CHARLES TOWN – Janet V. Jeffries was appalled. Larry Togans recalled seeing the racial strife he watched on TV during his youth. Ruth McDaniel simply wept.
That’s how area longtime West Virginia civil rights leaders reacted to hearing the news about the mass shootings two weeks ago in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
For all three longtime Jefferson County residents, the too-familiar tragedies of random public violence are not all about political extremism or racial bigotry, as some news coverage and commentary of the shootings suggest.
“It’s hard for me to take all that in,” Jeffries said about the Dayton shooting where white and black bar patrons were casualties. “I can’t picture a group of people just trying to have a good time and someone coming in like that.”
Jeffries said she didn’t regard the shooting as racially motivated. “That’s not a racial thing. That’s more of a person-to-person human thing,” she said.
Police are investigating a possible anti-Hispanic motive for the El Paso shooting, where gunshots killed 22 people and wounded 24. In Dayton, law enforcement authorities are investigating possible far Left political motives of the shooter who was shot by police and died after killing 10 people and wounding 27.
According to the three Charles Town residents, the mass shootings—and as with most of the 248 other mass shootings so far this year — according to the Gun Violence Archive — represent a breakdown in human relationships, one that mirrors the civil rights conflicts of the nation’s past.
“I think people need to come together on various occasions and get to know people,” said Jeffries, 79.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go,” Togans, 73, said.
“We were put here on this earth by God to help each other, not to try to hold each other down,” said McDaniel, 83.
Jeffries, Togans and McDaniel shared their perspectives about the shootings and about racial relations at an NAACP conference in Charles Town’s Charles Washington Hall Friday and Saturday. Drawing about 75 people, the conference preceded a separate “Love, Not Hate” rally Sunday at the Jefferson County Courthouse, where attendees offered prayers and speeches of reconciliation.
About 200 people attended the rally to commemorate the second anniversary of the violent Unite the Right white-supremacy protest in Charlottesville, Va., which resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer after white supremacist James Alex Fields plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
This past Sunday’s gathering was organized by the Multi-Faith Coalition, the Berkeley and Jefferson County chapters of the NAACP, and the Eastern Panhandle Central Labor Council.
Jeffries, Togans and McDaniel were eyewitnesses to racial segregation, having graduated from Page Jackson High School, an all-black school that kept white and black students apart before Jefferson County fully integrated its classrooms in 1965. All three have traveled throughout West Virginia as officers in the NAACP.
Togans said Hispanics have become targets for resentment as political debate has intensified over illegal immigration from South America. He said he notices how mostly African-Americans workers once cleaned hotel rooms, and now it’s mostly Hispanics doing the jobs many Americans wouldn’t do.
He said today issues for the NAACP include improving jobs and educational opportunities for minorities. The three say they remain concerned about police improperly targeting minorities in the area. Jeffries said her grandson was recently pulled over by a police officer without justification—for “driving while black.”
The daughter of a tenant farmer, Jeffries’ first job after graduating from Page Jackson was washing dishes at a restaurant in Charles Town, one of the few jobs available then to African-Americans. She later cleaned homes and watched white people’s children. By the 1970s she worked in the back room of a local department store, before she became a sales clerk in the store’s front retail showroom.
For the NAACP, Jeffries worked on voting rights. She recalls participating in a march in Charleston for sanitation workers. In the 1970s she pushed the county schools to integrate their extracurricular programs. Her daughter wanted to become a cheerleader in junior high and Jeffries made sure it happened.
“Race relations is still alive right here in Jefferson County,” she said. “It’s more subtle now than it used to be. I think somebody can look at you and not be true.”
With local churches, Jeffries helps organize free community meals three times a year, including a soul food celebration in February, which is open to all. “All you do is come in and sit down and eat and fellowship,” she explained. “I just want to pull the community together. I don’t like separation. My theory always has been to try to get people together.”
Jeffries encourages people to talk to their neighbors to foster community relationships. “You don’t have to do a whole lot,” she said. “Just let them know that you’re there.”
Her Charles Town neighborhood along South Lawrence Street near Wright Denny Intermediate School has white, black and Hispanic residents, she said. “There’s no friction that I know of.”
Best for his children
Growing up in Charles Town, Togans remembers slipping out the back door of today’s Charles Washington Hall to avoid some white kids looking to cause trouble for him.
“Those aren’t pleasant thoughts,” he said.
Togans graduated from Page Jackson in 1965 in the last segregated senior high school class in the county. Three decades later he would be elected to the Jefferson County Board of Education, where he served as president and vice president — in the same building where he attended segregated classes. His high school class still holds reunions at the school, which is now an elementary school.
Enlisting in the military in 1970 and returning home to Jefferson County afterward, Togans remembers having trouble finding a home for his family. Twice apartments in the county were available until he showed up in person, when his skin color apparently convinced the landlords that their units suddenly were not available, he said.
He found a place to live in Berkeley County then attended Shepherd College on the GI Bill. Graduating with an education degree, he spent a career at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va.
“I just wanted the best for my children,” he said.
Today, Togans said the school system still needs to hire more minority teachers. “That’s kind of strange that the number of minority teachers hasn’t changed,” he said.
Smile and say hello
All her life McDaniel said she’s tried to practice what her fifth-grade teacher told her. “Remember there’s nobody better than you are, but you’re not any better than anybody,’” she said, “and if you live your life like that you’re going to be all right.”
McDaniel said she voices that advice at her Bible study group. She prays for everyone, Christians and non-believers alike.
After graduating from Page Jackson in 1955, McDaniel went to Storer College for one semester before the college closed down in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that struck down legal segregation nationwide. Afterward, she attended the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg.
She first worked for several years as a domestic helper for two white families, where she said she was genuinely respected and treated as a family member. She then worked for the Postal Service in 1971 until 1993.
A longtime volunteer for the Red Cross, McDaniel was elected to the Charles Town City Council in 2004. She follows the news. She said she gets upset when she hears harsh words spoken toward immigrants.
“I don’t go any place that I don’t meet somebody that I don’t have a conversation with,” she said. “Don’t care what color they are or who they are. To me, if you smile at a person they’re going to smile back. If you frown at a person they’re going to ignore you. So it’s easier for me to smile and say hi than it is for me to go through a whole lot of unkindness.”
McDaniel said she still remembers long ago when she was a young girl walking down the street in Charles Town. A group of white boys passed by in a car and hollered at her. They called her a chocolate-covered peanut, she said.
“And it took all my willpower to wait until they got by me for me to laugh at them, because it was funny,” she continued. “I’m not a chocolate-covered peanut. I’m God’s people that he put here on this earth. He created me just like he created you. He didn’t give you a certain heart and not give me a heart, and I think this is what people have got to remember.”