Standing on the banks of the James River, Clarence P. Penn points across the placid waters to Jamestown, the historic colonial settlement where blacks first arrived in the New World in 1619 as indentured servants.
"That's where they dropped us off," says Penn, the black superintendent of the Surry County school system, and he laughs as he talks, savoring an irony of politics and history that has made this rural, long-impoverished county a rarity in Virginia and the nation. For the past eight years, blacks have held three seats on Surry's five-member Board of Supervisors and control nearly all administrative departments.
In that time, the county has undergone a remarkable change -- as startling in its way as the sight of the futuristic Vepco atomic power plants that rise above the county's rolling farmland. And in fact, the two are closely linked because the tax payments from the plants have enabled the county's black leadership to bring much-needed but expensive services to a poor rural area so backward it had earned a nickname -- "Sorry County."
The political transformation has been immense, from the conservative board to a liberal coalition that has pumped millions of dollars into Surry to increase teacher salaries and per pupil expenditures, to upgrade the public school system and provide medical and recreational facilities. The backbone of that effort has been the nearly $2 million Vepco pays in annual taxes for its 1.6 million kilowatt facility, a figure that represents 70 percent of Surry's yearly tax income and about 40 percent of the county's annual budget.
When the new board was elected in 1971, Surry and Charles City were the first two counties in Virginia to choose black majorities since Reconstruction. Even today, only five of the nation's 3,042 counties have either black chairmen or presidents, according to the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington. Virginia, with fewer black elected officials than almost every other southern state, has three of them: Surry, Charles City and James City -- all on the James River, west of Williamsburg.
On the surface, the changes that have come in Surry have been accomplished with a minimum amount of tension between the black supervisors and the 35 percent of the county that is white. When the new board took office there was some concern that whites would be shut out of the county government altogether. But according to John Curtis, a white board member, that has not happened.
"It's my impression that the black majority has gone out of its way to include whites in the decision-making process," he says.
Physically, there is little to distinguish Surry from other Southside counties. Located 150 miles south of Washington, the county is dominated by deep forests of oak hickory, cypress and loblolly pines. It is an area that depends on farming for nearly half its annual income, where Sunday prayers often include the season's crop of peanuts, soybeans and corn -- staples of the Southside belt -- a county where the face on the "Have a nice day" poster is that of a grinning, young hog.
With its narrow, winding backroads, and slow-running, swampy bottom streams, one flashing caution light in 280 square miles and good old boys sipping Pepsis at dusk at roadside diners with a badly worn version of "You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille" on the jukebox. Surry seems to have changed little in the last eight years -- or the last 80 years for that matter. The sleepy appearance, however, belies a far-reaching social and political transformation.
Prior to 1972, Surry was run by all-white county and school boards although blacks, then as now, made up 65 percent of a population of 5,800. In 1967, it was one of the nation's poorest with a per capita income of only $2,214.
Its public schools, according to Penn, had only a smattering of teachers with graduate degrees in a decade that saw white children pulled out of the public school system to avoid desegregation.The sparsely populated county frequently had only one doctor, recalled Cline Lane, a 51-year-old farmer, no medical or recreational facilities and one of the few high schools in the state that had no playing fields.
In the 1960s, however, when the Virginia Electric and Power Co. searched the state for a suitable site for its first nuclear power reactors, it chose an area near Hog Island, just east of Cobham Bay in Surry County, because of low real estate costs, access to the James River, and the area's proximity to Virginia's urban corridor.
Surry blacks saw the additional tax income from Vepco as a way to upgrade the county's services. Instead, the fiscally conservative board opted to cut property taxes in 1966.
"They were just giving us the runaround, just a lot of promises. They bought land for a new high school and then balked about building it after the whites withdrew their children from the public schools," said Edward W. Johns, 57, the black vice chairman of the County Board. "We asked the board to appoint an interracial committee to add input to the board and they never did. We just got disgusted."
The catalyst for political action by blacks was clearly public education, according to County Attorney Gerald Poindexter, a black whose wife, Gammiel, is Surry's chief prosecutor.
An 18-day boycott of the public school system by blacks in 1968 "strengthened our determination . . . it brought us together," according to Assistant County Administrator Stephanie Edler. By the start of the 1971 board campaign, Surry blacks had formed the Assembly, an elaborate network in which 49 workers were assigned to 27 representatives across the county to work for voter registration.
That year three black candidates ran for the five-member board. "We had people in charge of specific roads at certain times in the afternoon" on election day, says M. Sherlock Holmes, 41, who has been chairman of the board for the last eight years. "If someone hadn't been seen at the polls, we hustled out and brought them in."
When the votes were counted, Holmes and the other black candidates had won.
Nine years later, Holmes can look back on what the county has achieved with a sense of satisfaction. "We've got the basics in Surry now," he says.
George R. Long, executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties in Charlottesville, agrees. "Several years ago," he says, "Surry didn't have the Vepco facility. Now the tax base down there has been expanded enormously, and blacks are getting more social services because of it."
The "basics" in Surry are a new $4 million high school, with plans for a new elementary school complex. The county's first medical center will be completed next spring at a cost of $500,000. A new $400,000 community recreation center was finished earlier this year, said vice chairman Johns.
Surry's public school system now has a faculty/student ratio of 17 to 1 compared with the 45 to 1 ratio 10 years ago, Penn said. In 1971, only four Surry teachers had graduate degrees. Now, Penn said, 25 of the 99 teachers have graduate degrees, with 22 more expected to receive their master's by 1981. Ironically, whites, who abandoned the public school system in the sixties, now make 17 percent of the total student enrollment, Penn said.
"Before, the county didn't even have a county administrator. Now, they've got a black woman in the position and she's outstanding. The black majority down there has done a good job," Long said. "People should know that."
Critics, who are apparently few in number, are still not hard to find. One of them is hog farmer Preston Fields, 61, who said "they've got that damned reactor there that's probably spewing [radiation] every which way, and yet they've still increased taxes. Farming's still the backbone of this county and they could help us all by cutting taxes."
Others, reflecting the tide of conservatism that Republicans rode to a strong electoral sweep through Virginia last Tuesday, cite the board's heavy expenditures as a factor that will eventually disenchant voters. Surry's operating budget under blacks has more than doubled -- from $2.3 million in 1971, to more than $5.2 million for fiscal 1981.
"They're going to get strung out into some big, expensive project and then the money's not going to be there," complains Greg Murdock, a 30-year-old welder who commutes daily to Newport News Shipbuilding.
It is perhaps through an awareness of those attitudes, along with the fact that per capita income in Surry is still 36 percent below the state's average, that has focused the board's attention on lessening its fiscal dependence on Vepco and farming by seeking to attract "clean" industry into the county to increase revenues and allow more Surry residents to find well-paying jobs within the county.
More than 48 percent of Surry's population, like Murdock, leave the county to work the industries of Newport News, Hopewell and Petersburg, according to black planning director Mary E. Jones. The county still depends on farming for nearly half its annual income, and the whims of nature have seldom been less benevolent in a season that farmers are calling the worst in 40 years.
But industrial development in Surry, Jones said, is hardly a simple proposition. The county has a poor water and sewage system, no railroad or four-lane highway, and inadequate housing for a major industrial facility's employes. To combat these shortcomings, an unprecedented, tricounty plan for industrial development is being worked out with Sussex and Southhampton counties to utilize land and services along common borders.
"Fifteen to 20 years ago, intracounty cooperation like this might have been considered unusual, but not now," said Sussex County Administrator Richard Albert.
Any new industry, according to County Administrator Beverly Brewer, will be encouraged to hire Surry residents for construction and permanent employment, something that did not happen when Vepco's reactors were built, she says.
Holmes, a 41-year-old supervisor for the Brown and Williams Tobacco Co. in Petersburg, has lived in the area all his life and has higher political aspirations. Other black officials including Brewer, who is a former Washingtonian, have found country life difficult enough to get used to.
"It has been a change from 30-minute traffic jams on Key Bridge in the morning to waking up and seeing a herd of deer in your front yard," said Brewer, who took over the county administrator's office last October. "I remember writing friends that the well water was making me sick, but Surry has a determination to make this work."