Darrell Laurant grew up in Syracuse, NY, graduated from a small college in North Carolina and spent more than 30 years as a sportswriter, news reporter, editor and columnist for daily newspapers in Charleston, SC and Lynchburg, VA. Along the way, Laurant published Even Here (about a series of bizarre murders in Bedford County, VA) and A City Unto Itself (a history of Lynchburg, VA in the 20th century) because he had "accumulated more information on those subjects than I could do justice to in my newspaper column."
In 2014, a year after retiring from the The News & Advance in Lynchburg, Laurant wrote and published his first novel, The Kudzu Kid, about an embattled weekly newspaper editor and a mob-backed hazardous waste dump. Inspiration Street was released in 2016, just as he finished his second novel, The Last Supper League.
Laurant's "current fixation" is a unique, writer-friendly and absolutely free book marketing blog called "Snowflakes in a Blizzard" that focuses on "under the radar" books.
Inspiration Street focuses on a remarkable and fascinating group of African-American achievers who lived on a single street in downtown Lynchburg, VA during the time of segregation.
Why did you write Inspiration Street?
I had interviewed and written about many of these people and their descendants in newspaper columns and feature articles over the years, and then one day a light went off in my head and I realized: "Wow, all of this happened within two city blocks!" With all due respect to the Rev. Martin Luther King, who was certainly a great man in many ways, the civil rights movement existed before him and after him--and several of the people who lived on Pierce Street made contributions so significant that I subtitled the book "Two City Blocks That Helped Change America."
What did you learn in writing this book?
Again, I think I underestimated the importance of the people I focused on in writing Inspiration Street -- folks like Anne Spencer, Chauncey Spencer, Walter Johnson, Amaza Meredith and C.W. Seay -- in relation to the world beyond Pierce Street and Lynchburg, VA. Although this is not a young adult book per se, I think it would be perfect for teen-aged readers, especially those in inner-city schools.
Did you learn anything about yourself through writing this book?
What I learned from this project was the value of perseverance and the possibility of redemption. Almost all of the individuals who are featured faced daunting obstacles in their youth, not to mention the larger obstacle of segregation. Poet Anne Spencer grew up with a single mother and then in a foster home, and didn't start school until she was 11. Walter Johnson was a high school troublemaker who was then expelled from two colleges before evolving into an unselfish family physician and the coach of tennis stars Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. Amaza Meredith lost her father to suicide on the eve of her high school graduation, then was turned down by all the college architectural programs in Virginia because of her race and gender. Frank Trigg was born into slavery and lost an arm in a farming accident, yet eventually became the president of two colleges.
One surprising thing I learned was that the land on which Pierce Street was laid down had previously been used for a Confederate training camp. That seemed like perfect karma.
What stories in the book are stand-outs?
Here are two: In 1938, Anne Spencer's son Chauncey and fellow aviator Dale White flew a rickety old single engine plane from Chicago to Washington -- surviving two crash landings along the way -- in order to bring attention to the absence of African Americans in the Army Air Corps. By chance, they ran into then-Senator Harry Truman, who was so impressed by their argument and their tenacity that he wound up introducing legislation to integrate the entire armed services.
When famed author and NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois visited Lynchburg in the 1920s to speak at a local college, he asked on arrival where he could take a shower. Presented instead with a wash tub, the fastidious DuBois balked, then was told that Anne and Edward Spencer on Pierce Street had hot running water. He knocked on their front door as a complete stranger, took his shower, and became the previously unknown Anne Spencer's entryway into the ranks of Harlem Renaissance literary figures.
How did you approach your subject matter?
I've always enjoyed research, so this was actually a lot of fun. Anne Spencer's granddaughter, Shaun Hester, has a big help, and I had interviewed Chauncey Spencer several times before his death. The book was timely, because the tennis court on which Ashe and Gibson learned the fine points of tennis was being refurbished and opened as part of a Johnson museum. Other books had been written about several of these individuals (although not all), and that was also invaluable.
Describe your writing process.
My method with non-fiction is to create a file in the computer for each prospective chapter. Then, when I do an interview, I paste quotes and information into the appropriate chapter.
Is there a message to the book?
I see this as a bridge between black and white, a reminder that we're really not so different, after all. Indeed, several of the main players here were the product of inter-racial marriages.
Why should someone want to read Inspiration Street?
I consider myself as a storyteller, and these are great stories. All I had to do was reveal them.
Blackwell Press, $9.95 Paperback, 9781938205262, 166 pp
Publication Date: February 26, 2016