ROCKY MOUNT, Va. — Bridgette Craighead had almost reached the top of the hill when she stopped, teetering on leopard-print boots, to stare at the white-marble soldier in a Confederate uniform.
He stood atop a granite obelisk, dedicated in engraved letters to “THE CONFEDERATE DEAD,” that dominated the grassy square outside the Franklin County Courthouse. One of the soldier’s hands rested on his hip. The other gripped a rifle.
Craighead, 29, looked down at her own hands. She readjusted her grip on the megaphone she’d swathed in leopard-print tape, to match her boots and the “Black Lives Matter” logo on her T-shirt. She shook back her Afro and told herself she was a warrior. It did not matter that this was her first protest, organized four days before on Facebook. It did not matter that this was the first Black Lives Matter rally that White, rural, Republican Rocky Mount had ever seen. She was ready to lead.
“F--- y’all,” said a low voice, and Craighead turned to see a White face leaning from the window of a black pickup truck, and a middle finger thrust into the air. “Y’all are disrespecting my statue."
It was June 3. Nine days since George Floyd’s neck was crushed beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Nine days since the nation had erupted in protests that shattered cities and swept Americans, in what felt like every corner of the country, into an unprecedented reckoning with racism and police violence.
Every corner except Rocky Mount, the seat of Franklin County in southern Virginia. Craighead had grown up in this county of about 56,000, which lies lapped in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is nearly 90 percent White. Rocky Mount itself is nearly 70 percent White, and in Craighead’s public school classes, she was almost always the only Black child in class.
It’s the kind of place where Confederate flags hang, twinned with Trump 2020 banners, outside homes and shops. Where local officials rebuilt and rededicated the Confederate statue in 2010 at a cost of more than $100,000, after a pickup truck driver accidentally demolished it and local historians compared its demise to a death in the family. Where earlier this year, the White superintendent pooh-poohed a ban on Confederate gear in schools, proposed by the school board’s only Black member, by asserting that nobody could possibly be bothered by “a little Rebel flag on a jacket.”
It’s the birthplace of prominent Black educator Booker T. Washington — now marked by a national monument — and home to the site where he was freed. But the county’s historical marker notes only that Confederate “General Jubal A. Early lived in this county.”
No one expected the protests following Floyd’s killing to reach Franklin. Not its White people, not its young people and certainly not its older Black residents, who fought to integrate the schools in the 1960s before watching — with horror that gave way, over decades, to dull despair — as things settled back to how they’d been, with Black people living as second-class citizens in fact, if no longer in law.
But Craighead, watching the turmoil on television, had felt a calling. She’d phoned her cousin Katosha Poindexter, 33, who was scared but who slept on it and awoke feeling called, too. They were joined by a third Black woman, Malala Penn, 23, and together they decided: It was time for change. And, they thought, it was a test: If it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.
Craighead knew she would not command the kind of crowds she saw in major cities on TV. No thousands of demonstrators hoisting signs; few, if any, cars honking in support. She knew there might be hate — and now it had arrived, spitting and red-faced in a black truck.
She turned away from the driver and his jutting middle finger, lowering her gaze to the dozens who’d begun to mass beneath the monument: White people, Black people, Asian and Mexican Americans, the young and the old, including one man who later told her he’d marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was more people than she’d ever seen at one time in Rocky Mount — except for the town’s Christmas parade, which was almost always all White.
“This is what we’re going to have to deal with all day,” she called to the protesters on the lawn. Her protesters, she thought. “All I want you to say back is, ‘We love you,’ and they will hear you. They will have to hear you.”
She hoped it was true.
Two weeks later, on June 19 — the day, 155 years earlier, that the last enslaved Black people in the United States learned they were free — Malala Penn strode up to a diner with a sign under her arm.
The sign read “JUNETEENTH” and “#BlackLivesMatterFC,” although the county’s chapter of Black Lives Matter technically didn’t exist yet. Penn had applied online a couple of days before as Craighead and Poindexter looked over her shoulders. They were still waiting to hear back.
Penn was walking toward the Hub Restaurant, a squat, green-roofed building at a busy intersection, famous in Rocky Mount for its “Club Hub” sandwiches and, among Black residents, for its racist history.
She pushed open the front door. The early-afternoon customers turned and stared. The only other Black face Penn could see belonged to the cook, who clattered pans behind a tall counter in the tiny kitchen. She approached a waitress and asked to speak to the manager.
“Not during lunch hour,” the woman said.
“Okay.” Penn stepped closer and raised the sign. “Well, I’m with Black Lives Matter and we have our Juneteenth celebration today. Could you put this on the window in a show of support?”
It was Penn’s first time inside the restaurant in more than 10 years. She had inherited her disdain from her grandfather, who grew up when the Hub still forced Black people to get their food from a tiny takeout window around back. Even after integration, he refused to spend his money at the diner, and he died seven weeks shy of 100 without once stepping inside.
The takeout window, Penn knew, was still there. Someone had painted it shut and stuck three propane tanks in front of it. But it was there.
In fact, much of the county still looked and felt the way Penn’s grandparents remembered it. Black people still didn’t drive far into Endicott, a mountainous region that had once served as a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. The businesses and the town council — and the police force, and the musicians invited to sing at the local performance center — were still overwhelmingly White.
And most people passing through still had to cross through Boones Mill, a small town anchored by two gas stations and a curio shop bedecked with concrete statues and large Confederate flags. “Gateway to Franklin County,” a sign there read, and it was. The flags outside Boones Mill Produce Co. were just about the first thing any visitors saw.
Inside the store, a man, who said he was a longtime employee and gave his name only as Gary, said his great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy. Black people almost never came to the store, Gary told a reporter. But White tourists occasionally walked in shouting that he should remove the flags.
Sometimes, Gary shouted back, he said. “We’re not racist,” he recalled yelling to one man, aiming to rile him. “We just don’t like n------, sp--- and Jews.”
Penn sped up when she crossed through that intersection, which happened every time she drove between home and Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, where she was just finishing her senior year. She hated the flags. She hated the intersection. She never stopped unless she was about to run out of gas.
Part of her hated being inside the Hub, too. She could feel the stares. Yet she also felt powerful in the knowledge that she was making all these old White people uncomfortable.
The waitress took Penn’s sign. When the owners showed up later in the afternoon, the woman said, she would explain Penn’s request and let them decide.
Later that day, Penn drove by to check. The windows were bare. She marched inside and approached the manager.
“We don’t put any fliers for anybody up,” he told her. “The only thing we have on our windows is what we have to have for covid.”
“That’s been the regulations for … ?” Penn asked.
“For everybody,” he said, misunderstanding her question. “But if it weren’t for that, we would do it.”
She raised an eyebrow, thanked him and walked out.
That evening, Penn, Craighead and Poindexter stepped one by one to microphones and faced a crowd of about two dozen people, Black and White, who’d gathered inside the open-air plaza that normally hosts Rocky Mount’s Sunday farmers market.
The women had arrived two hours early to hang signs from the empty green stalls — a bedsheet reading “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and smaller posters saying “If I comply, will I still die?” They had set up a booth to register voters and another to encourage residents to complete the 2020 Census. They had ordered 20 pizzas from Domino’s.
Sun sparkled off an inflatable bouncy house, and children milled sticky-fingered in the heat, faces half-hidden behind columns of cotton candy. Three officers from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office stood guard, summoned because of rumored plans to disrupt the protest, including a vow that the old boys of Franklin County would ride again that night.
The women put the threat out of their minds. It was 6:01 p.m. Time to start the Juneteenth celebrations.
Craighead raised a plastic bottle filled with brownish water, left over from a ceremony they had performed earlier that day. They had waded into a nearby river, inching around a white family on a fishing trip, and invoked the blessing of their African ancestors — “seen and unseen,” Craighead had said, “known and unknown” — by tossing offerings of fresh fruit into the water.
Now, Craighead unscrewed the cap. Penn asked the crowd to stand and call out the names of those they wished to honor.
“Martin Luther King!” someone said, and Craighead poured a driblet of the dark liquid.
“Rosa Parks!” Another pour. “Emmett Till!” “Harriet Tubman!” Craighead suggested that one herself, and bounced on her toes as she let the water stream past her leopard-print boots.
It was Craighead and Poindexter’s first time celebrating Juneteenth. Both had suffered difficult childhoods, and both had recently moved back to their hometown to “get straight,” as Poindexter said. But neither had a steady job. Craighead, who is midway through cosmetology school, had found intermittent work cutting hair, until the coronavirus outbreak wiped that out. For several months now, the cousins had lived off their savings, pandemic stimulus checks and child support. Once they’d saved enough, they hoped to open a beauty salon. Both said they hadn’t learned much about Black history in school. But, inspired by the protests in the wake of Floyd’s death, they were hungry to know.
Penn was hungry to help. Unlike the cousins, she was not a native of Franklin County. She was born in Madagascar and adopted at age 8 by Ruby Edwards Penn, becoming part of one of the county’s oldest Black families. The Edwardses still lived on Edwards Way, on the more than 100 acres of land their family had owned for generations, not far from the farm where Ruby’s great-grandfather was once enslaved.
Ruby Penn’s father was well known for his catchphrase: “They can’t ride your back unless you’re bent.” Ruby Penn and her sisters had helped integrate the county’s schools. Ruby Penn’s youngest sister, Penny Edwards Blue, was now the only Black member of the Franklin County School Board, the one who’d proposed banning Confederate gear in January.
Malala Penn grew up celebrating Juneteenth. She grew up hearing her mother’s stories about integration: The girls who shot water guns on the bus in the wintertime so the Edwards sisters’ hair froze when they walked home. The teachers who called on Black students only if they thought the children didn’t know the answer. The boy who once told Ruby Penn, “I’m not going to sit next to no n-----,” and the graffiti he later scrawled in dust on the bus window, which the driver left in place for weeks: “RUBY EDWARDS, KING OF THE N-----S.”
A few days before the Juneteenth event, Ruby Penn, 69, had drawn her daughter aside and asked if she could say something honest.
“When I look at you,” Ruby Penn said, “I see myself at your age.”
She meant it, good and bad: She was so proud, and yet so frustrated, that Malala was fighting the same battles she had.
Watching her daughter now, gesturing behind the microphone in the farmers market, Ruby Penn tried to feel hopeful. But the hatred in Franklin County ran too deep, and she was tired. Watching the video of George Floyd’s killing had left Ruby Penn breathless and sagging. The police had killed that man like he was a bug, she thought.
She had given up the best years of her life to fight for justice, Ruby Penn felt, and it hadn’t made a bit of difference.
Malala Penn and the others had strategized about what to tell Ruby’s generation. Now, Malala Penn sought to channel that message — in the warmth of her voice, in the flick of her wrist — as she strode to the mic and looked at her mother.
“My name is Malala Penn,” she said. “I’m black and I’m proud.”
But she was really trying to say: Mom, we’ve got you. We’ll take it from here.
It was a lazy Saturday, sunny and protest-free, and Craighead waded farther into the lake. She called to her 4-year-old son, Bronsyn, who was standing with fists clenched on the shore.
“C’mon, baby boy,” she said. “Don’t be scared. It’s just water.”
She reached down and let brown water dribble from her cupped hands, meant to entice him. She wished for the thousandth time that she could take her son to the well-maintained pool located in the middle of Rocky Mount, just behind the Sheetz, where she had begged to go as a child. Instead, she’d learned to swim here, in Smith Mountain Lake, a roughly 45-minute drive from home.
The town pool was for members only, and Craighead had never met a Black Rocky Mount resident who was a member. Growing up, when Craighead asked her parents about it, they said a membership was needed to swim there. They skirted any discussion of race.
A week earlier, Craighead had decided she was done skirting.
“Let’s talk,” she wrote on Facebook, “about the Rocky Mount swim club that black people can’t go to.”
The post drew dozens of comments. “My momma always told me ‘Black people aren’t allowed there,’ ” one Black woman wrote. “My mama and aunt [used to] tell me the exact same thing,” wrote another.
“We were all told that as kids here,” offered a third. “They never even tried to hide it.”
A couple of days later, a woman phoned Craighead and introduced herself as a board member of Brookside Swim Club. She explained the club’s membership fees and promised to raise the lack of diversity at the next board meeting. A few days later, the club made a public Facebook post: “The pool has two shares of stock for sale — $700.00 per share.”
Jessica Slough, another board member, said in an interview that the club has some Black members, but that she does not know how many. “I don’t know how things worked in the past,” she said, “but it’s been equal opportunity for at least 12 years."
Craighead considered the call an early hint of progress. Her friends agreed: No real change would come until Franklin County hired more Black teachers, reformed the laws that put too many Black bodies behind bars, and passed a stimulus package creating Black jobs and boosting Black-owned businesses. On the advice of Penny Edwards Blue, who is mentoring the trio, they planned to split their chapter of Black Lives Matter into three committees: education, law and the economy.
But conversations were a start. And more kept happening.
Not long after the protest outside the courthouse, the Franklin County School Board reversed itself, agreeing to ban the Confederate flag from schools. Two weeks after that, a local pastor invited White and Black residents to two town-hall meetings on race relations in Franklin County, the first anyone could remember.
At the lake, Bronsyn decided to risk it and splashed into the water. Craighead raised her arms in welcome. Then she spotted a drifting cigarette, left by another family out for a swim.
They decided to hold their fourth protest outside the Wendy’s restaurant where Craighead’s mom used to work.
It was the perfect location, on a heavily trafficked road that led to Westlake Corner, a town just a little north of Rocky Mount. In the 1940s and 1950s, the area had served as a hub for the Ku Klux Klan, Ruby Penn and her sisters remembered; nowadays, it was just very White. Craighead, Poindexter and Malala Penn had never demonstrated this close to Westlake before. They didn’t think anyone had.
Now, on a Monday afternoon in late June, they were joined by a dozen mostly older White people: a smattering of congregants from a nearby church and members of the Smith Mountain Lake Democrats. Although the majority of Franklin County is deep red, the lake area — with its leafy vistas and upscale homes — tends to attract liberal-leaning retirees from up north.
Craighead shimmied to music pumping from a portable speaker, sweating a little in leopard-print shorts, a leopard-print face mask and a T-shirt reading “Legalize Being Black.”
“Hey, look, it doesn’t matter if y’all don’t know how to dance,” she called into her megaphone. “If you feel the music, just let it move you!”
She, Poindexter and Penn were thrilled to see the septuagenarians, but they would have stayed even if no one had shown up. Actually, that was their plan for months to come: As enthusiasm dwindled, they guessed, their demonstrations would reliably draw only themselves.
Themselves and the opposition.
It happened that Monday like it happened every time. White middle fingers protruded from passing windows. A car slowed down so a White man could mutter threats, and Craighead turned up the music to avoid hearing them. A red truck gunned its engine and veered close to the curb, sending elderly men and women stumbling.
Behind Craighead, at the Wendy’s drive-through, a White customer leaned close to the window and urged employees to call the cops. Another warned that the demonstrators might be “dangerous.”
“Why are they protesting?” another White customer asked.
“Racial equality,” replied a teenage Wendy’s employee.
“They already have,” the man said, “as much as they’re going to get.”
It was impossible to fully drown them out with Bridgette’s favorite reply, “We love you!” Sometimes, the three women felt scared. That’s when Poindexter thought of her rental home, with its water leaks and hole in the ceiling. She told herself that everything she was doing would help create a fairer world for her kids, so they wouldn’t have to raise their families in a place like that.
Craighead thought of Bronsyn. Penn thought of the children she might have someday.
And they all thought: If they didn’t speak up in Franklin County, who would?
Another White man in a black truck whipped by Wendy’s now, his middle finger outstretched. He slowed enough to spit the words directly into Craighead’s face: “F--- you!” Then he slammed the pedal again, and she chased after him, sprinting and screaming “I love you!” until she had to stop, bent and out of breath.
The man turned into a CVS parking lot, swirled in a screeching U-turn and came back for another go. As soon as the light changed, he was streaking forward, a blur of black metal and long white finger and loud, angry honking.
Craighead was crumpled, panting in the grass.
She straightened. She raised her megaphone. She started running after him.