Showcasing civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker’s collection
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – The letter starts with a casual “Dear Tee.”
The two paragraphs that follow are also relaxed, a conversation between two friends and allies that ends with details on their meeting the following week in December 1958. The typewritten letter is signed by “Mike,” but underneath it is the writer’s more common name: Martin L. King Jr. (King’s father changed both their names from Michael to Martin Luther in 1934.)
King’s correspondence is the earliest letter to the civil rights leader’s chief of staff, the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, that is now part of a collection at the University of Richmond’s Boatwright Memorial Library.
As part of a symposium celebrating Walker held recently, the university offered a preview of the collection of letters, photographs and other personal artifacts that the onetime Petersburg pastor donated to the school before his death in Chester in January.
The sneak peek of the collection featured just a fraction of what the university now possesses.
There’s an album of photos taken with late South African President Nelson Mandela. There’s the key to the city entrusted to Walker in 2016 from then-Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones. There are copies of Walker’s books, including a copy of “Spirits That Dwell in Deep Woods” translated into Japanese.
“For our students to understand what a lifelong struggle of freedom looks like … is going to be a gift to them,” said Laura Browder, the Tyler and Alice Haynes professor of American studies at UR.
Throughout the entire collection there are ties to the civil rights movement, a time in the mid-20th century when Walker and others, including color-barrier-breaking baseball player Jackie Robinson, fought for equal rights.
“To Wyatt T. Walker a man who has done so much to promote and assist in the growth and development of Dr. King,” Robinson wrote to Walker inside a copy of his 1964 book, “Baseball Has Done It,” which is included in the collection. “Your dedication is a challenge. I am certain the future holds much for you. It’s an honor to list you among my closest friends.”
Walker, who served as pastor at historic Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, was arrested numerous times during the civil rights movement, a time when Walker became close to King. Walker helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and eventually became its first full-time executive director.
Walker went on to serve as senior pastor at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, N.Y., for nearly four decades before retiring to Virginia and teaching at his alma mater, Virginia Union University. He died Jan. 23 at the age of 89.
His personal artifacts have been entrusted to the University of Richmond and its library, specifically archivist Taylor McNeilly, who is in charge of organizing the thousands of artifacts.
“You know you’re touching history and preparing it, but it’s not every day you get to work on something of this importance,” McNeilly said.
The public’s first look at the collection came Monday at the afternoon forum. McNeilly said he hopes Walker’s manuscripts will be publicly available by early next year.
The symposium, originally scheduled for mid-September but postponed because of Hurricane Florence, included a panel on Walker’s legacy and a keynote speech from Joseph Evans, the dean of the Morehouse School of Religion and senior pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Washington.
Each panelist connected Walker back to the Richmond region, from his time at Virginia Union to his ministry in Petersburg.
Said Thad Williamson, a UR professor who spoke on the panel: “His story begins and ends here in central Virginia.”
Now that story is told through Walker’s own collection.
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com
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