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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Black History Month: Recollections from Gate City Resident Wallace Ross, Jr

Black History Month display retains tradition--Reprinted from the Kingsport Times-News, 2/18/07
PHOTO AT RIGHT: Years ago, Mr. Ross and other African-American children were not allowed to go to Gate City High School. Years later, the school board decided it was a waste of money to bus children 10 miles across the state line to Douglass School in Kingsport.

‘Mom’s expectation of history is that the past, present and future connect if you know whereyou are at and where you are going.’ — Wallace Ross Jr.

GATE CITY — In an area that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates is 99.5percent white, Black History Month gives members of the small black community in Scott County an opportunity to show others the contribution they have made to the area. Wallace Ross Jr. pulled his military medals out to display at the GateCity library during Black History Month. A Gate City native, Ross did not always talk about his time in the U.S.Army’s 1/7 Cavalry after he returned from duty in Vietnam. Following high school, Ross found himself on a plane bound for Vietnam. He returned a year later to a nation that did not immediately appreciatehis sacrifice. “I came back when soldiers were being spit on,” he said. Drafted and sent to the 1/7 Cavalry, Ross saw intense fighting in 1967,including a three-day battle with North Vietnamese regular soldiers thatended in hand-tohand combat. It is unnerving to be a soldier when the order “fix bayonets” is given,Ross said. “It’s a miracle that I’m here today,” Ross said. Ross was at the library recently, setting up a display commemorating black history in the area. Vietnam was really the first war with truly integrated units, he said.That is why he included his medals in the display. “They were something my mother always used to tell me I should be proud of,” Ross said. Ross’ mother, Doretha Wiggins Ross, used to set up the Black History Month display at the library that Ross worked on this month. Each year, she would set out some of the photographs that portrayed the heritage of blacks in Scott County. She died last spring, and Ross wanted to carry on the tradition. Ross brought pictures of a class of students standing in front of the all-black Prospect School in Gate City. He also put in information about blacks who would have been in Virginia 400 years ago when Jamestown was a thriving community. It’s the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, and Ross said he tried to tie in that history. Ross’ history in Gate City only goes back two generations. His grandparents moved to the area during the Great Depression, bringing their daughter, Doretha, with them. His mother was involved in the black community in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. She was also involved in local politics, Ross said. Before integration of schools, Ross said he and his two sisters had to go to all-black schools, like Prospect School, a black elementary school inGate City. Once a child went through Prospect, they had to go on to a black high school. Most went to Douglass High School in Kingsport, Tennessee he said. When Ross attended Douglass, his mother was on the PTA, working on different programs for the students there. Doretha Ross worked at the cafeteria at Holston Defense. She also worked at a church, Hales Chapel in Gate City. “She had grandparents who instilled in her to work for change,” Rosssaid. Doretha Ross was elected to the Gate City Town Council in 1978, becomingthe first black on the Town Council in Gate City history. In 1978, she was selected to the Scott County Democratic Committee and was congratulated by a then state Sen. Rick Boucher. In 1976, she went to the National Democratic Convention in Miami. She was the first black woman to vote in the convention, Ross said. “Growing up with my mother was interesting. She took us across the state of Virginia on vacation just as the country integrated. In this part of the country, school segregation was still going on. But it was unusual to be going to a black school.” Ross and his sister, Geniva, were the first African-Americans to go to Gate City High School in the summer of 1963. The school had not been integrated yet. But that didn’t stop his mother, Ross said. “I knew I had to go to summer school. My mom was driving me to Kingsport to Douglass, and she looked up at (the Gate City High School) and said, ‘I pay taxes for that.’ I knew what she was thinking. I told her, ‘no.’ ” But that summer, he and Geniva attended Gate City High School. That fall, Ross went back and attended regular classes there. Ross is vague about the problems that a black person encountered at an all-white school in 1963. But he said he knew and had played with many the white students before enrolling in GCHS. “We knew everybody when we got there (for summer school). We found it wasn’t a problem,” he said. “Gate City adapted better than most school systems.” In 1966, Ross was drafted. He was 19 years old when he landed in Vietnam with B Co. 1/7 Cavalry. Ross went from the Central Highlands to the Northern region of the country. The people he faced at the time were the North Vietnamese regulars. Ross received the Combat Infantry Badge, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal. “Coming back from Vietnam, a lot of folks didn’t want to discuss it,” hesaid. “We went from the battlefields to the streets. It was a difficult time. With all that had transpired. I didn’t feel (my medals) meant much at the time. My mother felt I should bring them out. But I kept them hidden.” Ross was wounded in the leg and sent to a hospital on Okinawa. Despite heavy use of antibiotics, Ross said he almost lost his leg to infection. Ross came home to Fort Knox, Ky., where he served the remainder of his time and was trained to do military funerals. He traveled through Ohio, performing a funeral per day for 30 days. He was released from active duty on Aug. 25, 1968. Ross’ mother died March 27, 2006. “She lived by the words, ‘Rich or poor, we are all members of the human race.’ ” It was a motto she kept in mind while serving on the Gate City Town Council and the Democratic Party. Doretha Ross modeled a way of life for her son that he admired from his youth to today. A member of the Democratic Party, Ross is not active in local politics like his mother. But he said he does attend town meetings and keeps a breastof Gate City happenings. “My mom was a part of the history of Scott County. The things she put on display here (at the library) were part of that,” Ross said. Now, Ross is continuing his mother’s work by preserving historic photos and papers, and exhibiting them to others. “Mom’s expectation of history is that the past, present and future connect if you know where you are at and where you are going,” Ross said.