A forgotten Black Virginian named Nathaniel Lee Hawthorne, known by friends as “Hawsie,” fearlessly fought for two decades of his adult life a dangerous and lonely battle for civil rights and social change in Southside Virginia, in an era when few if any blacks dared to resist the controlling white power structure.
Hawsie was born August 27, 1923, at Bagsley Mills in Lunenburg County, Virginia to the late John Sydnor and Otelia Hawthorne. He had three sisters and two brothers, who all received their education from Lunenburg County public schools. Hawsie also attended Booker T. Washington Memorial Trade School, where he learned radio and television engineering.
Hawsie remained in Lunenburg County his entire life except for serving in World War II from 1944 to 1946. While in the South Pacific he contracted malaria fighting, only to come home on military disability and endure racial discrimination. In 1953, he married Sarah Taylor Hawthorne and they eventually had three children.
Their situation was unique, in that Sarah worked full time, and they owned their own home, making them one of the very few Southside Black families not reliant on the area’s white upper classes for their livelihood.
In the early 1950s, Hawsie started a radio and television repair business in Kenbridge, Virginia, often doing work for his impoverished neighbors for free or for trade. In spring of 1965, after witnessing the passage of the Civil Rights Act while simultaneously seeing an alarming resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity around him, the 39-year-old gave up his business to work full time for civil rights in a part of Virginia where poverty, racial discrimination, Massive Resistance and Klan sentiment were entrenched.
As the uncompromising chairman of the Lunenburg County NAACP, Hawsie faced a daunting task: one-fourth of all Black families from Amelia County south to the border town of Emporia earned less than $1,000 annually, most in menial jobs. The Black student school dropout rate averaged an astonishing 70%, and even though blacks comprised about 50% of the population, only 18% were registered to vote. This was due in part to racist county registrars who purposefully kept random, unannounced working hours when they knew working blacks were unable to attend.
Worse, in spite of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many blacks in the area had simply accepted the ingrained prejudice and resigned themselves to plantation-style dependence and second class citizenship. “I’m surprised at the opposition I get from [blacks],” Hawthorne told an AP reporter in December 1966 of his experiences. “Some of them depend on the white power structure for jobs and worry only about themselves, not about civil rights.”
Despite bi-racial opposition, Hawthorne doggedly exercised influence on his community. In the summer of 1965 he became a volunteer executive coordinator with the Virginia Students Civil Rights Committee (VSCRC), a diverse group of Virginia college students who arrived in the area to organize communities, conduct voting registration drives and enforce Title II of the recent Civil Rights Act, which ensured equal access for minorities at restaurants and businesses.
Despite living in the area his entire life, and giving his neighbors a break on fixing their electronics, Hawsie was rarely acknowledged on the street. He claimed blacks and whites avoided him out of contempt for what he stood for, and others feared Klan reprisal. He told the AP that only one white man — a Victoria snack shop owner — was willing to speak with him publicly.
Slowly, however, successes began accumulating. In September 1965, a door-to-door campaign increased black enrollment at previously white schools from 16 to 110. He and the VSCRC forced county registrars to expand their hours, and over the next year another door-to-door campaign convinced hundreds of local blacks to register to vote. He teamed with the NAACP legal defense fund to fight against tuition grant payments to segregated private schools.
Hawsie also created, wrote and edited his own civil rights newsletter, “The New Virginia,” which reported on both successes and violations of the recent civil rights legislation. On the front page of the September 1965 issue, he wrote of a KKK rally in Victoria on the 4th, which was attended by about “a thousand people.” At the conclusion of the rally, he reported they set afire a 65-ft tall cross, then paraded around it singing “The Old Rugged Cross.”
Hawsie’s work was not without danger during that turbulent period. He and his family constantly endured threats and harassment from transplanted North Carolina Klansmen, local police and gun-wielding white rednecks. A Klan flyer distributed in Victoria claimed in part they would “Make Virginia a hell-on-wheels to the New York, Communistic, racial agitators who seek to use our peaceful Negroes in their filthy ‘Black Revolution.’” People frequently called his home and threatened his family. His home was also broken into and notes were left describing consequences to him and his family if he continued working in civil rights.
In November 1965 a serious attempt was made on Hawsie’s life when a car containing three white men drove past his office, a building called “Freedom House,” and opened fire with a shotgun. Hawsie’s car was damaged and a young Black bystander named Alfonzo Stokes was wounded. Consequently, Hawthorne frequently had someone follow him home in the evenings to ensure his safety.
Despite declining health, Hawthorne maintained Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s practice of non-violence while continuing his persistent march for racial equity. “Someone’s got to do it,” he said in 1966, “The way things are now, about all a Negro kid can do after he’s finished with his schooling is walk the streets.”
“I have been beaten up and put in jail on false charges and my car has been shot up by the Ku Klux Klan,” Hawthorne wrote to Dr. King in a letter dated March 22, 1968. “… my home has been broken into and notes were left telling me what was going to happen to me and my family if I did not stop working in Civil Rights.”
He told Dr. King that by 1968 his life had been threatened 13 times.
In 1968, the whites-only Kenbridge Recreation Association received Federal Farmers Home Administration money for upgrades and landscaping. Knowing the association could not bar blacks for membership after receiving federal funds, Hawsie filed a successful lawsuit and eventually won — one of the first lawsuits of its kind.
“The Court is in full accord with the defendant’s view that the plaintiffs have no greater right to membership in the Kenbridge Recreation Association, Incorporated, than any other citizen of Lunenburg County,” concluded District Judge Robert Merhige in the landmark 1972 decision. “Nevertheless they are entitled to be considered for membership on the same basis as any other resident of Lunenburg County, and specifically without regard to race, color or national origin. The Court accordingly declares any other policy to be null and void.”
“Our family along with several other black families, became members of the Recreation Association, even though we really could not afford the membership fee,” wrote Hawsie’s daughter Ellen in 2015. Also, in September 1968, Hawsie organized a 10-day boycott of the Kenbridge Post newspaper for segregating news columns and practicing discrimination in classified ads.
Despite failing health, Hawsie continued to participate in numerous civil rights protests, including marches, picketing, boycotts and demonstrations. “He was at the original March on Washington and I remember that he traveled a lot to Richmond, Boston and other cities to meetings and demonstrations,” wrote Ellen. “He worked closely with many people from Richmond, Virginia including Henry Marsh III, Samuel Tucker, Oliver Hill, and Saad El-Amin.”
On June 9, 1975, while attending the opening of a summer recreation program in Victoria, Nathaniel Lee Hawthorne collapsed and died from an asthma-induced heart attack. “He had worked very hard on getting this program started so that the youth of the county would have something to do during the summer,” wrote Ellen. He is buried in the Hawthorne family cemetery on Route 635 in Lunenburg County.
Hawsie doggedly continued his sometimes lonely civil rights crusade in Southside Virginia because he believed strongly in basic human dignity and justice for all. In fact, he signed all of his correspondence with the phrase “Freedom for all oppressed people.”
In 2015, a memorial resolution honoring Hawsie was unanimously passed by the Virginia General Assembly, and in 2017 a historical highway marker was installed in Victoria in his honor.
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