CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Senior West Virginians can look back over the decades and see how society gradually has evolved toward fairness and human rights. Acceptance of equality for blacks is a stunning example.
In the 1950s, African-Americans were treated almost like Indians on reservations. They were confined to ghettos, not allowed into white neighborhoods, schools, hotels, theaters, restaurants, etc. They were excluded from most jobs and generally deemed inferior. Poverty was virtually forced upon them.
But today, the era of Jim Crow segregation has vanished so completely it seems rather like an ancient myth.
The story of one West Virginian's progress shows how human potential can blossom when given a chance. The May-June issue of <I>The VVA Veteran<P> recounts the career of Ken Gray, who rose from a McDowell County coal camp to become a military general and finally a vice president of West Virginia University.
Son of a miner, Gray was born in the primitive, segregated coal town of Excelsior. But he had keen intelligence and found his way to West Virginia State University at Institute, where he earned a political science degree. Then he attended WVU law school, becoming its third black graduate in 1969.
"When I was in law school, my wife and I could not find an apartment in Morgantown," Gray recalled. "There were excuses made about why landlords wouldn't help us, but we all understood the reasons to be what they were -- race. So we decided to buy a trailer and went about looking for a space to put it. The first trailer park owner turned us down, telling us that if he rented to us, he'd lose all his other customers."
But the landlord quietly, privately helped the Grays find a space and became their friend -- which he said "underscores my belief that people are often fundamentally good," even as they struggle with social strictures.
After law school, Gray entered the U.S. Army as a legal officer and was sent to Da Nang, Vietnam. Then he returned to the Pentagon and to various Army legal posts, slowly rising to brigadier general, then major general -- the first black legal officer to do so. He commanded the largest U.S. Army legal unit in Europe.
After finally retiring from the military, he became WVU's vice president for student affairs in 1997.
"As a country, we have come a long way," he said. "I have been able to accomplish more during my lifetime than I ever thought possible."
He added, and we concur: "I believe and I hope as a country we will continue to make progress toward equality for everyone."