Whatever you do, “don’t even think about going down that road of comparing me to Nelson Mandela,” says a humble Ferdinand T. Day, a lifelong civil rights advocate, even if they are “men of a certain generation.” He actually chuckles at the very suggestion.
Day spoke to the AFRO on the eve of his 95th birthday, which was Aug. 7, and reflected on his civil rights experiences just two weeks after proudly attending the July 18 Congressional celebration of Mandela’s 95th birthday in Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol.
It was “a great moment” in his life, Day said. “I was so proud to be there because he’s a person of my generation and I thought about what he stood for and what sacrifices he made, and it made me feel good inside.”
Indeed, Day and Mandela are both distinguished Black men of an earlier generation when what you did for others was more important that what you did for yourself; just being you and showing up in public did not constitute charity work in their 20th Century era of respect for your elders and self-sacrifice for the greater good. (Take note, Jay-Z).
Day and Mandela are both revered men. Both were labeled “radicals” for their refusal to kowtow to the white establishment.
Both tall, elder statesmen with a shock of white hair, became known not for fiery personas, but for dignified, scholarly and non-violent natures. Both would rather build coalitions to solve problems than stage street confrontation.
“Ferdinand Day is Alexandria’s Mandela,” said former City Council member Joyce Woodson after he was inducted, among others, into the Alexandria African American Hall of Fame last month.
“No, no; don’t put me up there with him, this man [Mandela] was a giant and he changed the whole world,” said Day.
When Day was a young teenager and wanted to continue his education in his hometown of Alexandria, Va., he could not. “The typical southern port city,” he said, only provided schooling for Blacks through the eighth grade. “So, I had to beg for pennies,” he said of the three-cent bus fare he needed to travel to D.C. each day to Armstrong Technical High School where he graduated in 1935.
Yet, Day eventually became the first Black chairman of a public school board in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He went on to become vice-chairman of the Northern Virginia and Virginia state boards of community colleges and was appointed by the state secretary of education to a special commission to implement further desegregation in the Old Dominion’s higher education system.
“I just love Alexandria and the people of Alexandria have been so good to me that I just wanted to give something back,” he said. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in history and geography from Miner Teacher’s College, Day said, “I was gung-ho about teaching in Alexandria but they wouldn’t let me because they said I was a radical.”
After his comment about inequality and hand-me-down textbooks was repeated to then-Alexandria School Superintendent T.C. Williams, a known segregationist after whom the nationally recognized high school of Remember the Titans fame is named. Day had to move to North Carolina to get a job.
Former City Manager Vola Lawson recalled, “Fred Day provided the moral leadership that helped Alexandria reconcile its segregated past of racial injustice by appealing to the city’s conscience and hopes for a better future.”
Day stresses that it was people working together, Blacks and Whites, Democrats and Republicans, and Christians and Jews which created change in the once “typical southern port city.” “I tried to use what was up here to work with others,” he said, pointing to his brain.
Though wheelchair-bound, Day is still much sought after as a confidant by local officials, including Rep. James Moran (D) and Mayor William Euille (D).
Day’s work in Alexandria has not gone unrecorded or unrecognized. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards. In Alexandria there is a Ferdinand Day Drive, a Ferdinand Day wing in T.C. Williams High School, and there’s been a recent proposal to name a new STEM elementary school in his honor.
But whatever you do, don’t even compare Ferdinand Day to Nelson Mandela. “The only thing I can say is that we were born in the same month.”
Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at [email protected].