“Sonny” as everyone knows him, has always been in love with history. He says he was inspired by his father, Willie Holmes, Sr., who passed on his love of history to him. While Sonny knew one version of American history, the one he wanted to know most about was his own.
As a student at Walker-Grant, he asked a lot of questions about African American history of his history teacher, Ms. Anderson, who did her best to answer his questions without encouraging him to ask more questions. She would answer his question and quickly distract him by moving back to the lesson. The last question he remembers asking Ms. Anderson about African American history caused her to tell him she wanted to speak with him after school. In her conversation with him after school, she confided in him that she was embarrassed that she didn’t know more about African American history and was unable, not unwilling, to answer all of his questions. She assured him that he was asking good questions in class, but if anyone ever found out that she was even entertaining his questions, it could look like she was “teaching” African American history in the all-Black school, and that could get her fired. It was both a statement and lesson in history that the 7th grader would not soon forget.
Dissatisfied with the depth of education he was receiving, Sonny became disengaged from the organized learning process but not from his love of history; he continued to study history on his own even to this day. His vast collection of newspaper articles, paintings, and cultural artifacts tell a story about one man’s journey towards reconciling his lived experiences with the truths of the past concerning the history of African Americans in his home city of Fredericksburg and beyond.
On a recent visit to a cemetery located at Summit & Myrick Street in Mayfield, Sonny pointed to a steep embankment about 200 feet away at the end of the street to tell a story that has been seared into his memory for sixty-five years. When he was five years old, he, like other children in Mayfield, walked down Summit Street to make the one-mile trek to Walker-Grant. There were no school buses for Mayfield children because buses were for white children only.
Going to school by way of the embankment was a shortcut, saving them about two extra miles roundtrip on the days that they went to school. One afternoon on the way home from school, a five-year-old classmate descended the steep embankment just fine, but when he got to the bottom, he was struck by a motorist and died. To fix the problem, the City installed a sidewalk for the student. As an aside, he went on to say that when Route 3 was conceived, the original plan was to have it run right through Mayfield, but the cemetery was the only thing that saved the Mayfield community from being disconnected. Had it not been for the cemetery, Mayfield would have suffered the same fate that visited upon the once thriving Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and so many other predominantly African American communities across the United States.
Sonny was eight years old when the United States Supreme Court decided that Critical Race Theory (CRT), was not an acceptable practice in public schools and declared segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Though Brown was unanimously decided by the Court, it wasn’t until 1961 that Fredericksburg began to integrate its public schools. When Sonny was fifteen, he was sent to school at James Monroe High as a part of the integration mandate, thus becoming the first cohort to attend the newly desegregated school. Having no interest whatsoever in school, as soon as he turned eighteen, he worked in construction. He became friendly with a white co-worker who showed him how to do small tasks when the boss wasn’t looking. Both men feared getting fired for the unusual alliance, so they had to be careful with teaching and learning in the shadows. Although Sonny never learned how to be the electrician he dreamt of being, because those good-paying jobs were off-limits to African Americans, he did pick up enough general construction skills to strike out on his own six years later.
Sonny is now semi-retired. While he did not get the opportunity to go to college, he made sure his children did: two of his children graduated from college and the third child owns a successful local contracting business; and four of his grandchildren are either in college or have recently graduated from college. He doesn’t have fond memories of school because the era he grew up in was not hospitable to its African American citizenry. In hindsight, he wished he could have looked past the indecencies to take advantage of what was available and used that knowledge to his advantage. However, looking past ritual humiliations is a lofty goal and practically humanly impossible when it is all day, every day.
All along his journey, he continued to study the past, investigating events and people to uncover the history of African Americans hidden in plain sight. One of his projects concerned his old school, Walker-Grant and the graduating class of 1950.
In June 1950, the school was expecting a large attendance at its graduation exercises, so James Walker, the class president, sought permission to use the city’s Community Center to accommodate family and friends. The request was denied but Walker appealed. The city reconsidered the request and agreed to allow the school to use the Community Center on one condition: every African American had to enter and exit the building through the side door. The collective outrage sent shock waves through the community and Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) stepped in to invite the students and their families to celebrate at their church. On the day of the graduation, graduates, in caps and gowns along with 300 people, met in front of the Community Center to protest the injustice.
The graduating class sang the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Dr. Wyatt, a businessman and activist, presented two “dummy diplomas,” and made a short speech before marching to Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) where the real ceremony was held.
When Sonny learned about this historical event, he found it hard to believe that there were no historic markers to honor the courage of the students who resisted second-class citizenry. After all, eighty-five years had passed since both the Civil War and the 14th Amendment answered the question of equal rights for all Americans, but the fight continued. For nine years, he talked to anyone and everyone who would listen to the story about the student protest to no avail until recently, when he finally caught a break. He found ears that were willing to hear and hands willing to do the work of remembering what we are often told to forget. On February 10, 2022, at 1:00 p.m. the brave students Sonny fought so hard for will finally be honored with a historic panel unveiling at the Dorothy Hart Community Center located at 408 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401.
We are fortunate to have Sonny actively engaged in our community affairs, always seeking ways to make things work better; advocating for the stories of African Americans to be told truthfully and accurately. He is the person who didn’t have to have a college degree or know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve his community, which we heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talk so much about. Sonny has always had everything we needed him to have to get us to this point: a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
We are a better city because of him. Thank you. Sonny. Holmes.
About the Author: Paula D. Royster, PhD
Dr. Royster is the Founder of The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. (CAAGRI). She is a published author, and a two-time Fulbright Scholar grantee. Dr. Royster teaches undergraduate coursework in Humanities and Social Sciences. She earned her interdisciplinary doctorate degree in Humanities and Culture with a secondary major in Public Policy and Social Justice; and an advanced graduate certificate in Creative Writing. Her research interest is the African Diaspora.