Seeds of Leadership on a Va. Farm

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

MILLWOOD, Va. -- Exactly 50 years ago, a Girl Scout living on a farm near this Clarke County town 60 miles from Washington penned a letter to the White House. It was a time of rising racial tension in Virginia and the country. Drew Gilpin, without telling her parents, decided to seek help from the president.

"Dear Mr. Eisenhower," she wrote in careful block letters, "I am nine years old and I am white, but I have many feelings about segregation."

The child's plea for an end to the separation of the races, so at odds with what she heard at home and at her all-white Millwood school, was forever fixed in her memory as she became a leading scholar on the Civil War South and an advocate for a bigger role in national life for minorities and women.

She has reflected on the Feb. 12, 1957, letter often in speeches, books and articles as one of the first signs that she was instinctually opposed to the social and political conventions of her day and felt a lifelong need to change them. It is only a coincidence that Sunday, now known as Drew Gilpin Faust, she was named the first female president of Harvard University, but much of what she has written about that letter and her childhood in rural Virginia fits with the leader she has become.

Harvard officials said Sunday that Faust, who is married with two daughters, was not available for comment, but she talked about the source of her thoughts in the letter in the preface to her 1996 book "Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War." She wrote: "My professional interest in the South grew out of those early years . . . for I lived in [segregationist U.S. Sen.] Harry Byrd's home county during the era of Brown v. [Board of Education of] Topeka and 'massive resistance' to school desegregation. . . . It was not until I heard news about the Brown decision [in 1954] on the radio that I even noticed that my elementary school was all white and recognized that this was not an accident."

When, having decided as a historian that she ought to track down that childhood letter to the president, and having found it at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan., she realized it was probably inspired by something about the battles over Virginia school desegregation she had heard on the radio while being driven home from school by her family's black handyman, Raphael Johnson.

In a 2003 article in Harvard Magazine, Faust said, "I asked Raphael if what I had just understood was true, whether I would be excluded from my school if I painted my face black. I came and wrote these very words in my letter, not now as a question but already transformed into a declaration of outrage to the president. 'If I painted my face black I wouldn't be let in any public schools etc. My feelings haven't changed, just the color of my skin.'

"What I remember is that Raphael did not answer my question. My probings about the unarticulated rules of racial interaction made him acutely uncomfortable; he was evasive. But his evasion was for me answer enough. How was it possible that I never asked that question or saw those realities until I was nine years old? How could I have not noticed before?"

In February 1957, she was a fifth-grader at the school -- now an antiques store -- in this tiny village. Her father was a leading figure in the horse breeding business of Hunt Country. They lived at Lakeville Farm eight miles from the county seat in Berryville. They had no television set, but Faust said she listened to the radio. She also remembered seeing The Washington Post, which had regular reports on the civil rights movement but also had help wanted ads that specified "Colored Men" or "Men, Over 18 (White)."

"This was not the Deep South, and I remember no signs designating water fountains or waiting rooms as Colored or White," she said in Harvard Magazine. "But it was a community of rigid racial segregation nonetheless, with lines drawn by custom and common understanding. . . . In our own house, the black cook and handyman had a separate bathroom. When I once used it, my mother reprimanded me for invading their privacy."

When Faust opened the copy of the letter sent from Abilene, she was surprised at the religious arguments she used, because she did not remember her family being such serious Episcopalians. Jesus Christ, she informed the president, was born to save "not only white people but black yellow red and brown."

If anything, she said, the instruction she remembered at church seemed to reinforce the old values with which she was so uncomfortable, in regard to both race and gender. She remembered the Sunday her father had to substitute for her Sunday school teacher. After a discussion of the story of Samson and Delilah, he asked the class what was the moral of the tale. When none of the children spoke up, he gave his view: "Never trust a woman."

There was in the letter a sign of her future embrace of feminism. Everyone called her Drew, her middle name. Her letter to Eisenhower revealed that, as an afterthought, she stuck her first name, Catherine, in front of Drew. It looked out of place, "but I wanted to be known not just as nine and white but as a girl," she said. She was to have many family arguments that ended with her mother saying, "This is a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you'll be."

She grew up in a man's world and a white world. She said in the magazine that the letter was perhaps one indication of her beginning to see the connection between those two limited views, "and the sense of my own place in my family and in the Virginia social order did make me sensitive to the place of others."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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