Portsmouth woman who experienced Tennessee Riots shares childhood memories

Posted at 11:33 AM, Feb 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-28 16:20:14-05

PORTSMOUTH, Va. - “My birth certificate says 'Negro' on it. It doesn’t say 'Black' or 'Afro American' - it’s 'Negro,' and that’s what we were called,” says Portsmouth resident Voncille Finch.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1962, Finch – now 58 years old - takes a look back at her childhood to share some of the experiences that would leave an actual mark on her life forever.

“Somebody threw a bottle out in the crowd and, pop - I got caught,” Finch recalls.

Just a couple of years after Finch was born, she and her family were caught in the crossfire of someone throwing a bottle outside of a window into a crowd. The bottle struck Finch on her right eye – she was only a toddler.

She says this night was one of the many nights in Tennessee where riots broke out due to racial tension.

“Just because I was a child didn’t mean, ‘Oh, don’t hurt them because they were a child.’ It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the color of your skin. If you were black, you were subjected to any and everything,” Finch says.

Finch says her parents were involved with the Civil Rights era by marching from time to time. Her mother grew up picking cotton, and her family always warned her, her siblings and her cousins of the certain areas they weren’t allowed to go because of the color of their skin.

“My cousin had to use the bathroom and I remember my dad say, ‘Oh, no we can’t stop here,’ because it was on a white person’s land and they were afraid of being shot. We weren’t allowed to go through certain areas because it was owned by white people or the Klansmen could’ve been out,” recalled Finch.

About two or three years after the cut she received from the Tennessee riot healed into a scar, she says her family moved to New York for better opportunities. But even up north, they couldn’t escape the ways of the time.

“I remember the Black Panthers being in New York and my mom coming to school to get us because they knew the Klan and the Black Panthers and the riots that could possibly happen,” says Finch.

Finch, like so many other African American women and men, grew up witnessing and participating in the constant fight for equality.

Related: Honoring Irene: Civil Rights activist Irene Morgan receives historical marker in Gloucester Co. for desegregating interstate buses

“I will die with this scar on my face. This scar is a symbol of what we went through,” explains Finch.

It's a deep reminder of the past, but an even greater image of what the future can hold.

“We can do anything we want to do. All you have to do is do it. Put your mind to it and do it,” says Finch.