Since the horrific death of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations and protests which have erupted across the country, I have been reflecting on my unique experiences with the police. I am the sculptor who was commissioned to do Officer Down (unveiled in 2004) for the Roanoke Police Department, and That I May Serve (unveiled in 2009), the memorial to all Police Dogs killed in the line of duty in Virginia, which is sited at the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine on the Virginia Tech campus.
These two projects took me about three years to complete. During that time, I met and observed a considerable number of officers from the City of Roanoke, Virginia Tech, and, through the Virginia Police Work Dog Association (VPWDA), K-9 officers from several counties in Southwest Virginia. I went on three “Citizen Ride-Alongs,” and observed training sessions for K-9 officers and their dogs at various locations.
Officer Down is based upon an actual incident, so on two occasions I closely questioned the supervising officer on duty that night about details. In December 2018, during the period I was working on That I May Serve, K-9 Carsen was accidentally shot and killed while he and his handler were investigating a possible break-in at a small church in Giles County. I was at the service, attended by at least fifty K-9 officers, which ended when the body of K-9 Carsen was ceremoniously carried from the church in a flag-draped casket. From these and other experiences, I began to appreciate the difficulty and complexity of police work. I saw the importance for officers of camaraderie. I realized that police work—or the police work I observed--usually does not involve guns or handcuffs or even a citation.
Yet I now realize that there were things I missed, too. I had not noticed that all the officers I observed, rode with, or talked to—were white. I was blind to this. There was one exception: because the Roanoke Police Department wished to emphasize its commitment to diversity, an African American officer became my model for the wounded officer, even though the actual officer killed was white. There was an irony in this which I also did not recognize: despite this official commitment, and the fact that the Chief of Police was African American, I had not observed much actual diversity in the Roanoke police force. I did not work with or recall seeing any Latino officers. Were there women? I can’t remember, which is itself an indicator. Things may have changed since then. I think they have. I hope so.
I can imagine, now, that if I had been African American, I might have felt differently about being around all those white cops. I might have had uncomfortable encounters with the police; family members or friends might have, too. When K9 officers, during “pursuit training” in a wooded area, told me that usually just the shouted warning, “we’re sending in the dog!” would be enough to prompt a suspect to surrender, I might have been chilled to the bone. For I would remember that dogs had been used against African American marchers during the Civil Rights era, and perhaps to hunt down my own ancestors in “slavery time.” None of this occurred to me then, however. I am sorry for my blindness, which took recent catastrophic events to reveal to me.
In closing, I wish to make three observations: first, the egregious actions of just a single officer greatly complicate the work of the many officers still conscientiously performing their duties. Trust, once broken, is hard to restore. Yet trust between officers and citizens, and between police departments and their communities, is essential. Second, I worry that police departments will have trouble attracting, hiring, and retaining good people, especially African Americans, when a diverse police force is critical. And third, it seems to me that police are too often charged with treating the symptoms, as it were, of conditions which our society has failed to effectively address. We are to blame, at least as much as the police.
It was a privilege to meet and observe police officers from Roanoke, Virginia Tech, and surrounding counties. I trust we will afford them the respect we expect them to show us. I hope police departments will be open to change and active in helping to facilitate that change. Crisis can be opportunity, if we are able to be patient with each other, act constructively, and look to the future.
After my presentation and reading from “A Partial Sun” at Book No Further in downtown Roanoke on Saturday, December 7th, 2019, Ann and I and our daughter Haley walked up through the Farmers’ Market, and stepped into a little bakery to enjoy a pastry and tea (or in my case a steamer). Breaking from the flow of our conversation, Haley abruptly related for our benefit a remarkable dream of hers from the previous night. She had suddenly remembered this dream, she said, while she sat listening to me read from my novel. In this dream, Haley came to a white door, which was closed. She knocked on it and Nannie, dressed in white, opened the door. Nannie said, “I heard your Dad wrote a book.” When Haley affirmed this, Nannie said, “I’m so proud of him.”
Haley’s relating of this dream brought Ann nearly to tears, and I, too, felt my eyes grow moist. Why, you ask? Listen to the words of my dedication: “This book is fondly dedicated to the memory of Nannie B. Hairston (1921-2017) ‘Praise the Lord!’” Oh, how well I remember Nannnie! It was she who let me into Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church one day in 1997 to see the painting of Captain Charles Schaeffer, the church’s founder, and from which I proposed to do his portrait sculpture. It was she who ever after recalled, with a laugh, my spontaneous exclamation at seeing this painting: “he’s white!” It was she, and her good friend Lois Teele, who came to my studio dressed in their Sunday best to see, and warmly approve, my finished clay model of the Captain Schaeffer portrait bust; it was she who organized the fundraising campaign to raise the $5,000 necessary to have my clay model cast in bronze; and it was she who orchestrated the memorable unveiling ceremony and potluck dinner which followed.
Nannie had made such a deep impression on me by then that I resolved to do a portrait bust of her, as well, and so once again a committee was organized, a fundraising campaign was launched, with appeals to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors to approve placement of her portrait bust in the Government Center Building in Christiansburg. Never will I forget modelling her from life, at her house at 2000 Sunset Drive in Christiansburg, with her ailing husband John behind me in his recliner. As I fashioned in clay the features of her face and the particular curl of her hair, Nannie related to me what it had been like for she and John and their small children to uproot from their life in West Virginia and John’s employment in the coal mines, to settle in Southwest Virginia so that John could begin work at the Radford Arsenal in 1953. “As bad as Mississippi,” Nannie said, and then described examples of the innumerable indignities, slights, and outright discrimination she and her family had to deal with in the Jim Crow era prior to the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s. But rather than simply suffer these affronts, or react in anger, she and her husband John methodically addressed them, seeking simple changes, where this was possible. Their watchword was a saying her mother had repeated over and over: “you can never overcome hate with hate, you can only overcome hate with love.”
Nevertheless, she was, as the saying goes, a force to be reckoned with. This was apparent in the way she presented herself on public occasions: queenly. Thus, when she was chosen for a Strong Men and Women in Virginia History award--an award dedicated to the recognition of African-American leaders--she came to the banquet in Richmond dressed in black and gold, and fairly glittered when she stepped to the podium. And for her departure from this earth, in July, 2017 at age 95, she likewise had chosen, with great care I am sure, queenly costume, this time all white, with jewelry to match. How well I remember seeing her in the cushioned casket and thinking, “this is the last time I will ever see Nannie.”
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to publicly express my deep appreciation of her at a ceremony beautifully orchestrated by June Sayers of Christiansburg Library, which you can view here:
So now, perhaps, you can begin to understand the impact on me of our daughter Haley’s dream, which she related to us in that little bakery in Roanoke on January 7th, 2019: “I am so proud of you.”