A True Ralph Bunche Trailblazer
Sherman Parker was the first of two Black students to enroll at King George High in 1962. It was a very, very intense first year. As a 12-year-old freshman, he found himself amidst isolation, teachers who said that he couldn’t learn and shouldn’t be there and lots of name calling from students who also said he shouldn’t be there, as well. He was genuinely surprised and unaccustomed to the amount of racism and sincere ignorance about race that went on there.
Going from an honor roll student at Ralph Bunche and being relegated to a C student—knowing that some wanted him not to achieve and to quit—motivated him to persevere day after day for the next four years. Sherman said that it never crossed his mind to give up…he just knew he had to survive it. With college on his mind, Sherman claimed that his daily two primary goals were to survive and make sure that he didn’t fail his classes.
Listen below to Sherman’s courageous walk of survival and how it helped him to succeed in life.
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Listen to the Interview
Sherman Parker was interviewed on March 6, 2015 by Dr. Cristina Turdean, a profressor 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 Sherman Parker’s interview is included below.
Interviewed by: Dr. Cristina Turdean
Interview Date: March 6, 2015
Cristina Turdean: Today is March 6, 2015. My name is Cristina Turdean. I am interviewing Mr. Sherman Parker on the subject of school desegregation in King George County, Virginia. The interview is taking place over the phone and Mr. Parker has agreed to have this interview recorded. He will sign an oral release form and send it to me after this interview. Mr. Parker, thank you for doing this interview. Let’s start with a question on when and where you were born.
Sherman Parker: What was the question again? I’m sorry.
CT: When and where you were born?
SP: Fredericksburg, Virginia.
CT: What date?
SP: September 25, 1949.
CT: What can you tell us about your family – your siblings, your parents? Were they locals from King George?
SP: Yes, my parents were from King George. My mother was from Westmoreland County, Virginia. My dad was a laborer and worked on the Naval Base as a blue-collar worker. My mother worked as a domestic. I had one brother.
CT: What about your grandparents?
SP: My paternal grandparents lived in King George, right next to us. My paternal grandfather worked on the Naval Base and my paternal grandmother was a domestic. My maternal grandparents lived in Westmoreland County. My maternal grandfather was also a blue-collar laborer on the Naval Base and my maternal grandmother was a domestic.
CT: You didn’t live together. You were on neighboring farms.
SP: We were living next door to my paternal grandparents and my maternal [ones] were about 12 miles away.
CT: Was the influence of your grandparents on you significant?
SP: Yes, their influence was significant. My paternal grandfather didn’t drive, so he didn’t really come into the 21st century. I learned a lot about his work ethic and just about doing things with your hands and working outside. I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandfather fishing and just [spending] a lot of summers with him. So, I received a lot of love from them.
CT: A lot of love. This is a good segue into my next question. Would you tell us a little bit about your neighborhood when you were growing up?
SP: There were a few African-Americans about a half mile from where we lived. It was mostly farmland so I didn’t live in like a neighborhood. I lived on a plot of land.
CT: I see. And how large was this black community around you? How many families?
SP: Maybe 10 families in that area, probably 2-3 acres of land.
CT: Did they have children? Did you have friends when you were growing up?
SP: Most of them had children, yes.
CT: [Children were] your age?
SP: Yes, kids my age that lived right in that area. But you didn’t get to see them a lot because it was too far.
CT: When you think about the economic standing of your family and these groups of families living nearby, what was it?
SP: I guess that at [that] time, economically, they were blue-collar workers, which was probably more the end of the spectrum of people living in that area, compared to the majority in that area. But the positive thing about our families is they never let us know that things were as hard as they were or racism was as rampant as it was. They kind of shielded us from most of that. By working extra jobs, by making sure they directed our activities away from things that would be rampant racist.
CT: Do you have the sense that the Black community in King George had some leaders? Were there people who were more respected than others?
SP: I think they had a class of leaders. I don’t know who they were but I think there was a class of leaders there. I’m sure it was. I didn’t know much about it other than going to church and school. I didn’t know much about people.
CT: Did you as children have an interest in the outside world? Were you curious about what was going on?
SP: I was curious. I was a very curious child. Because where I grew up was kind of on farmland with nothing much else around, I read a lot. I read encyclopedias page to page. I read anything I could find, so I had a real curiosity about the world beyond where we lived.
CT: How would you get those books?
SP: Well, they bought encyclopedias. My parents had encyclopedias and my aunt was an educator and she gave us a lot of books.
CT: Tell me about your aunt. Did she live in King George?
SP: She used to teach at Ralph Bunche, then she moved to Fredericksburg and taught at Walker Grant and she ended up being a professor and head of department at Norfolk State.
CT: Dr. Wright, by any chance?
SP: Yes, Dr. Wright, she gave us lots of books. My mother also bought books, encyclopedias and she brought books home from places where she worked.
CT: From what you’re telling me, education, formal or informal, was very important to your family.
SP: Education waseverything in my family.
SP: Everything. They stressed education, they stressed going to school, and they stressed doing your best. Education was one of the most important. Education, religion and work ethic were the three most important things in our house.
CT: Did your parents talk about how they would have liked to pursue further education for themselves but they couldn’t. Did they ever share that with you?
SP: They talked a little bit about how they didn’t have the opportunity to go to the right school. They had to start working to help out their families. They were not able to go on to extra college because they were working to take care of them. My father was the oldest in his family and my mother was the oldest child in her family of eight children. My father was the oldest of five children so they had to start working early to help out their families.
CT: Do you think that education wasjust as important to other children your age at that time or you were rather an exception?
SP: I don’t know. At Ralph Bunche there were good students. I really didn’t know much about what was going on in those families.
CT: Do you know anything about the context that led to the opening of Ralph Bunche?
SP: No, I really don’t know anything about Ralph Bunche. All I remember about Ralph Bunche was that it was built in 1949 and that was the year I was born.
CT: I see. Did you parents and grandparents tell you about their education? What schools they went to?
SP: No, my dad didn’t talk about a lot. I’m learning more about what he went through from what he’s talking to you than I did any other time.
CT: Yes, I think you should read his interview.He has lots of great memories and he talked about you a lot. I would be happy to share it with you. So what year did you enrolled at Ralph Bunche?
CT: Can you tell me a little bit about the time you spent there,what did you study and so on?
SP: Well, it was an elementary school,so I studiedbasic elementary courses, reading, English, math and basically that type of thing. I went there from first through the seventh grade. It was a social time because there were, obviously, other people there and we were all in class together. The teachers were good, the teachers cared and there was really a sense of morality, obedience and those types of things. It was a good nurturing environment.
CT: Did you have a favorite teacher?
SP: Yeah, I hadtwo or three. My favorite teacher was Ms. Doretha Johnson.
CT: And what was special about her?
SP: She was my first grade teacher, she was very encouraging.
CT: What about the school facilities?Did you have your own classroom or did you shareit with other students?
SP: We had our own classrooms, individual classrooms.
CT: And how large were the classes? How many students?
SP: They were probably 30, 35-40 students per class.
CT: And the school culture? Your friends at the school would you hang out with them after class?
SP: No. We had class, recess, then get on the bus and go home.You’d see them at church and things like that.
CT: Do you still have friends from that time?
SP: Yes, a lot of them.
CT: Moving on to the time you transferred to King George High, do you remember what determined your transfer?
SP: No, I think probably my dad had more to do with that than I did. I didn’t know a thing.
CT: Are you familiar with Matthew Bumbrey?
SP: No. I mean I know him but I’m not familiarwith what they were doing. I just know that my dad said that I would be attending that school so I knew I would be going.
CT: You remember him asking whether you wanted to do that or he just told you.
SP: He told me and I didn’t have another choice. You know, with education being so important at that time, we didn’t question when our parents suggested something to improve our education. Our home was not run like that. There was no opportunity to have a debate on the subject.
CT: That was the decision and you had to obey to it.
SP: Yes. I mean they told you about it, but you didn’t do that, that’s what they wanted you to do so you tried. As a 12 year old, I’m going to do what they told me.
CT: Did you know that he tried to enroll your brother as well at the same time but the school only accepted you?
SP: Yes, he told me that but I didn’t know anything about it at all.
CT: Were you aware of what you were getting yourself into?
SP: No. My parents had shielded us from racism.
CT: So it took you by surprise?
SP: I was very surprised at the amount of racism and sincere ignorance about race that went on.
CT: But at the same time there were two black students enrolled at King George High. You were one of them. Did you know the other one?
SP: Yes, I knew Margaret Belton. We went to church together but we didn’t talk too much as we were not in classes together.
CT: What kept you going during those years? Did it ever cross you mind that you could give up on it if you wanted to and return to Ralph Bunche?
SP: It never crossed my mind to give up. I just knew I had to survive it. I knew they wanted me to quit. I knew they wanted me not to achieve so that rolled me every day to get up and go; do it one more day. I didn’t understand what I was doing for race I was just trying to survive for myself.
CT: This is a very touching story to me and I’ll be very honest [saying that] while doing this exhibition I realized how difficult it was for the first generation of people to go through this and they would have to accept sacrificing themselves in many ways and lots of people stepped back. There were very few, like you, to have this determination and this courage and perseverance. That makes you very unique in this story and I’m not sure if you’re aware of it.
SP: No. I didn’t think until later [about] what I was doing or that I was changing the world for other students or changing the world for anybody. Every day my two primary goals were to survive and make sure that I didn’t fail my classes.
CT: Mr. Parker, I would like to read just a few lines from your father’s interview transcript that refer to you. “Sherman never told us anything but bits and parts. He was just laid back, but we worried. I was working at Dahlgren at that time. And I had two phone calls. One would be, I had no idea, but whenever it came, I said, “Lord, I wonder what happened to Sherman.” He was calling me for something, to tell me something. Every evening I would come home. First thing I would ask [was], “Sherman, what was your day like, how did you get along?” And he’d tell me some things. Some things he wouldn’t. Well, it was very brave of him to continue like that. So, that went on, and on and on and on.”
CT: Obviously, you didn’t want to worry your parents. Did you do that on purpose? You tried to keep things away from them just to not worry them.
SP: It was that I just knew that was a walk I had to make. I just kind of kept it inside and tried to figure out how to make it another day. They probably thought I was laid back but inside I was probably pretty messed up but I was just trying to keep it to myself.
CT: How did your experience shape your character in the long run, when you look back?
SP: Well, it shaped my character in many ways. It helped me succeed a lot in my career, because I knew that, at the end of the day, you have to survive on your own. I traveled a lot and I had [met] lots of people in different states. I was able to go to work, sit on planes, sit in airports and I didn’t have to talk to anyone. If anyone talked to me, it didn’t bother me. I could just sit there for hours and just be in my own state of mind or read or do something to occupy myself. I never drank or anything like that because I didn’t have a need to, so I could be in my own state and not talk to anyone for hours unless they talked to me. It gave me survival skills, I think.
CT: Going back, did you see differences from one year to another as more black students enrolled at King George High?
SP: The first year was very, very intense. There were teachers who were saying that you shouldn’t be there; there were students who said you shouldn’t be there; there were people who obviously didn’t want you there…you shouldn’t be there, you can’t learn. And there was a lot of name calling and you couldn’t go to the bathroom and you couldn’t go to the water fountain. You just survived yourself all the time and you had to be very careful about whom you make friends with because you never knew when they would try to set you up to do something so … you kind of had to be in your own state. But the second year when more black students began to come, it was a little bit less intense in that there was some camaraderie there. The teachers were still pretty intense. But about the third year, I think, things began to change a little bit so that it wasn’t as intense. But the first year was very, very intense.
CT: So you were there how many years?
SP: I stayed there four years until I graduated.
CT: Could you compare the experience in the two schools as far as the logistics – the disciplines you studied at King George High compared to [Ralph Bunche]?
SP: At King George I studied science, geography, geometry, algebra; all the college preparatory courses. One thing I want to tell you that was interesting is that I was an honor student at Ralph Bunche and when I got to King George my grades went to Cs. That was the most traumatic thing for me. I wanted to go to college and to be there and knowing that my grades were suffering, some from me being nervous, some from them not giving me any benefit of the doubt was one of my big concerns. I needed to get my grades back up because I wanted to go to college.
CT: And you did that in the following years?
SP: The following years got better but the first year I was worried about that. Would they hamper my grades so much that I would never make it to college?
CT: And in terms of the teachers you had at King George High, do you think they were better prepared than their counterparts at Ralph Bunche?
SP: No way! Ralph Bunche had better teachers.
CT: What made them better?
SP: They were better because they cared. If I asked a question I was going to get an answer. If I thought that I didn’t understand something they would trying to make sure I got it. [I’m] not saying that they didn’t care at King George, I’m just talking about my personal experience. At King George [during] my first year they didn’t care whether I got it or not. If I asked a question, they would look at me and never answer the question.
CT: Do you still recall positive experiences with teachers at King George?
SP: My time with Mr. Allison Cook at King George was positive; he was a wonderful English teacher. He took an interest in me and I really appreciated him. Then there was Buddy Updike who was the coach; a wonderful guy. So those were two people who I knew that were really, really good people.
CT: From King George High… tell me about what followed your graduation?
SP: I went to VCU. Then I left VCU and I started working at a bank. I was a branch manager. No, I went to VCU and then interned at the Defense Weapons Laboratory when they first managed and mentored.
CT: What was your major at VCU?
SP: Business Administration.
CT: What determined you to go in that direction?
SP: To be honest with you, I didn’t want to be a teacher.
CT: Can I ask you why?
SP: I didn’t want to be a teacher. At that time most African-Americans worked on the Naval Base or they worked as teachers. So, I said, I don’t want to be a teacher. I’ll just take something in business instead.
CT: Did you know that you wanted to leave King George?
SP: Oh, I didn’t want to live in King George after I graduated.
CT: You knew it right away?
SP: I knew it in my heart. I just knew there was a better world out there and things I wanted to be. I was with the US Naval Base Weapons Laboratory. They hired me as a management intern and gave me a scholarship for college. In turn I was supposed to work for them when I finished college. So when I got out, I was like, I don’t think I want to work there. I went to talk to them and I told them I would pay them back the money. They said, don’t worry about it, they were very nice about it. I took a cut in pay and position when I worked in a bank in Richmond as a Manager Trainee as well as the tasks they had me do. I worked my up to Branch Officer and Assistant Vice-President before moving to another bank as a Branch Manager and Commercial Officer. Then I was recruited by Xerox in 1977 as their Administrative Manager. I also worked my way up there and by the time I left I was Vice-President and General Manager of Public Sector Operations in the USA.
CT: A very nice career. You are very accomplished. When you left King George, can you tell me how did you adapt to leaving home and going through different kinds of experiences?
SP: Well, it wasn’t really hard for me to do that because I was really motivated by [the thought that] I didn’t want to go back to King George. So I was driven and I needed to be successful because I didn’t want to go back.
CT: So that kept you going?
SP: That was a motivating force.
CT: What was the standing of your parents as far as you leaving King George?
SP: My parents were not happy with me because they thought I’d have a job at the Naval Base Laboratory when I got out of school, at a good level and that was what they knew and they thought that maybe I was making a bad decision. But I knew that the world had changed and I knew it was 1971 and I knew that all of the affirmative action and all those programs were going into gear. I knew that I was university educated and that those doors were open for me if I would stand in front of them.
CT: What happened with your brother? Did he leave King George?
SP: Yeah, he left King George and went to VCU and then he worked for the DC Metro.
CT: When you look back at your generation do you think that most of them were like you? Going on for higher education and then finding another place to live or work.
SP: I think some of them were. I think some of them wanted that. I don’t know for sure but I do know that my timing was just right and things just happened for me. I think they had the same aspirations but that I was probably more of a risk taker by having a job and then saying I don’t want it and then changing jobs often to get to a Fortune 500 company. I was probably more of a risk taker given that I had a bird in hand but I took the risk.
CT: The first part of your life is evidence that you were a risk taker early on. You built on those skills that you just talked about so nicely. What is very impressive to me as I go through these interview transcripts is to learn that, the second generation, the children of people in your generation are extremely accomplished.
SP: Yes, my children are.
CT: Your children as well.
SP: Yes… my daughter went to Hampton University and she graduated with an MBA from the University of Maryland and she was a banker. My oldest son went to William and Mary and he got his Master’s Degree from Virginia Theological Center and he is with Xerox. My youngest son went to UNC Chapel Hill and he got his Journalism Degree from Northwestern McGill School and he’s a sports writer for The Washington Post.
CT: Congratulations. That’s really impressive and the wonder of a rural area like King George, influencing generations. I’m talking about two generations ago, the generation of your grandparents – they were farmers- your parents -blue-collar workers- and how their thirst for education has carried over from one generation to another. How did those people value education? How did they know that? What drove them?
SP: Because they were farmers, because they were denied opportunities. And they knew that the only way out was education. Education was going to get them a job. I think that they were farmers and the fact that they were denied opportunities and the fact that they came through the [Great] Depression saying that they knew there was a better way and that they wanted us to achieve and have better than they had. I think that when you look back at that generation of people, they sacrificed more than I did. Because they saw something, a way out that I didn’t see. That there was a day coming and we ought to be prepared.
CT: As the Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam, were people in King George aware of it? Did you feel that in your line of duty you could do something to help it or it was too remote an event…?
SP: I’d say they did what they could in King George to help out the Civil Rights Movement. I think that the difference in the King George area was that King George was inflated. They had the Naval Base Defense Weapons Laboratory, right? So they didn’t have rampant poverty, OK? They still had a place for people to go to work and they could make a living. If they didn’t have that government facility there, they would have had rampant poverty and that would have changed everything and the Civil Rights Movement would have been much more of a requirement than it was at that time.
CT: I see. Yes, that makes sense. I’m getting down on my list of questions. What would you like the young generation today both Black and white people to know about the time you grew up, particularly [those] in King George?
SP: I think about the time when I grew up, that there was a group of people who wanted a better life for their children. And they sacrificed their children and their relationships with their employers to make that happen. I think that a lot of the younger generation is now enjoying the day to day not based on what they did but on what my dad and those people did. It was their courage. I mean, I didn’t go there thinking I was going to fail. He knew and I didn’t know what I was going to face [yet] he sent me anyway. It took a lot of courage to send your child unknowingly into something that you know is going to be a touchy situation.
CT: Quite a story. Do you think that the youth today is oblivious of these things?
SP: I do think they’re oblivious and don’t understand what it took to get equal facilities and equal opportunities for education. I think they take school for granted.
CT: This is what this exhibition is trying to accomplish and the [Ralph Bunche] Alumni Association is trying to educate the locals about why that building is important.
SP: Absolutely… they need to understand that there were sacrifices made on all parts.
CT: Would you like to add anything to this conversation?
SP: No, I just appreciate it. I hope the Alumni Association has success with the Ralph Bunche landmark. It did teach a lot. It was what I would call an incubator from which we came and for where we are today.
CT: That’s a good term for what happened. Mr. Parker, thank you very much for this interview.
These pages are available to all to view. No password is required.
Oral History: Dr. Lillian Parker Wright
Oral History: Ralph and Earl Ashton
The Road to School Desegregation in King George County
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