By Alexander Wallace
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 34th contest was Bloody Students.
"Iron-shod or golden-sandaled Shall the years go by, Yet our hearts shall weave about thee Love that cannot die! William & Mary, loved of old, Hark upon the gale! Hear the thunders of our chorus Alma Mater, Hail! Williamsburg, Virginia 1975
The orientation group of black students strolled down the brick path on the northern end of the Sunken Garden, past the stately brick buildings that formed half of Old Campus. Ruth Franklin found the Tidewater to feel rustic and aristocratic, rather than the relatively cosmopolitan Alexandria she had come from.
The trip down had been strange. Her parents’ car had been delayed by a massive deployment of the Virginia National Guard driving up north on the interstate. It was something about unrest in Virginia’s northern counties as Congress failed, yet again, to pass a civil rights bill.
Even so, integration was an idea whose time seemed to have come. William & Mary had accepted black students for some years now, and she was excited to study at the Alma Mater of the Nation.
She first got the idea that something was off in Williamsburg when she saw multiple armored cars in the city rolling up and down Richmond Road like gigantic beetles, accompanied by armed men in uniform on street corners. She could have sworn she heard a distant explosion as she entered James City County from New Kent County, followed by the howl of sirens.
The College was intent on displaying how enlightened and twentieth-century it was; that’s why it had a tour specifically for the few black students who wanted to attend. The tour was guided by a black upperclassman, tall and bespectacled, who gushed to them about how forward-thinking the Board of Visitors had been in the past decade. They had black students and a black dorm and black sections in the dining halls and black study areas.
His name was Philip. His ebullient smile was balanced by a tinge of uncertainty in his eyes.
He was talking about the history department at the college, now with its own black history offerings, when another new student by the name of Henry, who had come from Richmond, asked a question.
“Why is there a Virginia flag flying from the building?”
Philip stopped. He glanced rapidly in both directions. Bare-breasted Virtus flew proudly over them from one Blair Hall’s windows.
“It’s to show state pride!” He said, with faint trepidation.
Ruth noticed a plaque on the building, below the flagpole. “What does the plaque say?”
Philip squirmed a bit. “Uhhhh … ummmm … If you’d follow me, you’ll now see Old Dominion Hall, where you’ll be living this year!”
As the others followed him, Ruth and Henry stayed near Blair Hall to see what was on the plaque. It said:
THIS FLAGPOLE WAS GIFTED BY THE KU KLUX KLAN OF VIRGINIA TO PRESIDENT OF THE COLLEGE J. A. C. CHANDLER, SO THAT STUDENTS OF THE COLLEGE MAY SIT AND CONTEMPLATE THE PRESENT, PAST, AND FUTURE GLORIES OF WHITE VIRGINIA
"So I see why he was hesitant,” remarked Ruth.
“Some orientation, hmm?” spat Henry.
It was then that they heard the boom. The windows around them shattered. They ducked. They were caked in dust.
They got up with great trepidation. Blair Hall still stood, thankfully.
Only about half of Old Dominion Hall could say the same. The northeastern half of the building sagged morosely as the fire within it increased.
So went their domicile.
. . .
They were made to stay in a makeshift dormitory fashioned out of quonset huts to the west of Old Campus, near the all-white Yates Hall. The white students she had gotten to know were polite but distant, with some sort of vague discomfort underlying every interaction.
Under the nice white people, at least. Some of them just delighted in flinging slurs or eggs or bodily waste at her. Many of them would chant fraternity or sorority songs as they did so.
In these times, she wasn’t exactly unused to it.
She did get to know the other black students living in that city of huts. She came to know Henry very well; he came from Norfolk and he was something of a firebrand, interested in what the likes of Huey Newton and Fred Hampton had to say. He had strong opinions about what was going on at this campus, in this city, in this state, in this country.
She also had gotten to know a girl named Veronica who bunked near her. Veronica had applied to William & Mary because her beau, Thomas, had applied here. They were both accepted, and they brought their belongings from Winchester to Williamsburg together. They were joined at the hips whenever they weren’t in class or sleeping (and even at those times they could be unpleasantly noisy).
One day, they handed her a camera and asked that she take a picture of them kissing on the Crim Dell Bridge. The campus lore stated that any couple that kissed on the Crim Dell Bridge would be together forever. She accepted this task.
She stood at one end of the Crim Dell, waiting for the two lovebirds to navigate the forested paths to the bridge. As they stood on it, they waved to her, and then kissed. She pressed the button and took the picture.
As the lovers held one another, some of the white students spat in their direction and called them awful things. Ruth wished she were surprised that they kissed their mothers with those ugly mouths.
. . .
The next day, as Ruth went from the quonset hut to her classes in Washington Hall, she detected a trepidation in her fellow students, black and white. The white students stayed away from her and cast her looks askance, even those she had rapport with.
She saw why when she arrived at the Crim Dell.
From that beautiful bridge over a beautiful pond dangled two charred corpses from ropes wrapped around their necks. She didn’t have to ask to know who those corpses had been.
. . .
The deaths of her friends made her angry. It made her sad. It made her want to do something.
She had no idea who had killed them, but she had a hunch. She got some matches from her room, some waste paper, and some rocks lying about the grass near the quonset huts.
She waited for night, and then made her way to the lodges where the all-white fraternities lived. She took one of the rocks and threw it into a window. She then took a big bundle of waste paper, set it alight with a match, and threw it into the window.
To her pleasure, the curtains lit up, and the fire began to spread.
She knew she should not take pleasure in such things, as her church had taught her, but she felt pleasure anyway. Now, she could do something.
She hadn’t been able to do anything when the Klan burned a cross in her yard.
She hadn’t been able to do anything when some white man drove a bulldozer into her school.
She hadn’t been able to do anything when her father was shot for some stupid reason by a machine gunner on a Virginia National Guard tank patrolling King Street.
But she could do something here.
. . .
The entirety of the black student body at William & Mary had been unified by the lynchings. What divided them were tactics. Some of them wanted to be pacifist, much like Martin Luther King and those like him. There were others that were willing to be more violent. Those who wanted to be more violent liked to point out that Martin Luther King was shot, Coretta Scott King was run over with a truck, John Lewis was dragged through the streets of Montgomery before being doused in gasoline and paraded through the Alabama state capitol. The peaceful route didn’t seem to be working. There were marches and sit-ins, but there were also open brawls with white fraternity brothers and whatever other white gang was on patrol that day.
There was a cross burned between Yates Hall and the quonset huts.
These discussions changed when it was announced that Governor Button was coming to Williamsburg. He had been vocal about denouncing what he called a “communist insurgency at the Princeton of the South.” He was to speak to the crowds at the old Governor’s Mansion on Duke of Gloucester Street.
The decision was made to be peaceful, at least for this moment. They knew that the Virginia National Guard would be deployed in force for this event. There would be tanks and armored cars and helicopters and fighter planes, and Governor Button was willing to use them.
There was the time armored cars with dozer blades flattened children in Richmond. There was the time that Stratford Junior High School in Arlington tried to integrate, upon which they were met with National Guard machine guns.
Henry didn’t agree with the decision to be peaceful. He said he would not show up to the demonstration at the Governor’s Mansion. Ruth didn’t know what he was going to do.
She didn’t oppose violence in principle. She just didn’t have any tanks. Nevertheless it was a tempting prospect.
They assembled at the Governor’s Mansion. They held placards and sang:
“Gonna put down my sword and shield Down by the riverside, Down by the riverside, Down by the riverside! Gonna put down my sword and shield Ain’t gonna study war no more! “Ain’t gonna study war no more, study war no more, Ain’t gonna study war no more!”
They did their best to drown out Governor Button and whatever platitudes he was delivering, but he kept on talking while saying nothing. White politicians in the South liked to do that when they weren’t killing black people.
Ruth watched Governor Button even as he kept on droning on. She hated him. She hated him and the Democratic Party that he stood for.
And then his head exploded.
The corpse of what used to be Governor Button fell over, spilling gore onto the platform. The white elite of Williamsburg began screaming.
The protesters immediately packed up and left before the tanks could come to crush them.
Ruth didn’t know who gave the order, but the crowd, through the logic that only crowds can comprehend, maneuvered west down Duke of Gloucester Street to campus, going through the tiny triangle of Ancient Campus and the Botetourt Statue and the Wren Building (the oldest building on an American university campus), and finally settled in the Sunken Garden, a massive grassy depression in the middle of old campus. In more normal times, it was where groups would picnic and lovers would sit together and enjoy fall or spring.
There were voices on loudspeakers demanding that the National Guard leave them alone. They pleaded to the assembled protesters to remain peaceful.
Ruth reached for her purse. She put her hand on the pistol that Henry had given her, just in case.
Rumbling came from both north and south of the Sunken Garden. From between the stately brick academic buildings off of Richmond Road and Jamestown Road came massive armored bulldozers with wide blades designed for riot control. They spread their blades wide, and blocked off all exits to the north and south. On the eastern and western edges of the garden were large deployments of national guard troops in riot gear.
They were trapped in the garden.
From above, they heard whirring. Air National Guard helicopters hovered over them.
A loud voice blared from the northeast. There stood Thomas Ashley Graves, President of the College.
“William & Mary students!” he cried out, “Return to your dorms! The National Guard Commander for Williamsburg has ordered you all to return to your dorms! You have been infiltrated by a Communist menace that seeks to destroy America with miscegenation and disorder!”
He kept on bringing out the tired old canards that Virginian politicians liked to trot out whenever there was a disturbance, one whose causes they could choose to mitigate but didn’t.
She thought of her father.
She thought of her friends left dangling from the Crim Dell Bridge.
She pulled out that pistol from her purse and unloaded it into the President of the College.
The crowd went silent. The bulldozers’ engines and the helicopters’ rotors were the only things breaking that silence.
That minute or two was agonizing.
The machine guns on the helicopters ignited, spraying the protesters with lead.
The bulldozers received their order. From both north and south of the Sunken Garden, the metal walls began lurching forward. Their treads rolled down into the trench, packing the crowd into an ever-contracting spine. The infantry moved in from east and west.
There was no escape for Ruth, but she felt a small bit of satisfaction: the satisfaction that she had done something.
As you can see, I've turned my beloved alma mater into a bloodbath. I have had vague ideas of the Sunken Garden becoming a trench beforehand, and that was the source of the ending scene. Note the two parallel rows of buildings directly adjacent the garden; the lowermost building on the left row is Blair Hall. Old Dominion Hall (where I lived for a year) is the long building to the left of Blair (where I had multiple classes). The Wren Building is in the upper right hand corner; going in that direction from the garden is east.
The Virginia flag flying from Blair Hall was a real thing during the Civil Rights movement, hung as a symbol of states' rights. The plaque is my invention, but its text is adapted from something I found in this article. I can't find its ultimate source.
The tradition involving kissing on the Crim Dell Bridge is real; today it is a popular spot for wedding proposals. In the seventies, the bridge was a new thing, but my understanding is that the tradition developed relatively early. In any case, juxtaposing it with the horror in the story was just too dramatically compelling to ignore.
(a note re: above - in my four years at the College I only ever walked on it once, as part of a graduation tradition - much as the bridge symbolizes romantic love, seniors walk across the bridge on graduation day to symbolize lifelong love of the College. I was hoping that I would find aforementioned love of my life there, but alas I am a coward and unattractive and so that particular desire never materialized)
The 'Governor Button' mentioned herein is Robert Young Button, a prominent Dixiecrat in the Commonwealth who in our timeline was never governor; in this world, I chose him because he seemed like the sort of fellow who'd unleash armored bulldozers on protesters.
This story's basic idea was inspired by this thread on SLP, particularly the notion that an America with a delayed Civil Rights Act sees the South become something like Northern Ireland during the Troubles writ large.