A Southern newspaper legacy forged in civil rights

by Jordan Green

It’s always a little dangerous to write about the family of the person who signs your paycheck. Firstly, it’s an inherent conflict of interest. Secondly, you might find out something about them that they might not want in print. Thirdly, if the account is complimentary, people are liable to suspect you of sycophantism.

I recently stumbled across the story of the remarkable life of Charles A. Womack Sr. His grandson, Charles Womack III, hired me for my second newspaper job in 2004 when he founded YES! Weekly, and I’ve worked here ever since. When Womack offered me the job, I had little understanding of his family’s tradition and legacy in journalism, or the public interest at the root of Womack Sr.’s entry into the field. Even my publisher said because of his grandfather’s modesty, he did not learn of the full extent of his contributions until after his death at the age of 87 in 2005.

Charles told me that he feels an obligation to live up to his grandfather’´s example. In a sense, I feel the same. Charles A. Womack Sr.’´s commitment to fairness and willingness to stand up against the prevailing tide of leadership — including taking a financial gamble to buy a newspaper to provide a counterpoint to what he considered demagoguery — provides a nice tradition of Southern reform journalism to work within.

After I told Charles that Afrique Kilimanjaro had credited the Womack family with providing financial support in 1967 to her father to establish the Carolina Peacemaker, a weekly newspaper that serves a primarily black readership in Guilford County, he handed me two comb-bound books. Both produced by the Carter G.

Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia for a project called “Mapping Local Knowledge: Danville, Virginia, 1945-1975,” one is composed of an oral history and the other of selected newspaper articles.

A businessman who established his wealth through a variety of electronicsrelated businesses, Womack became involved in municipal politics in Danville as a result of his opposition to the construction of a coal-fired electric plant.

Serving on council forged his leadership qualities.

Womack’s most significant test came from the modest demands of the local civil rights leadership in Danville during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. His response — to listen the grievances presented to him, attempt to open lines of communication between the separate and unequal white and black worlds of Danville, and take concrete steps to meet the educational and recreational needs of the city’s black citizens — put him at odds with the majority faction on council. The response of most of his colleagues was exactly the opposite: rigid refusal to accommodate change and manufactured hysteria about phantom outside agitators and communist subversion.

A fascinating example of the council majority’s intransigence comes from Womack’s account of a march by black junior high school students calling for desegregation of the public library. Womack told researchers Emma Edmunds and Sharon Hughes that just after the students stopped in front of the library, a fire engine came roaring down the street with its siren wailing. Notwithstanding reports the next day in the daily newspaper, Womack said there had been no fire, but the city wanted to create the suggestion that the demonstration had obstructed public safety. The leader of the demonstrator, the Rev. Lawrence Campbell, would become a lifelong collaborator in initiatives for interracial progress.

“I just then walked over to the Reverend Campbell and asked him what they really wanted,” Womack said. “I told him at the time, ‘I’m just one member of city council, but I’ll present [the group’s complaints] to city council.’ He gave me a list, a printed list, and there was nothing really strong in it. It was just a few things like we’d like to be able to use the same drinking fountain and so forth, and just really simple life-to-life things. They wanted better schools, you know, just normal things. That convinced me that I had to stick with it — that created that feeling.”

The city closed the library rather than integrate it. Womack and some other council members called a special meeting to find a way to reopen it. The meeting was disrupted when a deputy summoned them to appear before a grand jury.

Later, Womack’s political nemesis on council, John W. Carter, attempted to censure him for attempting to establish a “biracial committee” to create dialogue about the civil rights demonstrators’ demands.

Headlines in the Danville Register give a flavor of the regard in which the city’s newspaper of record held Womack: “Council fails to censure Womack but names mayor sole spokesman,” “Grand jury invites Womack to give subversive evidence” and “Reverend Barber to open private school despite Womack’s ‘effort to kill it.’” The latter referred to an effort to establish a private school so that white students could avoid sitting next to blacks in desegregated public schools.

“They just slanted the stories in the direction that was different from what I thought happened, particularly the city council meeting what I was more concerned with,” Womack recounted. “I used to wake up every morning and hate to see the papers, because I didn’t know what they would say about — after the meetings.

“That’s the reason that I got into and helped support and finally bought the weekly paper, the Danville Commercial Appeal, was to try to give the community a different outlook, a different perspective on what was really going on. Of course, that was not successful. I lost a lot of money with it, but it was a good experience.”