LC in History: Celebrating Black History

Dr. Clifton W. Potter, LC History Professor~

In 1921, Irving Berlin, one of America’s most popular composers, had a string of hits including “Say It With Music,” and that is exactly what the Lynchburg College Wind Symphony and Orchestra with the Community Big Band did last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. It was the latest installment in the annual series, “A Night at the Movies.”  It is one of the few bright spots in the gloomy winter days that form the first half of the second semester, and “To Tame the Perilous Skies: Aviation in Film” did not disappoint. Sydnor Performance Hall was decorated with posters and memorabilia from World Wars I and II, and a number of the participants were in uniform. As the program progressed from one of my favorite pieces of cinematic nonsense, “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” to the moving “Tuskegee Airmen Suite” I realized that in a very special way our music department was bringing to a close the annual commemoration of Black History Month.

As we headed home after the concert, my wife and I discussed how in the days before integration LC reached out to the larger black community through the arts. Over the years African American scholars and writers – George Washington Carver and Langston Hughes to name but two – appeared on the stage in Hopwood Hall.  These lectures and readings were viewed by some in the local community as subversive – examples of the race mixing in which that radical college on the edge of the city dabbled on a regular basis.  The African American scholars, performers and writers who shared their talents with our college family had no hotel where they might stay.  Anne Spencer, one of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance opened her home to these guests, and in so doing created a salon in the style of those that changed the history of 18th century France.  Recently, Anne Spencer’s home became part of LC, recognizing the vital role she played in shaping the institution we know today.

Beginning in 1946, LC participated in a study on race relations sponsored by Wayne University.  On Feb. 26, 1948 as part of this endeavor, the LC student body played host to six black students from the State College in Petersburg.  After dinner, LC students traditionally relaxed by dancing to the music of the Westover Hall jukebox; one of our students asked a young woman from State College to dance, and she accepted.  A student who was known as a troublemaker reported every detail of the integrated meeting on our campus to the local media – especially the dance. The result was a veritable firestorm in the newspapers. Suddenly the financial stability, which Dr. Montgomery had worked so long to achieve, seemed threatened.  In a series of tense meetings with the Board of Trustees and other constituent groups associated with the college, Dr. Montgomery defended the students and their quest for social justice, and he refused to compromise his own beliefs.  Although he did not announce his resignation as president until March of 1949, the days of his administration were numbered after that February incident.  Seventy years have passed since that fateful evening, and the world in which we live has changed, yet much still needs to be done.