Trailblazing Brothers: Ralph and Earl Ashton
Ralph Ashton and Earl Ashton were brothers from King George County, Virginia. Ralph, the older brother, was born in 1928. Earl, the younger brother, was born in 1932. Ralph attended Edgehill Training School. The name later changed to King George Training School where Earl attended until Ralph Bunche High School was built in 1949. You can read and listen to their stories in the interview below.
Sadly, Earl, one of our RBAA Founders, passed away on March 3, 2022. We will forever miss him and his kind and gentle ways.
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Listen to the Interview
Ralph and Earl Ashton were interviewed on February 7, 2015 by Margaret Lovitt, a student at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The interview was conducted as part of the Road to School Desegregation in King George County, Virginia project.
If you would like to read along as you listen, the full transcript of Ralph’s and Earl’s interview is included below.
Interviewed by: Margaret Lovitt
Interview Date: February 7, 2015
Margaret Lovitt: Today is February 7th 2015. I’m Margaret Lovitt and I’m interviewing Ralph Ashton and Earl Ashton. We are conducting this interview in the L.E. Smoot Memorial Library in King George County. The title of the project is “The Road to Desegregation in King George, Virginia.” The interviewees have just completed their oral release forms and now we will begin the interview. Can you both state for the recording your names and your relationship to each other so we just have an idea?
Ralph Ashton: My name is Ralph A. Ashton.
Earl Ashton: And my name is Earl L. Ashton. We’re brothers.
ML: And can you say what years you were born in?
RA: And I’m Ralph and I was born August the 20th 1928.
EA: And I’m Earl and I was born February the 19th 1932.
ML: Would you like to talk about where your family was from?
EA: Well, we were from King George County, Virginia. It was ten of us in our family. And we started out going to King George Training School, which later on became Ralph Bunche High School.
RA: And like my brother said, we were all born in King George. Right on Route 3. There was ten of us in our family. My mother was a homemaker, a housewife and my father a sharecropper, laborer, and a part time worker in the District. And he used to do farming in the summer and in the winter, he used to go to D.C. and work in a hotel to get some money to support the family.
EA: And life was, I guess you might say typical in the country. We played ball, stick ball, and different things. We had white friends and black friends. When I was three, four, five, or six I had no problems with black [and] white, because I didn’t know what was what. I didn’t know the difference between the two races. But when I got to be about eight or nine the same little kids that I used to play
with they saw the change. I went by a school which wasn’t too far from what was it called? What was it, Shiloh School?
RA: Shiloh School.
EA: Shiloh School. And these same kids I used to play with, now they were nine and I was nine or ten and they called me “nigger”. That was the first time that I really realized that there was a difference in our races. I really couldn’t understand it at that particular time and I imagine that somewhere they got it from their parents and since they were with the rest of the kids at the school which was all white. As I went by it, you know, they called me “nigger”. That’s when I realized there was a difference in races. It just stuck with me. It never really left me. It just stuck with me. That’s why I was talking to my grandson the other day. He went to see the picture Selma and he was asking me about it and I was telling him, well now you guys go to school with each other [and] you play with each other. And you guys never went through what I went through. If you’re not taught that, you don’t know the difference. You were taught that when you were around my age. After you got to be a certain age you were taught that you do not associate with this individual because he’s not as smart as you are, you’re smarter than he is. You’re just not to associate with him. I say that if you’re not told, you don’t know the difference, but when you’re told the difference then that’s when it becomes a widespread difference in your race and that race.
RA: When I came along, I was a little older than my brother Earl. I never really had any of those problems that he had, because it was a little bit later, two or three years later, in life. When I came along, we had to go to a farm and we worked on a farm. We used to plant corn and my father raised tomatoes and cucumbers and we used to sell those at the factory. We used to all work in the summer, picking cucumbers and picking tomatoes, and feeding the chickens and slopping the hogs and all of that. I didn’t have any small pets, but I did have one pet that was a pigeon. I had gotten this pigeon from down at the farm we worked to raise corn and I kept it. He was a little thing when I first got him. And I brought him home and put him in with the chickens. He used to stay with the chickens all the time. That was my pet. That was the only pet I had. Until later years when I got into high school and it was a little different. I don’t know if you had any pets. [All laugh]
EA: No. I really didn’t have any pets. When we went to school, I played baseball in high school. That was something I really did like. I didn’t think that I really learned as much in school as I should have learned. I used to love math, but our teachers were not in a position to be able to teach math like
I would have liked to have learned it. So, I did not learn math like I would have liked to have learned it. Because later on in life, as I got out of service, I went to school again to get more of an education as people were using it out in the world today. A lot of things when I was going to school we didn’t have. You had it at the white school but you didn’t have it at the black school. This is one of the reasons we went to Richmond to make it so that we could have the same classes at the black school as we had in the white school. There was a different thing. They taught white kids how to do a lot of different things that black kids just didn’t learn. I guess most people just thought we’d always be farmers. Which I had decided as I was growing up that farming was not going to be one of my activities as I went through life. [All laugh]
RA: I was a little bit different. I didn’t like farming when I was growing up. But as I got older, I liked to have a garden and do a lot of yard work. Where we lived was about a half a mile from our nearest neighbor. Maybe not that far, but almost a half a mile. Now across the road from where we lived, we had white neighbors. Down the road about a half a mile we had some black neighbors. Those were the only people that we knew that were kind of close by. But the only people we had to play with were brothers and sisters. That’s the only people we really had. I knew that we were segregated, but I knew I didn’t have any interactions with anybody that was white in the community because we were about a half a mile from the white school and all whites went there and we were about six to seven miles from the black school where all the blacks went. We caught a bus going to school. The bus that we used, was the bus that was a hand-me-down from the white schools. It was all beat up, but we were able to ride that bus to school. We did that the whole time that I was going to school.
ML: How old were you when you guys went down to Richmond to do the lawsuit?
EA: I guess when I went to Richmond, I must have been about fifteen years of age. Because it was a thing that we always had to usewhatever white people had. It was always a hand-me-down.That’s what I did not like about it. Whites used it first and then the blacks got it. I could not understand how they would give us something and we were supposed to accept it and like it. It’s like, my father was a sharecropper as my brother said and he worked for this white guy. My father used to call him Mr. Payne, which he was much younger than my father, as my father would call him Mr. Payne, his son, who was my age, used to call my father Willie. I could never understand why dad would call Mr. Payne and he was calling my father Willie. I said then that if I ever grow up and get grown, you know if they call me Earl, I’ll call them Earl and if they call me Mister, I’ll call them Mister. For
some odd reason that stuck with me even as I got grown and went on to work. That particular thing stuck with me. You call me Earl then I’ll call you whatever your name is. I never could understand why that was, but now I do understand. It was a superiority type thing. I could call you by your name and that means I’m superior to you, but you have to call me Mister. It’s just like during that time black people were not called Mister and Misses; they were always Aunt or Uncle. If you were a certain age, you were Aunt So-and-So and Uncle So. In other words, that superiority thing was always there. Wherein now, it’s completely different. Young people now they don’t even think about it. It was instilled in people back then. That’s what you did.
ML: Do you mind talking about when you went down to Richmond and that experience being in the court when that was happening?
EA: Well, when I went down to Richmond and I was talking about, we were on the stand and we had to tell the judges exactly what we did in high school. And what they did in the white high schools and what we did in the black high schools and the Negro high schools. We had to tell them exactly what we did and what they did. And the difference between them and the difference between us. Us using hand-me-down books and them using new books. Every time they used a new book then they handed it over to us. Now would you always have to hand me something that you’ve already used? I looked at it still as a superiority thing. As long as they as they believed we’re superior to you we can make it in this world. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be equal in this world. As I grew up, I wanted to be sure that my kids went to school. Which I have five kids and one passed on. My oldest daughter passed, she had breast cancer. But as we went on and they went on to school I wanted to be sure they could all go to college if they wanted to go. I did not want them to just spend my money, but if they wanted to go to college, I wanted them to go to college because I wanted them to be able to do whatever they wanted to do. I was not able to do what I wanted to do in life, but I was able to get a pretty good job. I drove a [school] bus for a while and then I went on to be supervisor at the job where I was working. I had a much better opportunity to engage in these, type of jobs than my mother or my father. They never had that opportunity. Which was just bad; it was so bad.
ML: So, your parents were never able to have any education?
EA: Our dad only went to what third grade?
EA: Third or fourth.
RA: I think mom went to about the fourth or fifth.
EA: They taught themselves to read and themselves to write you know. In fact, my brother and I were talking about it on the way down here that white people figured that as long as they could keep us from getting an education, they could keep us down. This is what I learned a long time ago: if you get an education, you can move forward. If you don’t get an education, where can you go? That’s the difference and now most blacks have learned that. That’s why you see in World War II where they said that every individual that went into service could get an education. That’s when most blacks began to come out of service and went on to college. That’s when we really began to make it. The main thing that stopped us was when Truman made the Armed Forces integrated. In 1949, President Truman integrated the services. That’s what really stopped it because whites found out that blacks where just as smart as they were if given an opportunity. But if you’re not given an opportunity you don’t know.
RA: I started school when I was about six. Matter of fact, I was six. I started at King George Training School. It was still King George Training School when I graduated in 1945. Of course, the Ralph Bunche School didn’t start until I think 1949.
ML: I think so.
RA: It was ’45. It still was not an accredited high school at the time. It only went to the eleventh grade. At the eleventh grade that’s when we graduated. We were not taught a lot of the things that other kids were taught. For an example, we only had, when I was in high school, one typewriter and that was the typewriter in the principal’s office. I never knew what a typewriter was hardly. So, we weren’t taught typing. Our classes were so small that we had classes with either the class ahead of us depending upon what class it was or the class that was behind us. When I graduated it was only three of us in our class. Now ours was, I believe, the smallest class that ever graduated from the old King George Training School. Because when I first came into high school there was about fifteen of us, but they gradually left before we got to the graduation time. They all stopped and went on to work. But of course, in our family, we had to go to school. [All laugh] There was no such thing as not going to school. It was not difficult to get to school because we all caught the bus going to school and to come back. Normally in high school we had one teacher who taught English and she taught math. We didn’t have what was an English teacher, like they do now, and a math teacher, or an algebra
teacher. That one teacher taught everything. It was that way when I was in elementary school. One teacher. We went to one class and that was the class you we in all day.
ML: That’s completely different from what the white school was like. Do you remember what the educational facility was like and how the school looked inside? What the layout was?
RA: I can remember that we had two or more classes in one room. Like in high school we had the eighth and ninth grade on one side of the room and tenth and eleventh grade was on the other side of the room. One big room. The whole high school was in this one room and they were taught by different teachers.
ML: So, was it all going on at the same time in the room?
RA: All going on at the same time.
ML: Was it hard to keep up?
RA: It was a large room. But like one teacher teaching math over here and the one would be teaching the higher Algebra over here and one would be teaching history in the back. But it was only four or five of us in the class so it wasn’t that many in a class. Like my class was only three, but the class behind me was like ten, in that class. That’s the way we went through. We changed when we were in high school. We had agricultural classes. They called it FFA. Future Farmers of America I believe they used to call it. And in that class, we had one teacher. And we were taught how to raise crops, animals, and all these things. And everyone had to have a project. Now my project when I was in high school in agricultural class, I got a pig. I got a pig from a neighbor down the road. And I raised that pig, you know, from a little piglet right on up to he was a big old pig. They had little pigs and I was able to sell the little piglets to someone else. That was the way I guess I was being taught to be an entrepreneur. You raise something and you sell it.
ML: Very cool.
RA: Now when he [brother Earl] came along it was a little different.
EA: Things changed a little when I came along at Ralph Bunche. I think it was twelve students… fifteen when I graduated. My principal would not let us graduate. He would not let us walk down the aisle because he decided that he wanted us to go to an Army base to see what was going on at the Army before we graduate and I didn’t want to go. [All laugh] So I encouraged the rest of the guys not to go. By me encouraging them not to go and they didn’t go he would not let us march down the aisle to graduate.
ML: Was the classroom a similar layout as it was at that time? Like everyone having class at the same time?
EA: Yes, it was. But we started to have like math in one group and history in another. What they didn’t have when Ralph came along. So, it was a little different. Big different from now. Now the kids can really get an education and they can learn. Big difference. Things really have changed. For the better.
ML: And when the school changed names was there like a celebration to change? Like a renaming?
EA: It was a big thing because Ralph Bunche was the first African-American to go to the UN. That was a big celebration, because of that, but other than that you know to have an African-American or Negro to have such a position, which we had never had before. That was a big thing.
ML: Do you ever remember having any sort of like dances or parties at the school?
EA: Yes, we had a prom in the auditorium at Ralph Bunche High School.
RA: We had a prom at the King George Training School; it was just a classroom that they turned into an auditorium by moving all the chairs. [All laugh]
ML: Now, here’s another really good question, did you participate in the Civil Rights Movement?
RA: No, I didn’t. I didn’t participate in it because I’d already left school. I had finished school.
EA: I did participate in the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King. I was in that march with Martin Luther King and I walked down in it to where he gave that speech “I have a dream.” And that was quite a day. We still were supposed to be working that day, because I was working in that Civil Service Commission. I had gotten a job there as a messenger. So, that particular day I took off from work and marched down to that march. It was a great march. It was a big march. Black and white, yellow and all types of people participated. You see, until they had that Selma march and it went on TV most people did not know that blacks were treated in such a way until we had that Selma march and people got beat. And it was on TV. People getting hit on the head and beat on the head and water hoses being used. My brother was in the service then so he didn’t participate, but I did, I was in that march that we had here in 1964. That was a really great thing to see; everybody marching together to bring equality to things that we did not have. It was a great thing.
RA: Now when I came out of high school I worked for a time in Washington D.C. and then I found that I was just an eleventh-grade graduate in a country education. I wasn’t really qualified to pass any of the tests to get into the government so I went into the Army. I stayed in the Army twenty years. I got in there and found out that it was a good job, I liked it, and I just stayed there until I retired. That’s why I never was participating in any of the Civil Rights Movement because all that time I was in the service.
ML: Thank you for the service.
RA: Well, there was four of us in at the same time, because of different age groups. There was four of us the Army and Air Force at the same time.
ML: Were you Army or Air Force?
EA: I wasAir Force.
ML: My father was retired Air Force.
RA: Who was?
ML: My father was retired Air Force
RA: When was he in ‘50, ‘52, ‘53?
ML: Sixties. Sixty something.
RA: Oh, he went in later. People learned a lot in the service. That’s where blacks and whites really learned how to get along together, was in the service. They were not together at first and people thought whites were smarter than blacks. And once they got into service, they found there was no difference. Everybody could do the same job. That’s really what started to change with people getting in service and finding out that there was no difference in black and white. I think that’s what was achieved when President Truman said I’m going to integrate the Armed Services. I think that’s what was achieved in the military and some things changed but there was no integration of schools.
ML: Do you remember your favorite teacher or what they taught? What your favorite subject was?
RA: Well, I guess my favorite teacher, one that I didn’t get along with too well, was Mr. Saunders. He was our agriculture teacher. I can remember he was the kind of guy everybody looked up to, but he was also the guy that made me walk home a couple times for doing something in class that I shouldn’t have been doing. So, he’s the guy that stands out that I can remember. [All laugh] I was about five miles from home. He kept me and a buddy of mine after school intentionally so we’d miss the bus so we had to walk home. After a couple of times of doing that, I didn’t act up in class anymore. So that’s why I remember him as a favorite teacher. Now I didn’t play in any sports largely, I played some sports, but a little of everything. I ran track, played a little baseball, and a little volleyball. But we didn’t have a lot of sports at that time. We just did a little playing at recess time. That’s my only time. We didn’t have any hour or two of sports. We just had recess and that’s when we did all our energy.
ML: So, there wasn’t like a sports team that played against any schools or no?
RA: Only on May Day. We had what was called a May Day every May and we would have competition from other schools and within the school. That was the day everybody ran track and played ball and did all those all sports. That was May Day.
ML: So that would be against another school in the county?
RA: Well at first there was a couple of other [elementary] schools. There was no high school. There were some elementary schools that came there and we would play sports.
ML: Was it similar for you?
EA: Now when I came through, we started having sports in different other schools in the county. No white schools, they were all black schools we played against from Oak Grove, Colonial Beach and Stafford which was very good. We played baseball. I had another brother who played basketball as he came through. But baseball was the only one we had when I came through.
ML: Do you have any other memories from this time period that you’d like to share for the interview?
EA: No. I think that’s about it. My brother and I probably covered most things that we had at that time in King George County. I see that things have really changed. Once I left here, I went in the service. Because the Army was drafting everybody who came out of school in the fifties and I didn’t want to go into the Army, I volunteered for the Air Force. [All laugh] Then once I got out, I didn’t come back to King George I went on to Washington, D.C. which I’m glad I did.
ML: So, you no longer live in this area?
EA: No, I no longer live here. When I got out of the service, I was twenty years old, and I moved on to Washington D.C. I know none of the younger people who came after me. Unlike my brother [Ralph] who came back, he knows a lot of people here. I know hardly anybody around my age because most of the younger ones were not here.
ML: And do you remember the atmosphere during those first court cases against the county?
EA: Nothing more than what I reported on with my trip to Richmond. See I didn’t come back because I got out of school in 1950 and I went into service. I got out in June and went into service in September. I know nothing, hardly, after that. But I enjoyed it. I’m glad that it’s changed.
RA: I don’t, but I’ve been back coming to King George periodically since I retired. Since I’m still involved with the Ralph Bunche Alumni Association. And so, I never did break away from the county like my brother did. I used to come back and raise a garden and do all those sorts of things I did before up until lately. I was in the county enough to know most of the people that are still here and a lot of the people who grew up here because I came back and forth since I retired from the Army. I’ve been coming back quite a bit.
ML: Do you remember when stuff was put in the newspaper? I know it was a rather publicized event when it started getting integrated. Do you ever remember seeing the newspapers or anything? We’ve read some stuff about the first case and the second case, the court cases. There were some newspaper articles published about it when it was happening.
RA: No. Now he [brother Earl] would probably remember something about that, because I wasn’t involved. You see, in 1946, when most of the court cases started about the Ralph Bunche School, you see I had already left, I was already in the Army. [All laugh]
ML: Is there anything else at all? Few more minutes.
EA: I think that’s probably about it. Except our parents had a really hard time in King George County and not really getting an education in the way they would have liked to have. So, our parents insisted that we go to school. Because they seemed to, even back then, realize that without an education, you can’t get far at all. And then I really learned that because I went on to work in the government and I found out that when I started in the government that there were no black people in the government that had a job, or what I call a job. When I started in the government, the highest black person in the government was a GS-7 and there was only one of them. And other people had college education, but they were 3s and 4s. All the 14, 15s, were white. And that was something I couldn’t understand. That was the way it was when I came out. It was still very segregated. Whites had all your top jobs. [Laughter] But then I could sort of understand it to a degree because we were not able to get the education that we should have had. That was one the parts. I can understand why people would say the key to success is in education. Educate. If you can get an education, you can be a lawyer, you can be a doctor, you can be whatever. If you’re kept from reading you can’t be anything. That was the key. Don’t let black people read.
RA: I was telling him on the way down that if the school had taught me all the things I should have known when I first left here, I would have gotten a job in the government and I probably never would have gone into the Army. But you see, I didn’t pass the test for the government when I came out of school. As I mentioned, they didn’t have typewriters for students when I went to school. The one and only typewriter was in the Principal’s office.
EA: That’s about it. Ralph?
RA: Nothing else.
ML: Alright. Thank you both so much for doing this. It’s been a pleasure to sit here and talk with you and listen.
RA: I hope you can use it for something.
ML: I’m sure.If not, you know quoting anything, but maybe learning about it, what the school looked like, your experiences there, what the atmosphere was like here in King George. It’s definitely very helpful. Thank you both so much.
RA: You’re welcome.
EA: You’re welcome.
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