Imagine yourself at 9 years old. Now imagine the weight of the world rests on your shoulders. And while that weight sits there -- you, your family and your friends have insults hurled at you. What would you do?
In 1957, James Van Leer became the first black student to attend Madisonville's all-white school district. He enrolled at Waddill Avenue Elementary School to start his fourth-grade year. Van Leer shouldered a heavy load as town people subjected him to all sorts of threats and abuse. His story will be revisited this weekend on KET's Kentucky Life.
His younger sister, Gloria Van Leer Smith, remembers her brother telling her about overcoming hurt and anger from the people who were vile toward him.
"He told me believing in Jesus Christ was what saved him and kept him alive. He realized that he had
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to forgive. That's how he could continue living and loving people," she said. "I'm trying not to cry because it is very real. He had to turn the hate and anger and racism, the prejudices, the belittling, the dehumanization that came upon him as a child -- this came from not just the kids, but also from the adults and teachers -- into forgiveness."
Van Leer's sister said that he had to be able to get up every day, every year and face the hatred and anger.
"Yes, there were people that stood by his side. I'm sure there were white people that stood by his side -- I don't know them, I wasn't there at that time," she said. "All I know is what he went through. When he walked through that door (of the school), he had to go in there by himself. My mother couldn't go in with him."
After time passed, Smith said Van Leer had to let go of the hate, not the memories, but the pain and the heartache.
"The only way he could do that -- was through forgiveness," she said.
Van Leer was raised by his father, Robert Van Leer, a pastor then bishop, along with his mother Elizabeth, who was the Hopkins County chapter president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where she was instrumental in the desegregation of Hopkins County. Instilled deeply in the Van Leers was a passion for justice and a fight for civil rights.
Through the 1950s, desegregation became a hot topic. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme court ruled segregated schools were unconstitutional in Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education. Though the court ordered schools to be integrated "with all deliberate speed," change happened gradually.
In Hopkins County, they devised voluntary integration plans. This plan meant that black schools remained open, and if a black student wanted to attend the white school, they were given a choice.
One of Van Leer's classmates, Debby Allen, said she remembered someone called around to all the parents at the white school to make up a line at the school's entrance to prevent Van Leer from entering.
After enrolling at Waddill Avenue, the Van Leers became targets. They were threatened, hassled on the job, called names and saw a cross burn near their front door.
"My mother, in fact told them, 'No thank you, we don't want to be apart of that,' " Allen said.
James told The Messenger in 2002, "It was something I knew I was supposed to do. My father said it was a calling on my life ... I didn't worry about it. I accepted it."
Smith said she couldn't talk about her brother without mentioning their mother who died at the age of 83. In her obituary in The Messenger, her eldest son Robert Lewis Van Leer said, "In the finalization of her character, she was a fighter for good."
"My mother was very much a civil rights leader," said Smith. "My mother stood before the grand wizard, before the klan. They knew the klansmen, they grew up with them. It was a very difficult time."
The only way, Smith believed, her mother had lived so long was because of forgiveness.
"Knowing what she chose for her son to do, to sacrifice her son, would open up doors for many others," said Smith. "He was my brother; you know, nobody is perfect, but (James) was my perfect brother."
James passed away in 2017.
He will be the subject of a segment on KET's Kentucky Life program which airs at 7 p.m. tonight and again at 8 p.m. Sunday.