Virginia is for book lovers

It’s intimidating to speak about your own humble attempt at eloquence when you’re in Charlottesville, Va., home of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote some of the most eloquent words ever composed in the Declaration of Independence. But I did my best last weekend at the Virginia Festival of the Book, where I was invited to make a presentation about “The Class of ’65.”

I shared the stage with Kristen Green (seen with me below), an accomplished journalist who wrote “Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County,” a first-person history about growing up in the southern Virginia county that actually closed its public school system rather than desegregate. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds fascinating.

When it was my turn to speak, I looked down at the front row where my main character, Greg Wittkamper, sat with his wife, Anne, and their daughter, Sallie. Greg lives a couple of hours away in West Virginia and had come to the festival with two in-laws: Anne’s sister, Sallie, and her husband, Gary. Mindful of Greg’s traumatic experiences at Americus High School, I started with a rueful joke, saying that if he had known all the abuse he was going to suffer, he might have preferred that officials in Georgia close his school system like the people in Virginia.

The session was held at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a handsome redbrick building in downtown Charlottesville. I expected the crowd would be more interested in Kristen’s book, being closer to home, but there were as many questions about my story, even though it’s set hundreds of miles away in Georgia. One woman had actually spent time at Koinonia, the farming commune where Greg was raised. Another audience member knew all about the story because, well, she was a former colleague of mine at the Atlanta newspapers: Emma Edmunds. She left Georgia almost 20 years ago to return to her native Virginia and has done groundbreaking research into the civil rights movement there. It was great seeing Emma again. (My wife, Pam, took this picture of us after brunch the next morning; she must have said something that tickled us.)

Many thanks to the people at the Virginia Festival of the Book for a wonderful weekend. Thanks to Kristen Green for sharing the spotlight so graciously and to our moderator, Amy Tillerson-Brown, a history professor at Mary Baldwin College who grew up in Prince Edward County and knows this material in her bones.

Oh, and thanks to Mr. Jefferson for writing those beautiful words about freedom -- although it took America a long time to realize what they fully meant.