Standing On The Promises

Published 3:35 pm Thursday, June 20, 2013

Henry W. Cabarrus Jr. is proud of the photo on the cover of his book, Many Broken Promises And Yet I Stand! The diploma he is holding from St. Paul's College is more than a college degree. To Cabarrus this diploma, earned as a Brown Scholar, represents an ability to stand in the face of adversity, a theme that has followed him through the 68 years of his life. Now under Hospice care, Cabarrus continues to stand by the words in his book, words that he believes will lead the community to a place of better understanding.

In 2007 during the Brown Scholars' graduation ceremony at the Robert R. Moton Museum, Cabarrus wrote a poem for the six Brown Scholars receiving their diplomas that day.

Titled, “And Yet We Stand,” the poem begins: Been shut out and been shut down. Been set up and been broke down. Been stretched out and been pulled apart. Been locked up and been given life in the dark. . . . and yet we stand!

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In 2005, the first Brown Scholarships were awarded by the Commonwealth of Virginia to residents who were denied access to a public education during the school closing from 1959 to 1964. The state, with the help of a billionaire investor, provided up to $5,500 to residents seeking a high school diploma, GED, undergraduate degree or technical-training certificate.

“What I was trying to do in that poem was capture the ups and downs, the struggle we had gone through with almost two years of classes,” Cabarrus related. “That title or theme tied in quite well. After that was when I really got serious about writing my book. Looking at the troubles and broken promises in my life, including my marriages, it seems like I have a theme of broken promises in my life.”

Cabarrus' early years were spent with his grandparents in Darlington Heights.

“Most of my young memories are from my grandparent's three story house that had both an attic and a basement. Inside the house my grandmother had absolute rule over what ever happened, and outside the house my grandfather had absolute rule over what happened,” Cabarrus related in his book.

“My grandmother was the best cook I have ever known, because she could cook anything and make it taste good. I remember how she would prepare her Sunday meal on Saturday because no one was allowed to work on Sunday in our house . . . The smaller children, like me, would always hang around her while she was cooking and she would explain little things to you as she cooked the food . . . My grandmother was a graduate of Boydton Institute & Bible School and a current part-time elementary school teacher. She always made sure the little kids got regular snacks or something to drink to hold you over until the next big meal . . . My grandmother was always up before anyone else and activity was underway when you saw her in the morning. To me she was like a living clock; always there and always on time.”

“My grandfather was a very muscular man and not much of a talker while he worked. He always had very set ways of how things were to be done, and no one would ever challenge his ways . . . When he used a hilling hoe to cut grass from around growing tobacco plants along a row, he always did two rows at a time with such precision and speed that it was amazing to watch . . . My grandfather won several awards for agricultural produce over the years especially for hybrid corn . . . The skin on his hands seemed to be iron hard and thick, but he would wear work gloves for some work tasks that were made of mule hide.”

“There was always a lot of activity and people in the home. Each room seemed to have a different activity purpose. We had a back porch that was used for food preps and storage. The basement was also used for some food storage and cold weather work. The attic was where most of us little grandkids slept up until there was more room downstairs for us to sleep several years later.”

This family-oriented life on the farm changed forever for Cabarrus and many other children in Prince Edward County with the Supreme Court's decision on Brown v. Board of Education. In 1959 the Prince Edward School Board closed the public schools in the county to avoid integration. The schools would remain closed for the next five years.

“I left here in 1960,” Cabarrus recalled. “I was in Ohio for two years and then I went to Massachusetts for two years to finish my high school. I graduated in 1964.”

After high school, Cabarrus received a scholarship to Northeastern University in Boston. While at the University, Cabarrus became known as a student leader/organizer.

“I organized the Black Student Union on campus,” he said. “My group was the first Black Student Union that was an integrated group. It became well known for that. I did a lot of work with the University in building a support system for poor people and black people.”

Cabarrus received one of 25 scholarships available to black students at that time.

“When I finished doing the work through the Black Student Union – I write extensively about it in the book – the scholarships for black students went from 25 to 2,500.”

Cabarrus also helped establish a mentoring/tutoring program at Northeastern, enlisting professors to volunteer as tutors.

“Once that was set up, for me it meant that now students coming in from poorer communities could expect that they would have enough support to make it,” Cabarrus noted. “That was something the University kind of pulled me into and encouraged me to set it up. They were interested in getting more support for the minority students.”

Despite his successes on campus, Cabarrus had to leave the school when his scholarship was not renewed.

“The Civil Rights Movement was escalating at that time,” Cabarrus explained. “I was always a peace broker type guy, and my organization was the same way. Because things were escalating nationally, they started picking me out. Then I got a letter saying my scholarship had been withdrawn. That was one of the most effective ways of shutting me down.”

Cabarrus took out student loans, but couldn't keep up with the cost of tuition and other expenses.

“That was another broken promise,” he affirmed. “But I fought back.”

In retrospect, Cabarrus credits his college experience with changing his perspective on life.

“Never having been trusted to do decision-making and having the University entrust me with that authority was a real, real turnaround,” he stated. “That really did change my mind about how things were back here, too. It gave me ideas also of how, once I was to come back, I would interact.”

When Cabarrus left Northeastern, he wanted a change of scenery, so he went to San Francisco – by bicycle.

“I bicycled from Boston to San Francisco in 1971 trying to seek out a different image for myself,” he said. “I ended up staying in San Francisco for the next 25 years.”

Cabarrus became an expert in handicrafts, making belts and wall hangings. He also worked with a homeless program for six years, managing a caseload of 66 clients and a staff of five.

“After the bicycle trip I tried to settle down and make a life for myself, marriage and so forth,” he related. “That's when I had three marriages. The marriages go with the theme of my book – just a mismatch, more broken promises.”

Despite the downs in his life, Cabarrus continued to search for ways to “bring things back up.”

“I think my life has been fulfilling, and I've enjoyed it,” he said. “Now I'm dealing with the brain cancer and surgery. That's been quite a turnaround. It's a hard adjustment.”

Never one to give up, Cabarrus has planned a book signing on June 29 at Barnes & Noble in Farmville. He is optimistic about the changes he has seen in the community over his lifetime.

“I think things as to the resolution of the original racial divide have come out quite well,” he said. “The people themselves are different now.”

Cabarrus cited several examples.

“I went to Walmart and was in line trying to get my groceries in that electric cart,” he related. “The clerk told me my card was declined – I'd had a problem with my credit card. So I'm waiting in line with groceries I can't pay for. There was a white couple behind me, and the man said, 'Sir, you look like you're kind of struggling. Just put your groceries up here and I'll pay for them.'”

“It made me cry right there on the spot,” Cabarrus said. “I never would have expected that. Back in the old days that never would have happened.”

These positive interactions, Cabarrus noted, have filtered down to the neighborhood level as well.

“My neighbor, who is white, grows a garden,” Cabarrus continued. “When he has certain things that mature in the garden he just comes over and puts them on my back porch. In the past he would have had to sneak over here after dark.”

In part, Cabarrus credits a shift in societal attitudes for the positive changes he sees.

“Having a black president has changed things, and just getting the Moton Museum up to the stature it is now – that's fantastic,” he noted.

On a personal level, Cabarrus hopes that the legacy of his book will be one of greater community understanding.

“Idealistically, I'm hoping my book will bring about a bigger discussion about the problems of past and present,” he stated. “When people read it I want them to be able to say – 'in the old days we did it this way or that way, but there's a better way to do it. Let's try that way.'”

Cabarrus sees his upcoming book signing and article in the Farmville Herald as a confirmation of positive change.

“To have Justine Young (of Piedmont Senior Resources) set me up for this book signing and the Farmville Herald interviewing me for this story, that's the processing of the racial divide I'm hoping the book will engender,” Cabarrus concluded. “People will say – 'Look at Henry. Henry has struggled a little bit, but he's worthy to be picked up to the next level.'”

With a little help from his friends, both black and white, Henry Cabarrus Jr. will continue to stand.

Henry Cabarrus will hold a book signing for his book Many Broken Promises and Yet I Stand! Saturday, June 29, from noon to 2 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in Farmville. For further information contact Piedmont Senior Resources Area Agency on Aging, 434-767-5588.