Recently I sat down with Ken Venable inside a coffee shop in Staunton, Virginia, a city recently made famous when the school board – with Venable a member – voted to remove the name of the confederate general Robert E. Lee from the one high school in town.
Now it’s important to cast our conversation against an uncomfortable reminder; that being the complexity of race in small southern towns like Staunton where the specter of race remains ever lurking beneath the distinctive charm of many such towns. Strong feelings on both sides of the contentious debate – “Save the name” versus “The name still hurts” – about the image of Robert E. Lee is a contemporary example.
Here’s our conversation:
ME: You left and lived in California, Ohio, Georgia and other places. Why did you return to Staunton?
Ken: At a point in my life I no longer needed the hassle of living in a large city. So when my brother bought my parents this house we wanted to keep it in the family. So I decided to return and live in it. I also came back to help my hometown build on the progress paved by black church, educational and other community leaders here.
ME: Since Staunton is located 33 miles west of Charlottesville, the city that experienced a 2017 riot in response to their decision to move a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park, have you been concerned with your personal safety?
Ken: Hey, I lived through the turbulent sixties, including the King assassination, the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson verdicts. So I’m not impervious to strong reactions to controversy. Now of course I’ve taken precautions but I refuse to be trapped in fear. I learned that from Dr. King.
ME: Between the times you left and returned, how much has Staunton changed?
Ken: From a physical standpoint the city has changed with improved facilities and new development. From a people standpoint it has in many ways remained the same with many wanting to keep everything the same. So despite progress, old mindsets still exist.
ME: We both graduated from all black Booker T. Washington High in Staunton. What we did gain and lose when the schools in Staunton integrated?
Ken: What Lee High gained was an infusion of talented black students and athletes, the latter of whom helped the school win several state championships. Unfortunately, although African American students gained access to better resources, many lost not only the Booker T. culture but their identity as well. Plus, there was no replacement of retiring African American Teachers.
ME: You sought a position on the school board several times before finally getting elected. What did those experiences teach you about perseverance?
Ken: You know that the road is not smooth, but if you know that what you are working toward is worth it, you take the road and know that the victory will be that much sweeter. I won by two votes and survived a recount.
Me: How has your life changed since casting your vote to rename the school?
Ken: Not much but I do hear people say that they respect me for delivering on my campaign promise. Also, since slavery was front and center to most of the discussions, I strengthened my resolve to learn more about my family history dating back to the time when my great, great grandfather was a slave.
ME: How can you help make Stauntonians most opposed to the name change understand the need for change?
Ken: Although many see the name change as an effort to erase history, the fact is that history cannot be changed. What this is really about is removing a reminder of an ugly part of that history, slavery. Now we have to keep a dialog going to emphasize that living in the past while the world is changing is not helpful for the city of Staunton and our students. In the end, we have to move on with the change.
ME: As you know, the name change controversy in Staunton received lots of attention, including in the Huffington Post. What advice would you offer to cities in other parts of the nation that are dealing with the challenge of removing reminders of slavery?
Ken: Anticipate that change is not always without pain and may result in fear and a sense of loss. That said, it’s essential to listen to all voices, articulate the rationale for the change and move forward with the decision. The hard reality is that not everyone will agree with the decision.
ME: In terms of the national racial climate what should we be doing more of to create a more unified nation?
Ken: We have to start respecting everyone. Our country is very diverse and if we cannot accept this and learn, we cannot be a unified nation. Part of what needs to happen is to acknowledge our progress but not lose sight of the fact that there are segments of society that continue to lag behind in opportunities and in inclusion.
Me: If you could convince everyone in Staunton to do one thing to ratchet down the emotional levels, what would that one thing be?
Ken: We all live in Staunton and if we love Staunton and want the best for our students, let’s focus on education, not the name of a building. I’m convinced that carefully planned and executed small group discussions have the potential to build bridges. It’s difficult to disrespect someone you get to know personally as opposed to negative portrayals of that person’s background fostered in the media and through societal stereotypes.
Me: What do you spend most of your time thinking about?
Ken: Hum, good question. I think a lot about what can I do to give back to the city where my life began and how can I help create change for the better. Knowing that I can make a positive impact on situations from my educational and work experiences keeps me motivated and focused.
Me: Tell me something about you that most people don’t know.
Ken: My daughter at one time was engaged to comedian Chris Tucker. Chris’s mother Mary asked me to take him to Los Angeles to see if he could make it there as a comic. He had been doing comedy in Atlanta, but she felt that he would not get far in Atlanta at that time. As you know, Chris Tucker made it. I am so glad that I took a chance on him and so proud of what he has accomplished. He just started filming Rush Hour 4 with Jackie Chan.
ME: Thanks so much Ken for providing me with this opportunity to bring you out of the shadows.
With that, we exchanged handshakes and hugs. He then propped up his umbrella and dashed off in the drizzle on Beverly Street.