- Associated Press - Sunday, April 16, 2017

DUNBAR, W.Va. (AP) - Vivid details spill from a keen 98-year-old mind brimming with memories. Soft-spoken and dignified, Savolia Watlington Joyce talks freely and matter-of-factly about the racism that touched her life in segregated Virginia and Mingo County.

“This is only a third of it,” she said after sharing details of her long and productive life.

A third will have to do. It would take a very thick book to tell it all.

She pays special tribute to a mother who transcended bigotry with intelligence and elegance and the credo that faith and education conquers all.

This dauntless coal miner’s daughter took off for Bluefield State College with a dream, $35 and a tattered suitcase containing the total extent of her meager belongings.

In Virginia, she taught school in Virginia for a third of a white teacher’s pay. In Mingo County, skin color cost her a job despite scoring highest on a civil service exam. She persevered and rose to an administrative position for the Department of Human Resources.

Fueled by an intrepid will-do spirit, she started the first food pantry in Williamson and a highly successful seniors center in a school building named for her late husband who was a principal there. She’s writing a book about the effects of racism on his career.

Dozens of plaques and certificates line the hallway of her Dunbar home, all recognizing her stellar achievements in the ongoing role of community activist.

Ongoing? Absolutely. Even at 98, she’s still at it. Thanks, she said, to the grace and will of God.

“I was born in Matoaka, West Virginia, a mining camp. Shortly after I was born, we moved to Norton, Virginia. I had seven brothers and one sister. We were poor, but we were better off than the people we lived around. My father was a miner but also did carpentry work.

“I went to a one-room school. We got the leftovers from the white schools. When the benches would break down, they would bring them to us. Crayons, books, we got everything secondhand.

“We had a teacher from Hampton Institute. He drilled in our heads that you can always be somebody no matter where you come from and the way to move ahead is to get an education. That was my mother’s theme. All of us had to have an education.

“My mother was very well-educated for her time. The foreigners that were brought in to work, they placed them in the black neighborhood. Many of them didn’t know any English, and my mother was instrumental in teaching them how to shop and speak English. One of the people with whom she was working named me Savolia.

“My mother was in demand to plan dinners when the senators came to Wise, Virginia. They would want her to be in charge of all the decorations.

“She had beautiful flowers in the summer, and she dried them in a very unique way so they looked like they were broken off the branches. She also made flowers out of cloth.

“I was always by her side as a waitress because they didn’t permit the other black people to be in that part of the house. My background was Cherokee Indian on both sides. We looked different, so we were in demand for the big parties. They were very particular. We were not very well liked by the black people.

“I remember Sen. Byrd and a lot of his relatives coming to the dinners.

“My mother would always be working with someone who was either moving or redoing their homes. They wanted her opinion on everything. They put a phone in our house and paid the bill so they could keep in touch with her.

“Although Virginia was very prejudiced, my father got jobs with contractors building houses because he was an excellent plasterer. He made $2 a day or less.

“My brother and I worked for the bus company. The people who owned it were from out of state and they were a little more liberal.

“People would see me behind the counter and refuse to eat. The manager and his wife would say, ‘OK, starve. There’s no place else to go. If you don’t want her to serve you, we aren’t serving you.’

“It hurt deeply but, it’s just the way it was. My mother taught me to never show emotion and to stand straight and make her proud.

“Between times when the buses came in, I worked for the doctor next door. He bought me a white uniform, and I was his nurse and that didn’t make anybody too happy.

“He couldn’t get a white girl to do what he wanted done. Because I could read and write well, he trusted me to label all the medicines. They had cough syrups in big jugs. I would put the syrups in small bottles, label them and put the directions on them.

“He would say, ‘Savolia, I don’t know what I’d do without you.’ That would make this other lady who was white very angry. She wasn’t very well educated, so he would have her doing menial tasks like cleaning up the blood, the dirty work.

“Some of the sick people would come in and didn’t want me to help them. The doctor would say, ‘OK, you will have to go.’ If they were real bad off, they didn’t care what color I was. They were glad for me to help them.

“When the buses came in, I would take my white outfit off and go to the bus terminal to be a waitress.

“My brother who worked with me always wanted to go to Hampton. That was like saying, ‘I want to go to the moon.’ But he said, ‘Yes, I will go, because my mother said God would make a way out of no way.’

“He had saved $50. The bus company gave him a ticket to Hampton. All the bus terminal people each gave him $2. He went with nothing but a few things in a shopping bag.

“At Hampton, he made a high score on the entrance exam. He told the president he wanted to be a doctor. The president was fascinated with him. He said my brother could live in his house. He lived with them for four years and was an honor student.

“I said, ‘I know I can go to college because my brother went.’ The bus people said I shouldn’t even try because I had a good job there and the doctor loved me and gave me $3 a week. The doctor said I would never go to college because it cost a lot.

“I said, ‘My mother said that God would see us through and I would get an education.’

“I had saved $35. I was going to Bluefield State. I had two skirts and a sweater, one pair of shoes and one coat. One of the bus drivers bought me a sweater.

“My mother gave me a suitcase that she’d found. It wouldn’t close, so she put a belt around it. All my possessions were in this little suitcase.

“The bus company gave me a trip to Bluefield. When I got to the bus station there, this suitcase fell apart. The luggage attendants put all my stuff on a bench and said when they got off work, they would find me a suitcase.

“When I said I was going to walk to Bluefield College, they told me they would take me when they got off. They found me a suitcase and dropped me off at the college.

“It was late, but the registration room was still open. I filled out the forms. They asked me for $75. I only had $30. I said I could work if they would let me come.

“They talked and came back out and said they would see if the matron would let me stay there that night. They took me to the dormitory. The girls there were well dressed. Their fathers worked in the big coal mines. They had nice clothes and some even had cars. When they saw me, everybody was laughing.

“The matron was empathetic. She said she would let me clean the halls on the third floor and come down in the morning and peel potatoes for breakfast.

“As I cleaned the halls, I would go through the garbage and pick out hose with runs that the girls threw away. Mother had taught me how to dye things with tea. So I would make a strong tea and dye the hose. The girls would say, ‘You don’t have any clothes but you have the prettiest stockings.’ I would just shrug and say, ‘By the grace of God.’

“I didn’t own a book. I started writing to Sen. Byrd because I had met him earlier, and he started sending me lots of materials on the subjects I told him about. It was different from the textbooks, but it fit well.

“I got a two-year degree so I could teach and went back to Norton. I got a job teaching, but black teachers only got a third of what the white teachers got.

“I met my husband when he taught biology in the summer in Bluefield. I was in his class. He asked me why I never went for lunch. I just shrugged. I had a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers, and that was my lunch for a month, and I had to ration it.

“He offered to take me to lunch. I wasn’t interested because I had to get my education so I could go back and help my parents.

“After I started teaching in this one-room school, he still pursued me, and we finally got married. We had a great life and three wonderful children. We were married 73 years.

“He lived right outside of Williamson, in Nolan. My brother was in St. Louis teaching at a teachers college. I went there and took a lot of courses. He did finally become a doctor and had an office in St. Louis. We all achieved our aims.

“The teachers in Mingo County just didn’t quit, so there wasn’t a way for me to even substitute. In the meantime, I drove to Pikeville and to Marshall to continue my education.

“Things weren’t good for blacks in Mingo County. I finally took a civil service exam and got the highest score. My name was Savolia Watkinston Joyce. On the forms, I didn’t put race. With this odd name, they wanted to interview me. When I walked in, they were shocked.

“They went in another room and finally came out and said, ‘You know this job is for supervisors?’ They didn’t want to give me the job, so I went back to Williamson to the Department of Human Resources, and I finally got to be assistant administrator.

“The people who came from Pittsburgh and New York to work didn’t understand the language of people in the mountains, so I also wrote a book of colloquial expressions.

“I set up the first food pantry in Williamson and a senior program in the school where my husband was principal. It was the largest center in the area. We took care of people with Alzheimer’s so their caretakers could have a free day. We had Meal on Wheels.

“We didn’t have transportation, so I came down to Charleston. Of course I didn’t make an appointment. I just went to Gov. Rockfeller’s office and he called somebody and said to give this lady from Mingo County a bus.

“We got the bus and the building and they named it after my husband. It’s still operating.

“People didn’t have health care. I invited doctors to a tea. That was unusual in Mingo County. A bunch of doctors came with their wives. I told them we needed help. If I referred people to them, they would usually see them, people with no medical coverage at all.

“I was just a person trying to better the lives of people less fortunate than me. I knew where I came from and how I made it and I would tell them, ‘You can make it, with God’s help.’ All things are possible if you believe, and I believe.

“When integration came, they sent the black teachers to schools in outlying areas. Areas like Dingess would not accept the black teachers. They said if they came, they would kill them. So they had to leave the state.

“My husband stayed. I am writing a book about this. I want the world to know how my husband was treated. Someday my great grandchildren, the world, will know.

“My husband had a master’s degree and some hours on his Ph.D. He was one of the most highly educated teachers. Most of the white teachers just had certificates.

“They couldn’t find a placement for him because he was more highly educated. So they had him set up what they called a curriculum center to educate teachers on using computers and machines needed in the school system.

“The superintendent was very prejudiced. When they got this center set up, he said Harry would not be the director. He would be helping a woman who didn’t even have a degree. That was his downfall, when he started going downhill health-wise.

“He died in 2000. I came here because my children and grandchildren were here.

“They have a black center here and a white center. I was flabbergasted. It was okay in Mingo County but not here.

“They didn’t have a bus here for seniors. I went to the county commission and introduced myself and said why I was there, and they gave us a bus for the handicapped.

“God still has something more for me to do. I intend to do everything I can to help somebody. My doctors say I’m healthy. I don’t even need glasses. I’m doing well by the grace of God. God has been blessing me all of my life, so I have no regrets.”


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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