Dunbar High School
Visiting the site of my adoptive dad's alma mater
Dunbar High School was an African-American school in Lynchburg, VA from 1923-1970. My adoptive father, Bill Womack, attended Dunbar, and his mother Fannie S. Womack taught there for 40 years. Sadly, the original building was torn down in 1979.
I went to the site expecting only a marker, but instead found a larger memorial – including a wall engraved with names of students and faculty. I found my father and grandmother, proving they had been here. It meant so much, but their names carved in lifeless rock also amplified their absence.
I often wondered why my dad was so tight-lipped about the past, not sharing much about his life here, about the school, and how it really felt to be raised by tough, disciplinarian schoolteachers (mom & aunt) in the segregated South. But now, seeing for the first time his high school’s motto: “Looking forward, not backward” – it all made sense. That’s how he lived.
It also made sense this would be the motto for a generation of Black students whose grandparents had been slaves, and who lived in what had been the heart of the Confederacy. Look forward, because not far behind was deep ugliness.
The teachers, including my grandmother, were fiercely devoted to pulling the youth up out of that mud. Many students, like my dad, went on to great achievements, becoming firsts in their fields. The alma mater: “We love old Dunbar best of all, the ideals for which it stands: We are her sons and daughters true, and we try to bring her fame.” Not an easy road.
Below that was a quote from the famed principal of the school Mr. Seay, who was there when my dad attended. “All who knew and loved Dunbar HS admired its quest for excellence and its positive approach to public understanding… Long live the Dunbar experience! Honor to its sons and daughters!”
Yes. Honor to my dad, one of Dunbar’s sons. Honor to the legacy Dunbar’s students and guiding faculty left in the world. I sat near the memorial for a while, audio recording some of my thoughts. As I later walked away I missed my dad, but felt like I understood him so much more than when I arrived.