Finding Grace: DOVE as a Resource for Writers of Fiction

By Patricia Dunn-Fierstein


Two years ago, I began to write a novel called Finding Grace. It was a lot like putting a five thousand­-piece puzzle together without the helpful picture on the lid of the box. But like most puzzles, the corners went in easily—the solid anchors of the beginning, the end, and the key plot points. I knew it was a coming-of-age story, set in the racial turbulence of the early sixties with a thirteen-year-old protagonist – Charlotte “Charlie” O’Brien – caught in a life-altering dilemma. I wanted her in a pressure-cooker, forced to choose between the worn-out values of the bigoted south shared by her alcoholic father and the burgeoning spiritual truths developing within her own heart and mind. I knew these truths would begin to crystallize after an accidental meeting with a new girl in town, Violet Marshall. Charlie would fall in love with Violet and her mother before ever finding out the cataclysmic racial secrets that they held—secrets that would ultimately force Charlie to search her own soul and come face-to-face with death.

As any novelist will tell you, an author must be a detective, willing to ferret out answers to ceaseless questions. After devising a good-enough reason for the Marshall family to move from Maryland to Virginia in 1960, holding racial secrets that could threaten their very lives, I had to learn where Violet would be permitted to attend school.

As I researched Virginia education during the early sixties, I came upon the shocking details of Massive Resistance legislation. It was just the added catalyst I needed. I turned up the heat on my protagonist, entangling Charlie in one of the 1958 school-closings and keeping her trapped for two years in one of the small, all-white, private academies that had cropped up during that time. From the start of the story, Charlie would be eager to meet the worldly and intelligent Violet Marshall and she’d be desperate to begin high school anywhere but “Chesapeake Academy.”

In my research, I learned about the Special Collections Library at Old Dominion University, headed by Sonia Yaco at the time. Ms. Yaco directed me to the DOVE website and gave me more information about the work of its volunteers who traveled around the state to collect stories from the people who had been disenfranchised from their basic right to an education.

My husband and I flew from Tampa to Norfolk to explore the area and visit the library, where we collected facts, stories, and quotes from the vast array of source material that had been carefully catalogued by Ms. Yaco and her diligent staff and students. I was stunned to learn of the five-year shutdown in Prince Edward County. Mark Twain’s words came to mind, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and I knew that I would include these facts in my book. The stories of Andrew Heidelberg and the rest of the “Norfolk 17” were invaluable in giving me a clear sense of the intensity of the era.

I obtained a lot more than facts from DOVE. I gained a palpable awareness of the emotional climate of the time, which aided in my writing a story that resulted in some of my Beta readers reporting that they stayed up until two a.m. reading or that they couldn’t stop crying.

Finding Grace is completed and I am in the final stages of perfecting it for print/e-book. I’ve begun to look for an agent and publisher and would welcome any ideas that readers might have. I am putting the finishing touches on my website, which should be live in the next few months. There, you will be able to download the first several chapters for free and decide for yourself if you would like to read more. At the encouragement of Ann Jimerson, I am writing this post in order to invite others to consider using the DOVE website as a resource for their own fiction writing. There are many stories to be told from the appalling history of Virginia education. I know this as a psychotherapist and DOVE has proven this truth as well—the healing process begins when we have an empathic ear and the courage to share the story of our wound. The stories heal all of us who hear them as well. It is why I wrote Finding Grace—to tell a story of courage in the face of devastating truths, and to show that we can find grace in more ways than one might ever imagine.


A submission through “DOVE Tell Us Your Story”:

State: WA

Past Residence: augusta, kennebec, me

School Years: My daughter went to a private school solely because the schools at Ft Belvoir were so bad. (For many years DoD had partnered with Fairfax County to run the elementary schools on post. But because of the resistance to desegregation, DoD took these schools back.) Please see continuation below.

Story: This story is different. In the mid-70s I was married & my husband was in the Army at Ft Belvoir, VA. Previously, DoD had contracted w/Fairfax County to run the post  elementary schools. I don’t know when DoD ‘took’ these schools away from Fairfax schools system, but when we came to Belvoir, DoD was running the schools & doing it badly–perhaps because DoD hadn’t the organization to do this effectively in this (and in other cases/locations in the south?). My younger daughter wasn’t a spectacular student, & we didn’t want her going to the Belvoir schools because of their lousy reputation. So she was enrolled in a local private (as I recall evangelical Baptist) school. Many years later I can say this was a big mistake. She took to the religion like a duck to water, I’m sorry to say, as I am a irreligious person. This has been a huge bone of contention between us. I know many children & parents of color faced much worse than we did but massive resistance affected us bysta  nders as well.

Submission made: Aug 15th 13, 9:22 PM

Oral histories from DOVE traveling exhibit now available online

Oral histories and documents collected during the DOVE traveling exhibit ‘School Desegregation: Learn, Preserve and Empower’ are now available in the DOVE Digital Collection at Old Dominion University Libraries. The collection also contains materials from the early 1950s through the 70s. Among the dovelogoregions represented in the collection are the City of Norfolk, Prince Edward County, Southside Virginia, Charlottesville and the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Included in the collection are photographs, documents, newspaper clippings and other items. Additional material will be added in the future.

Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) Project Earns National Award for a Key Supporter, AARP Virginia

Warren Stewart at DOVE event in Hampton with Brenda Andrews, publisher of New Journal and Guide and Sonia Yaco

CHICAGO—AARP Virginia and Dr. Warren Stewart received the J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award given by the Society of American Archivists (SAA). The award will be presented at a ceremony during the Council of State Archivists and SAA Joint Annual Meeting in New Orleans, August 11–17, 2013.

The award honors an individual, institution, or organization that promotes greater public awareness, appreciation, or support of archives. AARP Virginia and Stewart, its past president, provided support for Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE), a history preservation project. DOVE, hosted by Old Dominion University Libraries, is a collaboration of archives and libraries that finds, locates, and encourages the preservation of material related to school desegregation in Virginia. In 2012, AARP formed a partnership with DOVE and civil rights groups to promote public awareness of the importance of preserving this history. The partners held “School Desegregation: Learn, Preserve, and Empower” events throughout Virginia, which featured an exhibit on the history of school desegregation, documentaries, and workshops.

The nominator, DOVE founder Sonia Yaco, noted that Stewart has a “lifelong belief in the importance of diversity in society [and] has shown tremendous dedication to preserving what he calls ‘the sad and glad stories’ of how schools became integrated.”

Established in 1989, the award is named for the noted American historian J. Franklin Jameson. Past recipients include the NBC program Who Do You Think You Are?, U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada), The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and The Chicago Tribune.

Sonia Yaco discusses Massive Resistance on BookTV &HistoryTV April 20-21rst

Sonia Yaco, DOVE co-chair and Old Dominion University’s Special Collections Librarian was interviewed about Massive Resistance and the DOVE project by C-Span’s BookTV. The interview will be part of an hour long show “BookTV in Virginia Beach, Virginia.” Broadcast times on C-Span2 BookTV are Saturday, April 20th at 12 pm (ET) Sunday, April 21st at 9 am (ET).  Yaco’s interview is also available online.


AARP to Present Community of the Year Award to Sonia Yaco and Old Dominion University.

Sonia Yaco to recieve award from AARP

Sonia Yaco with DOVE exhibit

Sonia Yaco, Special Collections librarian and university archivist at Old Dominion University, and Old Dominion University have been selected to receive the 2012 AARP Community of the Year Award. It will be presented to Yaco at the AARP All Volunteer Assembly Awards Recognition Banquet on Nov. 28.

The award is in recognition of Yaco’s leadership on the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE), AARP, NAACP and Urban League project and traveling exhibit, “School Desegregation: Learn, Preserve, and Empower.”

The exhibit will be at  ODU’s Perry Library from Jan. 7 to Feb. 14, 2013.

DOVE exhibit at Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History, Nov. 6 – Dec. 16

Paula Martin Smith with DOVE exhibit

Paula Martin Smith with DOVE exhibit

The missing pieces of Virginia’s history puzzle are the thousands of untold stories of personal experiences with integration.  DOVE (Desegregation of Virginia Education) was created to find, catalog, and encourage the preservation of records that tell the story of Virginia’s school desegregation process.  From segregation to Massive Resistance to desegregation, people bore witness to emerging social change.  Their stories help us to understand the enormity of the struggle that brought about that change.

This event includes:

  • Sharing historic photographs, documents, and memorabilia
  • Recording your story (from 1950s to the 1980s) about desegregation
  • Viewing film footage of local history
  • Taking part in a Community Dialogue

This event is sponsored by the collaborative efforts of the Danville Historical Society, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History, AARP,  Virginia NAACP, and Urban League of Hampton Roads, Inc.

Opening Reception
Saturday, November 10,2012
3:00-6:00 PM

Bring letters, photos, fliers, and posters about school desegregation to donate to DOVE and the Danville Historical Society or to be scanned for digital archives. Call “C.B.” at 434-7934-5644 to schedule a recording time.

Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History
975 Main Street
Danville Virginia