Town-Gown Relations Strained?

Taken from the Harrisonburg Daily News Record.  Editorial on the April 1970 Revolts.

Harrisonburg Daily News Record 1970
This editorial shows town frustration over the radical university environment

"Little Comment on Opinion Here"  Harrisonburg DNR, 1954

Harrisonburg DNR, 1954
This article illustrates the low population of African-Americans in Harrisonburg

As mentioned in the introduction, town-gown relations between Madison College and the city of Harrisonburg were not very genial in the 70s.  In regards to the atmosphere of student protest that pervaded the entire nation, Harrisonburg citizens had a right to be nervous about the liberal student environment cultivated in their conservative city (Rainey, 1998). Madison College’s integration also threatened to overthrow the accepted social order in Harrisonburg.  African-American students enrolled in Rockingham County and Harrisonburg schools only accounted for about 2% of the total student body (Daily News Record, 1954).  When Brown v. Board declared integration imminent in 1954, the Harrisonburg Daily News Record declared that it was not concerned, because there were so few African-Americans in Harrisonburg (Daily News Record, 1954).  The active recruitment of African-Americans to campus, however, threatened to increase the population.  Nevertheless, it appears that integration in Harrisonburg was not met with defensive hostility.  Instead, Harrisonburg residents adopted a sort of passive resistance.  They were not necessarily in favor of integration, and they supported the native African-Americans many citizens had grown up with; however, they were slightly more hostile to those migrating into the community, including those enrolling at Madison College.

African-American Daphyne Thomas describes her own experiences in Harrisonburg as slightly strained.  She implies that, while there was no outright hostility, those in town were more wary about integration than Madison College was in the 1970s.  She moved to Harrisonburg in order to work at James Madison University and faced discrimination when searching for a house to live in and a church to attend, but most importantly, she points to the fact that Harrisonburg was not concerned with accommodating its African-American population.  The oldest church in Harrisonburg, the African-American Methodist Church, was torn down in order to make a parking lot, and Kline’s, a favorite hangout for students, now occupies what used to be the black section in town (Thomas, 2013). These changes could have occurred on account of the urban renewal in Harrisonburg, however, which did lead to increased racial strain.

In addition, Steve Smith, class of ’71, says that African-Americans accepted on campus were not as widely accepted as those in town, even by African-Americans native to Harrisonburg.  In one instance, he and his African-American roommate, Purcell Conway, went on a double date.  They switched dates downtown, making it appear as if they were two biracial couples.  Smith remembers receiving a lot of shocking, rude comments that night; however, when he brought it up with Conway, he was told that similar comments were often aimed at African-American students (Smith, 2013).

On the other hand, in a 1997 study, Todd Fisher interviewed two African-American residents of Harrisonburg about their experiences.  Elon Rhodes had been a Harrisonburg resident his entire life, and claims constantly throughout his interview that he experienced no sort of discrimination.  He worked on both the school board and the city council among white friends.  He acknowledges that discrimination existed, however, he never experienced any of its negative side affects, except perhaps his unequal educational opportunities.  Rhodes’ children were moved from the all-black Lucy Simms School to Harrisonburg High School when Harrisonburg schools were integrated, and he says that he does not “recall hearing them complain about it” (Rhodes, 1997).

Barbara Blakey moved to Harrisonburg at the age of 21 in order to teach at Lucy Simms School.  She would graduate with her Masters degree from Madison College in 1971 and, like Rhodes, claims that she “never had any problem even going to James Madison.”  After the integration of Harrisonburg schools, Blakey would go on to teach at Harrisonburg High School.  Her students were mainly white; however, she claims that she never saw racial differences and never experienced any problems with her peers or students.  Blakey also acknowledges that other African-Americans were likely to experience some problems, but that Harrisonburg did not follow the typical pattern of other Virginia localities (Blakey, 1997).  Harrisonburg accepted the integration of both the university and its own city.  They may have been more hostile towards migrating African-Americans, but not extensively so.

Although Harrisonburg might have been less accepting of integration than Madison College, it does not appear that relations became any more strained between the two.  The city was most likely heavily influenced by the liberal college atmosphere, the low population of African-Americans, and the high Mennonite population in the surrounding areas.  The introduction of an increased number of African-Americans in Harrisonburg met with some resistance, but no outright protests or riots.  There was really not much Harrisonburg could do, and their acceptance of their own African-American population kept them grounded.

Works Cited:

Blakey, Barbara. Interview by Todd Fisher. Harrisonburg, VA. April 2, 1997.

“Little Comment on Opinion Here.” Daily News Record 117, no. 9 (May 18, 1954): 1, 3.

Rainey, Jay. Interview by Jeremy Turner. Blacksburg, VA. January 30, 1998.

Rhodes, Elon. Interview by Todd Fisher. Harrisonburg, VA. March 18, 1997.

Smith, Steve. Interview by author.  Harrisonburg, VA. April 2, 2013.

Thomas, Daphyne. Interview by author. Harrisonburg, VA. March 22, 2013.

Williamson, J.S. II. “Fashion Comes to Madison.” Daily News Record 73, no. 179 (April 29, 1970): 6.