Charleston, West Virginia

The Edge: Ronald Wilkerson and Mike Youngren

First Recorded

April 3, 2016


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As a high school and college student during the 1960s, Ronald Wilkerson faced discrimination in his hometown and as a student at West Virginia University. In this conversation, he discusses with his friend Mike Youngren how his experiences with discrimination drove him to explore religions beyond Christianity, eventually bringing him to the Unitarian Universalist church.

This story was produced by StoryCorps.

This story is a part of the American Pilgrimage Project, a conversation series that invites Americans of diverse backgrounds to sit together and talk to each other one-to-one about the role their religious beliefs play at crucial moments in their lives. The interview was recorded and produced by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. 

The Edge: Ronald Wilkerson and Mike Youngren

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Ronald Wilkerson: I grew up in a place called Gary, West Virginia and I was in one of the coal camps and the coal camps had numbers. So I lived at number 11 hill and from the number 11 hill, I could see across to the other number 11, a white grade school. But we would walk past that school to our black grade school across the swinging bridge. The schools were segregated when I went to school there, 10 years after Brown versus The Board of Education. There's 3% African American in the state, but in McDowell County where I grew up, we had probably 30% were African American. It was the largest population of African Americans in the state. We called it the free state of McDowell because it was such an independent place during the coal mining era.

Mike Youngren: I know how important your mom was to you.

Ronald Wilkerson: She was golden. We had a strong African village. Even though we experienced segregation, we had a strong, powerful, communal environment where people were took care of each other. We shared our food. We knew ourselves, so we were very confident in that way. My mother was one of the leaders, she had a college education. My father and mother both were college educated. He worked as a common labor in the coal mines and she worked as a common housewife, but my parents were leaders in the community. My father was a barber also, and everyone came to him for advice. They said, "Take it to the barber," if there was some problem in the community. My mother, she eventually ended up teaching adult education and there were a lot of people in our community that didn't have any skills at reading, she impacted their lives in that way and was highly respected.

Mike Youngren: How'd you get out of McDowell County?

Ronald Wilkerson: Well, I was destined to go to college.

Mike Youngren: What do you mean?

Ronald Wilkerson: My parents.

Mike Youngren: Oh, there wasn't any choice.

Ronald Wilkerson: There was no choice. WVU came knocking on our doors in 1965, I guess they weren't trying to fill their quotas because there was not that many black students at WVU. I was a foreigner in my own land. I was in cultural shock when I went to WVU. My first overt form of discrimination was when I went across the street to get my hair cut. And I asked a barber there to give me a razor line because I want to have my afro looking clean and neat. And he said, "I don't do it." I said, "What do you mean you don't do it?" I said, "My father is a barber, all you do is take the razor and you just cut around the edge of the hair."

He again said, "I don't do it." He said, "There's a colored barber shop three miles out of town that you can get your hair cut at." And I didn't even know how to react. I was so naive. Racism was really rampant. I was bitter, I was outspoken. But as time went on, I began to open my eyes and search, tried Daoism, explored the African religions, had even explored Islam. It all brought me to the Unitarian Universalist approximately six years ago, and I'm 68. In the Unitarian Universalist environment you can be what you want to be and express yourself. If you're still searching, fine, if you want to express or your Christian belief or whatever you believe in, then you have an opportunity to do that. And you unite on the basis of what you have in common and you work together towards a common causes, that's what attracted me most. I'm still searching.

Mike Youngren: I think we all are.

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