Kay Coles James Inspires Future Generations of Leaders
By Cheryl Wilcox
The 700 Club
CBN.com -Along the picturesque banks of Virginia’s York River stands the stately Georgian mansion, Holly Knoll. But history remembers it as the cradle of the civil rights movement. According to Kay Coles James, “This place is on the national historic registry, not because of the architecture, but because of the important things that happened here.”
It was on these grounds that famous African Americans, including Dr. Martin Luther King, conceived the social and political ideas that transformed the nation. Pointing to a large tree on the grounds in front of the house, Kay added, “That is the tree that we are told that Martin Luther King sat under and looked out over the York River while he prepared himself to go to Washington to give his famous I Have a Dream speech.”
Within the walls, the idea for the United Negro College Fund was formed, as was the legal strategy that desegregated public schools. When CEOs from Woolworths, Kresge and Sears secretly traveled to Holly Knoll and met with student leaders, an agreement was reached that desegregated lunch counters months before legislation was passed.
“From the day the doors of this house were opened, the vision always was for racial reconciliation; how to educate African Americans in this country,”
Kay Coles James, former United States Director of Personnel Management for the federal government, purchased the site in 2005 with plans to restore it to its original purpose. Built in 1935, Holly Knoll was the retirement home for Dr. Robert Russa Moton.
Moton, who was the son of freed slaves, his mother and the daughter of her former slave mistress taught him to read. He went on to higher education, then administration at Hampton University before becoming the 2nd President of Tuskegee Institute, now University.
“He was one who believed in education and how education could set one free and open up new vistas and new boundaries. He also believed in self-sufficiency and independence. He believed in a strong work ethic. And most of all, I think the secret to Dr. Moton and his success and his accomplishments is that he was a great man of faith.”
From the World War I battlefields of France to the delta flats of the 1927 great Mississippi flood, Dr. Moton advised five United States presidents during times of national crisis.
“He was so well respected that when the racial tensions in this country were at their height, presidents and heads of corporations called on Dr. Moton to step in and help navigate those difficult waters.”
He also suffered the indignities of racism along with his fellow black citizens. As the keynote speaker at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, Dr. Moton wasn’t seated along with the dignitaries of the day, but rather - placed in the colored section.
“And when you think about the irony of that, at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial – that he was not honored to sit with the other very important people that day. So he suffered a great deal of racial injustice himself. And I think one of the models there is that he stayed positive through it, found those individuals nationally and locally who were willing to make progress and worked with them.”
After he died in 1940, his home remained a hub for black leaders through the civil rights era, and then fell into disrepair until Kay rediscovered it.
“I said, ‘How is it that Monticello is taken care of? How is it that people go to Mt. Vernon and are able to learn and walk through their history? But how is it that the place that's known as the cradle of the civil rights' movement has windows broken out and vines growing up and the roof is off?’”
The decaying structure was deeply personal to Kay. Her connection to the historic site goes back to the late 1950’s and her impoverished childhood.
Kay reminisced, “I started out in the public housing projects of Richmond. I had an aunt and uncle who were a part of the social and intellectual elite of Virginia and probably even nationally, and I would be brought here with my cousin so that I would be a companion for her while they spent the week here. And I have wonderful memories of being just a very young child, sitting on the floor here with my dolls and books, and all I remember is that the black people who gathered here, I remember thinking, ‘they're so smart, and they're so talented, and they're beautiful. And I remember the food was great here too.”
In this restful place they planned, wrote and reflected to gather strength to speak, sacrifice and even die so children like Kay would one day have a better future. With her return to Holly Knoll a half century later, she restored the site and founded the Gloucester Institute to mentor another generation of minority leaders.
“I think God placed it in my heart to restore the property and the vision. My husband and I formed the nonprofit, and have dedicated our lives to restoring, not only the bricks and mortar, but also the vision as a gathering place for racial reconciliation where we can deal with the important issues of the day; a place where politics are left aside, and we come together as people who want to find solutions.”
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