Respecting individual differences and expressions is the mantra Charles Alexander thinks everyone should live by.
Alexander, an activist and motivational speaker also known as Mr. Alex-Zan, spoke to a crowd at The Center at Belvedere on Tuesday about Black history in Charlottesville and his experience integrating Charlottesville City Schools as a child.
The talk was part of The Center’s Black History Month celebration.
Alexander was one of the Charlottesville Twelve who integrated city schools in 1959, a year before Ruby Bridges famously integrated a white elementary school in Louisiana. Alexander was a 7-year-old second grader when his mother elected to send him to the white Venable Elementary School.
“People say ‘Mr. Alex-Zan, you’re a hero!’ I say, no I’m not, I was seven years old!” Alexander said, eliciting laughs from the audience. “The real heroes of the Charlottesville Twelve were the parents of those children, who had the character to stand up.”
Alexander also addressed the current state of Charlottesville as it addresses its legacy of racism over the past decades. He said he likes current Mayor Lloyd Snook, whom he attended Venable Elementary with as a child, but wants him to do more to address inequities in the city.
“A lot has happened in Charlottesville, there is still a lot happening in Charlottesville,” Alexander said. “Until Mayor Snook and the city address the inequity and division within the city, the city is always going to have turmoil.”
Alexander said people need to show up and hold their public officials accountable to promote racial equity in Charlottesville.
“I’ll say it. You white people need to speak up as well and hold Mayor Snook and city council accountable when it comes to doing what is right,” he said.
Alexander said he wants people to be open to learning from each other’s differences.
“I don’t want to say negative things. But when folks say ‘oh when I see Mr. Alex-Zan I don’t see color.’ Oh, you don’t?” he laughed. “Go ahead and admit you can see the color, but you respect the color.”
While he may not consider himself a hero, Alexander has used his experience and platform for activism and motivational speaking to encourage others. And he wants others to serve and become trailblazers in their own right.
“It ain’t too late for you to become a trailblazer,” Alexander told the crowd. “I don’t like the word success. Why? Because we’ve got some successful people that are so selfish. But what Martin Luther King, Jr. said is ‘We all can be great when we serve.’”
Alexander said he has always considered himself a student, which is why he carries a backpack everywhere he goes.
“I’m still a student, and when I listen to people like you, you are my teachers. I have my backpack because I want to learn something new every day and I hope that you want to learn something new here,” he told the audience. “I have always had a thirst for information and education.”
Alexander said his inspirations when he attended Venable were the school’s only two Black employees at the time, Mr. Smith, a custodian and Mrs. Bryant, a cafeteria worker. He saw them as surrogate parents, he said.
He also found a safe environment in the classroom of his teacher Miss Miller. While Miller was white, she supported Alexander and his mother’s efforts to integrate the school and would secretly tuck notes into his pockets addressed to his mother to give her updates on how he was doing in school.
Alexander said Miller is a role model for everyone.
“Kids would call me names, in particular they would call me ‘blacky’ and ‘darky.’ Miss Miller stood up and said ‘Let me tell you students something: If you remove the top couple layers, we are all the same,’” Alexander said.
Alexander said while he did experience some animosity, he had several friends at the school, and he credits that to his friendliness with students and teachers.
“It’s hard to be mean to people who smile, although some people still do that,” he said.