get my ROTC uniforms, but nothing was especially striking that I remember about my first visit on campus.

Kennelly: Did you think of yourself as a pioneer?

Finney: Not really, not in those terms. I thought it was an exciting experience. I had known about VPI and Virginia Tech through contacts with others who lived in the county and visited and had gone to school here. And of course I read about Virginia Tech in the newspaper and magazines, and I knew it was a very good school. I didn't consider myself a pioneer in that light. I thought the other students who were ahead of me might have been pioneers, but by the time I arrived things were working pretty smoothly. Charlie Yates and Peddrew and the others had come before.

Kennelly: They had all been there about two years before you?

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: Were Charlie Yates and Irving Peddrew living in Mrs. Hoge's house too?

Finney: Well Peddrew had dropped out. He was the first student that I think after the first year, he was no longer able to attend. For whatever reason, I don't know if the pressure was too great academically, but I know he was no longer attending VPI. But Charlie Yates and Lindsay Cherry and Matthew Winston were still living with Mrs. Hoge and had been living there for one or two years by the time I arrived. So they had worked out all of the mechanics of going to VPI and living off campus with Mrs. Hoge.

A Reunion 40 years Later On March 26, 1999, the four black students who roomed with Mrs. Janie Hoge at 306 E. Clay Street, Blacksburg, held a reunion at Va. Tech. Left to right are Matthew Winston, Essex Finney, Charlie Yates, and Lindsay Cherry. Dr. Yates is a member of the faculty in the College of Engineering at VPI. The other three are now retired.
The lady in the white dress is Mrs. Janie Hoge of Blacksburg, Virginia. Her husband, William is at the left edge of the picture. Essex Finney is in the white uniform in the center of the photo. When Essex was admitted to VPI in June 1956, he was advised by the Director of Admissions that, "It has been arranged for you to live with Mrs. William Hoge whose address is 306 E. Clay Street. This is an excellent home, and you will be taken care of in the very best way. Mrs. Hoge furnishes room, board, and laundry at the rate of $60.00 a month." Black students were not permitted to live on campus at that time. Four Black students lived with Mrs. Hoge between 1956 to 1959. Essex graduated from VPI with honors in 1959 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Graduation Day at VPI, June 1959

Kennelly: Was it difficult not to be living in the dorm?

Finney: Not really. No, I didn't find that to be much of a handicap. We were fairly close to campus; it didn't take long to walk. And I thought we had a very good social environment at Mrs. Hoge's house with the other students. So that was not a handicap to me.

Kennelly: Did you eat all of your meals over at Mrs. Hoge's house?

Finney: Yes. We had breakfast and went back to Mrs. Hoge's for lunch and dinner. Our schedules that we had worked out enabled me to do that without any problem.

Kennelly: Did you ever feel like you wished you could eat with the other people?

Finney: No, I never felt that. I never felt I could eat on campus. And I guess it was understood that I couldn't eat on campus, so I never challenged that.

Kennelly: Did that bother you that you couldn't?

Finney: Didn't bother me. I came here to get an education, and I was getting it. I had very good interaction with the students and the faculty. I guess that's the thing that I appreciated most about the experience at VPI. I thought the students accepted me as a student, and the faculty was extremely receptive and helpful, and I thought it was a great experience.

Kennelly: Did you feel prepared that you were ready to go off running?

Finney: Well, yes. I had two years at Virginia State in Petersburg, and I thought that had well prepared me for the course work here. For example, when I was at Virginia State, I was preparing to take courses in engineering, so I took a number of courses in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. When I came here, I was asked to take a course in calculus or geometry or something like that. Well, I had that course at Virginia State, but I guess the feeling was it might not have been up to standards. When I took the course in analytical geometry and calculus here, it was a breeze. It just was not a challenge.

I must mention that the professor who taught calculus here on campus really was a very good professor. I can't remember his name, but he was really outstanding. It was just a review, but had I not taken it, I would have been able to pass that with him, because he was very good. He taught things in a way that was very clear. He had examples and just his style was excellent. So I didn't have any problem at all. Now, when I was at Virginia State, I did get some extra help with math, because the head of the Math Department, Dr. R.R. McDaniels (and the dean of Arts and Sciences), was married to my cousin. In the evenings, once or twice a week, I would go over to his house and get tutoring. That helped an awful lot. So I didn't have any problems academically when I arrived on campus. I think I was well prepared, and undoubtedly the two years at Virginia State were very helpful. I probably would have had some challenges if I came here directly from high school. So I think that was a good decision to go to Virginia State for two years before coming here.

Kennelly: I understand that you received a letter that said, "We have decided that we can accept you at VPI to take our course in Agricultural Engineering." Did you have a sense that you were operating under an administrative restriction? I suppose in your case that's really what you wanted to do so it wasn't a problem. Let's say you changed your mind and decided to study something else?

Finney: I never thought about that. I had never thought about whether or not I wanted to take a course outside of the engineering, there would be a restriction. For some reason, it never crossed my mind because I was very definite in terms of what I wanted to do. Making a change or considering what the limitations would have been had I decided to do otherwise did not cross my mind.

Kennelly: At that stage in your life, what was your goal?

Finney: Well, I wanted to get a degree in agricultural engineering, and I wanted to go and work for Ford Motor Company and manufacture tractors, and sell tractors, and design tractors. That was my goal. Now you want to know why I didn't do that. Is that the next question?

Kennelly: I would like to know.

Finney: After I finished my degree at Blacksburg, that was in 1959, in fact before I completed my degree, the head of the Ag Engineering Department, Professor Earl Swink approached me and recognized that I had the capability of going to graduate school.

He encouraged me to go to graduate school. In fact he made arrangements for me to go to graduate school by calling Frank Peikert who was the head of Ag Engineering at Penn State, and telling him that I was a good student and that he wanted me to go to graduate school and get a master's degree. He also wanted me to have financial support to do that. So Professor Swink called Frank Peikert and arranged for me to be admitted to Penn State for a master's degree and arranged for an assistantship for financial support. With those arrangements, there was no reason for me not to go to graduate school. So instead of going to work for Ford Motor Co. or International Harvestor or John Deere working on tractors, I decided to go to graduate school. That's why, because of the recommendation and the support of Prof. Swink and Phil Mason who was also a professor in Ag Engineering. So I think you get a sense, that when I say the faculty and staff were very supportive, I think that's an indication of their feeling for me personally and for the work that I did and the for what they wanted me to do.

1985 Penn State Pitstanding Engineering Alumnus
In 1985, the College of Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University presented Dr. Essex Finney an Outstanding Engineering Alumnus Award in recognition of "his expertise in agricultural research, for his contributions to enhancing the quality of our nation's food and agricultural products, and for his invaluable activity within professional agricultural organizations. Dr. Finney is shown here with his wife, Rosa Ellen Finney, on the right, and Dean of Engineering Wilbur Meir, in the center.

Kennelly: Did you get your doctorate at Penn State?

Finney: No, after I went to Penn State in 1959, I was successful there, and Professor Peikert, I mentioned that Professor Swink had called Frank Peikert who was the head of ag engineering at Penn State, thought that I should go on and get my Ph.D. Frank Peikert, at Penn State, had graduated from Michigan State, and had some contacts at Michigan State, so he had contacted Dr. Farrall, who was the head of Ag Engineering, A.W. Farrall, and arranged for me to be admitted to the Ph.D. program at Michigan State and also arranged for me to get a research assistantship for financial support. So when I finished at Penn State in 1960, I then went to Michigan State in the spring of 1961 and began my Ph.D. program at East Lansing. So that's the story to that.

Kennelly: I want to go back again. When did you get your Ph.D.?

Finney: In 1963, I started in March of '61 and completed my Ph.D. in August of '63. Let me mention another aspect of going to Michigan State, I'm not sure if that applied to Penn State or not, but I know that I received support at Michigan State. At the time when I finished my undergraduate degree, the state of Virginia had a program where they discouraged blacks from going to graduate school in the state. They would as a matter of fact, provide financial support for you to go to graduate school outside of the state. So when I finished at Penn State, there was this program where you could apply and get financial support from the State of Virginia to go to graduate school somewhere else. I don't remember how much money I was receiving from the State of Virginia for going to graduate school at Michigan State, but I know that every semester I would apply, and this money would come in to pay for graduate school at Michigan State in East Lansing. That was a very interesting program, wasn't it?

Kennelly: Wasn't that strange?

Finney: Very strange, but strange things happened at that time that you can appreciate. Let me mention something else to you if you are going to record this for historical perspective. As I said, when I came here there were certain restrictions on going to VPI. You may have read that there were great restrictions on the high schools in the state. For example when the Supreme Court issued the decree to integrate the schools in the state of Virginia, there were some high schools that closed, especially, you probably heard of Prince Edward County, which in fact closed the schools and had private academies created. When I was here in 1956-59, I think it was 1958, the governor was J. Lindsay Almond, and there was a great debate about integrating the schools in Front Royal. One evening when I was looking at the news, Governor Almond came on and had indicated that he would not close the schools in Front Royal, but those schools would be integrated. That was quite a decision for him to make as governor, because at that time, it was the policy of the "Byrd machine" that there would be "massive resistance" to integration in the state of Virginia. I think that was a significant decision by a governor who had been supported by the Byrd machine to say that no more schools would be closed, that they would be kept open and that the schools would be integrated. And Front Royal was the case that broke the line or broke the barrier toward integration. So J. Lindsay Almond, in my mind, was a brave person. I've always appreciated him for that decision.

Kennelly: Were you conscious here of people's response to this resistance?

Finney: Well, on the university campus those were off campus. The high school segregation and integration activities were off campus. And I didn't sense on campus that there was much involvement or debate or concern about that aspect of it.

Kennelly: It wasn't discussed?

Finney: Not that I'm aware of. Certainly not on campus. Not by the faculty or the staff. I guess you would appreciate that perhaps for an engineering graduate that probably would be nothing to be discussed. If I were a sociology major or a political science major, there probably would have been great debate about that, but not in our classes.

Kennelly: Back to the time of being a student, I understood that you were assigned to the room of two other students to prepare for drill and other Corps functions.

Finney: You know, I don't remember that. That's something I don't remember. It was in the article, and it's probably true, but I don't remember being assigned to a room. I know that occasionally I would go and visit a room and do certain things, but I wasn't aware that I was assigned in that light. But, that may be true.

Kennelly: So it wasn't like you went to prepare for special dress events or something like that?

Finney: No, because most of the time as a member of the Corps of Cadets, you were always in uniform. Now there may have been certain activities when I had to change uniforms or have certain paraphernalia that I would leave in someone's room, but I don't remember that part of it.

Kennelly: Well, did you feel comfortable with the other cadets? I guess the Corps--at that time, everyone was part of the Corps.

Finney: No, not everyone. No, there was still a civilian component to the student body, from 1956-59. So there were civilians as well as members of the cadet Corps. So not everyone.

Kennelly: So you had decided to join the Corps?

Finney: I had decided to join the Corps, because one of the options I wanted to have when I graduated was to be an officer in the military. So by staying in the Corps, I could get a lieutenant's commission, and if I decided to go, I could pursue a military career as opposed to working for Ford Motor Company, or International Harvestor, or John Deere. So that was an option that I wanted to have available when I finished my college degree.

Kennelly: I want you to comment on your experience in the Corps of Cadets.

Finney: It was a very good experience. I had very good working relationships with the members of the Corps, even when I came the first year. You know your first year you are considered to be a "rat" and you had to wear a white belt or something like that. I didn't have any problems my first year with harassment or hazing. Everything went real well with me. I had very good experiences with the Corps. I enjoyed it. It offered some discipline to my work habits and my activities. We took some trips and did some parades and I enjoyed it. It was good. I only rose to the rank of sergeant. I didn't become a lieutenant or a captain or a commander in the cadet Corps. But that was not one of my goals when I was at VPI. My goal was to get my degree and participate in the Corps, but not necessarily become a Corps commander or company commander or whatever.

Kennelly: But you were an officer.

Finney: I was a sergeant.

Kennelly: So you went on a trip with the Corps at one point?

Finney: Well of course, each year there was a game in Richmond. I don't remember the name of it, but the cadet Corps would assemble, and there would be a parade there in one of the main streets in Richmond and go to the game and have a good time.

Kennelly: So did you feel apart of the group? Did you feel that you were just as much in the group as everyone else did?

Finney: Yes, for those activities, yes I did.

Kennelly: When the Corps would be eating, would you eat with the Corps?

Finney: No, I didn't eat with the Corps. I don't remember the Corps eating while we were in Richmond. After the activities, I usually went and visited some of my relatives after the activities were finished. There were social activities somewhere else.

Kennelly: Would you go to the football games?

Finney: I think I went to the football games once or twice, but they weren't great activities for me. That wasn't one of my main social outlets.

Kennelly: Was it offensive to you when they use to bring out the Confederate flag at the football games?

Finney: It didn't make an impression on me.

Kennelly: They talked about the Highty Tighties playing "Dixie?"

Finney: No, that didn't bother me. That wasn't something I paid much attention to or made much an impression on me. It didn't bother me at all.

Kennelly: Did you have the consciousness of feeling excluded from experiences because of the color of your skin?

Finney: Well of course there were social activities on the campus that we could not participate in. I believe on one or two occasions we went to see President Newman to discuss the desire to participate. He was very gentlemanly, but he was also very firm that we could not do that. And, I guess, once he said that was not possible, we went back to 306 East Clay Street and went back to work, doing our academic studies.

Kennelly: What were the activities that you could not participate?

Finney: They had the cotillions and social dances, you know certain things that concur for the senior class and junior class. So we had gone to see Dr. Newman to indicate that we thought it would be appropriate for us to participate in those activities, and he made it clear that no, we could not. The board of directors or the board of trustees' policy was that we could not do that. So I assumed that if we flaunted those policies we might be expelled, and it was not worth being expelled from the university.

Kennelly: What did you do for a social life?

Finney: Here?

Kennelly: Yes.

Finney: Well, let's see, we went to Christiansburg. There was a school over there, so there were some activities over there that we participated in. And we just did things around the local black community to further our social activities.

Kennelly: So there were some people that you might date or whatever?

Finney: That's correct.

Kennelly: It was pretty much the black community and altogether with the black community?

Finney: That's right altogether with the black community.

Kennelly: Were there local churches?

Finney: Of course, there were churches. In fact, there was a church right next door to Mrs. Hoge's house where we participated in church activities.

Kennelly: Actually, you are listed in the Bugle as a distinguished military student, in the Bugle of that year.

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: So you must have done very well in your military community to have that "distinguished" adjective.

Finney: "Distinguished." Distinguished military student or distinguished military graduate. What the criteria is, I'm not aware, but obviously there was some criteria that the ROTC department had in terms of your grade level, in terms of your participation, and activities outside of the Corps. I guess there is also a summer camp that you go to at the end of your junior year. I went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and you get graded there on your activities, how you participate, your scores, your test results, and your athletic activity. So based upon my academic standing, my participation, and events outside of the Corps, whatever criteria they had, they decided to award me the distinguished military student and the distinguished military graduate award.

Kennelly: When I looked at the pictures-- I should have brought the yearbook--Company G, I think you were in?

Finney: Company G, that sounds right.

Kennelly: That's where your name was listed. You're not in the picture as far as I can tell.

Finney: Oh, well I might not have been there the time they took that picture.

Kennelly: Do you think that was accidental?

Finney: I think so. Yes, I know there were some other pictures where they had the leadership of the Corps of the company. I think I was in that picture, but there were a couple of pictures that I was in associated with G. One of them I think I'm in civilian clothing. Is that correct?

Kennelly: Sort of dressed up. It looks like you could have been going to a dance or something, but I guess not.

Finney: I wouldn't think that that was intentional. It may have been some conflict that day, but I wouldn't think so. I wouldn't think that was intentional.

Kennelly: I guess I wondered if living off campus, if that would make a difference just as far as the participation?

Finney: Oh yes, it would make a difference in terms of participation. There's no doubt about that. In my mind, the things I didn't participate in weren't that important to me. So I didn't make a big issue of it.

Kennelly: When you returned from being a rat, was there a lot of hazing going on? Did you participate in the hazing of the rats of the next group?

Finney: Modestly, modestly. Not to a great degree, because I was not impressed with hazing of freshman students coming in, so I did not do a lot of that. I might have spoken up or gotten in someone's face, but beyond that I would not have given them a hard time.

Kennelly: You mean, as a sergeant, sometimes you didn't have to do that?

Finney: Yes, sergeants can be very difficult. Had I lived on campus now it might have been a different situation because I would have been in contact with the freshmen more frequently. In the evening and at dinner time you might have given them a hard time, but living off campus it didn't make sense to come back to haze a student.

Kennelly: You probably would have been removed?

Finney: That's correct, yes.

Kennelly: Did you feel like your authority was accepted?

Finney: Yes, I didn't have any concerns about my authority being honored and accepted.

Kennelly: It was like everybody was just into the military.

Finney: That's correct, yes.

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