HAMPTON — Days after Allen Iverson was sentenced last fall, Glen Frances of Portsmouth got telephone calls from business contacts in New York. They weren’t calling to place ads in the Hampton Roads Black Pages of America, for which Frances works as sales manager. They had heard about Iverson’s trial on radio and television, and asked why Hampton seemed such a racist town.
FOR THE RECORD – Published correction ran Wednesday, April 13, 1994
- An article in the Feb. 27 Local section incorrectly reported that Newport News school officials closed white schools rather than allow black students to attend during the era of school desegregation. Norfolk opposed desegregation by closing its schools briefly in 1958, but Newport News did not.
“They wanted to know how this could happen in the year 1993,” Frances said. “They wanted to know what the citizens of the community were going to do about it.” Fairly or not, Hampton’s image was stained by the racial tension produced by the conviction and sentencing of Iverson, an 18-year-old high school basketball All-American, on three felony counts of mob violence for his role in a bowling-alley brawl a year ago. ``People will look at Hampton as a place where racial unfairness takes place,” said the Rev. Dwight Riddick of Gethsemane Baptist Church in Newport News. Iverson was freed in December with a conditional pardon from Gov. Doug Wilder.
Some of the damage to Hampton’s reputation may have been repaired by Sports Illustrated’s unusual full-page correction in the Feb. 21 issue of the 3.2 million-circulation magazine. The correction admits to many errors in an October feature story labeled “Southern Discomfort,” which many blamed for fanning the racial fires and unfairly depicting Hampton as a prejudiced southern backwater. But some insist that the area’s political leaders failed to do enough to counter – early on – the perception that Iverson’s treatment reflected a deeper undercurrent of racism in Hampton. By allowing that firestorm to run its course, the appearance of racism constituted reality for many unfamiliar with the details of the case and who saw only the ill will it generated. Hampton city leaders worked behind the scenes to contain political damage and bring people to the table to talk about the racial issue, but not much happened out in the open. A Newport News-based group of community leaders specially designed to address that city’s race relations was turned down when it offered to hold a summit in Hampton. Joel Williamson, a University of North Carolina history professor, said a public show of leadership is the key ingredient to improving race relations. He said the history of the civil rights movement shows that inaction is a recipe for racial trouble. “The key thing is leadership -leadership on the white side and leadership on the black side,” said Williamson, whose book, “The Crucible of Race,” was published in 1984. “The political whites talking to the religious blacks. If the leadership sits back and refuses to talk, things will start to slide. If you do nothing, look out.” Williamson recalled Bobby Kennedy visiting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Birmingham jail in 1963 as a turning point in the civil rights struggle. And he pointed out that racial tension and violence over Charlotte’s school desegregation efforts in the 1970s ended largely when the city’s black and white business leaders began working together to integrate hotels and restaurants. But Williamson also noted the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, which erupted at a time when “the whites didn’t dream they had a racial problem.” The racially charged debate over the trials of Iverson and three other black teen-agers took many residents by surprise.
The controversy did not reflect the historically harmonious race relations in Hampton, which has a population that is 37 percent black. The city was peacefully integrating its schools decades ago when Newport News and other cities shut down white schools rather than allow black students in. But after Iverson, who led Bethel High School to state championships in basketball and football as a junior, was sentenced to five years in prison, Hampton got a heavy dose of unflattering attention. The story was carried on NBC television newscasts. It was featured in Sports Illustrated twice. In some ways, on a smaller scale, Hampton’s image problem in the wake of the Iverson controversy mirrored that of Virginia Beach after the violence at the 1989 Greekfest celebration, which also prompted protests along racial lines. The stores of many white merchants were trashed and looted during the end-of-summer violence that erupted during the Labor Day weekend. Several hundred people were arrested, and the story was aired nationwide. A year later, reporters and TV crews returned in anticipation of more trouble. That image cost the resort city an estimated $6 million in lost tourism the following year, said James Ricketts, head of the city’s tourism department. To fight back, the city spent $385,000 on a public relations campaign, created a biracial committee to monitor police actions and sent Ricketts on an East Coast image-mending campaign. The efforts paid off as tourism bounced back and racial friction was eased, Ricketts said.
Full Story Article from 1994
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