This is an article I wrote on Curtis J. Holt Sr. for Issue # 2 of my zine Cuddle Puddles and Hot Pants. I figured I should publish this stuff online too so more people can read it.
The Civil Rights era is a time period that continues to interest me, and specifically as related to my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. In an attempt to expose other people to this amazing and under represented history I am going to reproduce the history of Curtis J. Holt Sr., who was an African American civil rights activist in Richmond. Most of the information I have about him comes from the book, Rights for a Season: The Politics of Race, Class, and Gender in Richmond, Virginia by Lewis A. Randolph and Gayle T. Tate. – copyright 2003. Assume all cites with page numbers refer to this book unless otherwise noted. There is a lot more awesome information in this book, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone trying to learn a more complete history of Richmond or just as an example of how much history is left out of standard accounts.
Curtis J. Holt Sr. was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1920. He was one of eight children in a relatively poor family. His father was a farmer, but when Curtis was 13, he died. His mother then moved the family to Richmond, Virginia in 1934 (193). Holt ended up starting working at a young age to support his family. He later married and had children. In 1941 he was injured at a construction job at Virginia Union University (VUU)(A historically black university). He was out of work for 3 years because of the injury. In 1963 he fell down an elevator shaft, causing another injury, which put him out of work for the long term, and on social security disability. His family and he then had to move into public housing. In Richmond, Public housing is controlled by the Richmond Housing Authority (RRHA). The way the the book analyzes it is that Holt’s impoverished background and his experience with work disability combined to create his affinity for activism (194). The experience of public housing increased his awareness of inequalities and activism, “During the mid-1950s, when Curtis Holt moved into Creighton Court, a public housing project, he quickly discovered that living conditions were poor and repressive for the tenants. For instance, the RRHA prohibited tenant organizations, and tenants could not meet on Creighton Court property.” (195). What was really important in Curtis Holt’s life it seems, was not stepping down from a fight. While he could have lived a life without confrontation, or taken his activism only to the point where he was told to stop, he continued to struggle. An example of this was his attempt to organize the tenants of Creighton Court into a tenant’s association in the mid-1960s. For this he received an eviction notice. However, the eviction notice stated that the reason for the eviction was unreported income on Holt’s part. Holt fought this and was proven to be in the right. His refusal to back down is inspiring.
In 1970 Holt became an ordained minister, and “Holt hoped to transform his faith into a vehicle of liberation” (194). Holt went to the March on Washington, and also met Martin Luther King Jr.. He became involved in the NAACP and RCV. I do not personally feel much affinity for Christianity, but particularly during the civil rights era, faith and religion fueled many people’s belief in a better future and their insistence for better treatment. It makes sense that pre-existing communities would be utilized in a social movement.
The policies of the RRHA were something which Holt acted against for many reasons. One of the policies, which was clearly intended to enforce a particular moral code, would not allow single female parents from living in public housing. Because of this, women who were single and became pregnant felt pressure to either have an abortion and lose the child or lose their home. He was clearly ahead of his time in terms of championing the right of a single parent female to control her reproductive rights and her sexuality without fear of losing her right to housing (197).
Understanding how awesome Holt was is tied into knowledge about the rest of the Civil Rights movement in Richmond- it reveals how exceptional he was. Politically it can become clear that people are made up of multiple identities, and any sort of social struggle has to account for these differences. Sometimes one identity may be more prominent, but it is an error to ignore the other issues. For instance, in the civil rights movement, largely about race, issues of class, sex, etc. were still prevalent. And in Richmond, and other places too, the middle class blacks (and males) dominated the civil rights movement, and class issues within the movement were not as noted as they could have been.
For Curtis Holt to be an activist around race issues, but also around class issues is exceptional because he managed to deal with issues that the mainstream movement did not want to confront. His activism in some ways also went past race barriers, and created some solidarity throughout class. “Curtis Holt emerged as a community bridge leader because when he attempted to organize poor whites in Richmond’s public housing, he was actually operating in what Robnett describes as ‘free spaces’ (1997, 21). According to Robnett, a free space is “a niche that is not directly controlled by formal leaders or those in their inner circle. It is an unclaimed space that is nevertheless central to the development of the movement, since linkages are developed within it’ (ibid). In essence, when Holt attempted to establish cross-racial class linkages among public housing residents in Richmond, not only was he operating in a free space, but he was also attempting to forge ties between poor blacks and whites in Richmond” (199).
An example of the way that the civil rights movement in Richmond was a bit classist is the focus it had around lunch counters and department stores. Much of the action and organizing surrounded the desegregation of lunch counters and department stores in the downtown of Richmond. What this failed to account for is that only a relatively small portion of the black population in Richmond could afford to use those amenities. “For instance, middle-class African Americans rarely rode public transportation; thus, they could avoid all the indignities associated with a segregated public transit system”(201). This sort of issue is something that could probably use further examination in all of our lives. To make sure that we understand why we are prioritizing what we are prioritizing and if that is a reflection of our privilege.
One the most awesome things in my mind that Holt did was work for the safety of the mostly black children who attended Armstrong School. This was a super direct action style activism on his part, which involved both dedication and bravery. “Curtis Holt’s concern about the safety of school-aged children crossing a dangerous intersection stemmed from his concern as a parent and his concern for the safety of all children. Mrs. Holt states that her husband took it upon himself to perform the role of a safety patrol, to escort the children to and from school across the dangerous intersection. Holt carried out his task by designing his own stop sign for oncoming drivers.” (197). He stepped in to fix the problem that the racist bureaucracy in Richmond refused to. “Because Holt’s action was not sanctioned by the city police, he risked his personal safety twice a day, five days a week, for three years to ensure the safety of these poor black children.” (198). This represents just some of the work that Holt did in the city of Richmond to improve life for the working class, poor, women, and people of color.