The many lives of Martha Woodroof: From the struggle for civil rights to public radio

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by Eric Ginsburg

It began as many book readings do, a well-known author perched on a high bar chair at the back of a bookstore, her new novel propped up on a small stand next to her.

Adoring fans at events like this, an intimate gathering where most everyone has already gone gray, express their satisfaction and enthusiasm by leaning in and submitting thoughtful inquiries, but mostly by leaning back in their chairs and smiling intently as they observe the guest of honor with rapt fascination.

And so it was, at least initially, when frequent NPR contributor Martha Woodroof recently held court in Greensboro.

At 67, Woodroof has settled comfortably into herself and to life, wearing sneakers and appearing relaxed before her listeners though this is her first published novel.

Most of the audience at Scuppernong Books likely knew Woodroof from her career in public radio. One woman had read her New York Times Magazine essay, “Sharing demons with Hank Williams,” and a man in the front row had already read most of the freely available portion of her book, Small Blessings, on his Kindle. But Woodroof, who lives in a serene and secluded portion of the Shenandoah Valley, has a deeper connection to Greensboro than a scrum of admirers.

She grew up here.

It had been about three decades since Woodroof returned to her hometown. After finishing a short, seven-minute reading from Small Blessings, fielding questions and signing copies of her book, Woodroof put her feet up on a chair and took her round glasses off, rubbing her eyes as if pressing the memories out of her head.

“I don’t know that I know anyone here anymore,” she said.

Returning to Greensboro as an adult, Woodroof felt like she was watching her 13-year-old self exploring the city, rediscovering the physical place anew.

“Greensboro was so huge, you know, it was my world,” she said, smiling faintly. “It’s really fun to look at it through those eyes again.”

DSC01982Woodroof didn’t have time, during her short swing through town on her way to a reading in Atlanta, to explore many of her old haunts. No time to visit Colonial Avenue, the Kirkwood street where she grew up, and no chance to soak in Woman’s College, now UNCG, where her mother worked. But Woodroof did have time to tell the collection of people at Scuppernong Books about participating in the Woolworth’s sit-ins.

Before reading a selection from the beginning of her novel, Woodroof casually mentioned that she had participated in the monumental struggle to desegregate the downtown department store as a 13-year-old.

As she opened a copy of her book and flipped to the passage she would read, Woodroof added a disclaimer that she makes a living in public radio, where she is edited. She asked people to hear with her because she would be reading unaided, and then proceeding to read flawlessly. The proceeding questions led Woodroof to stories from several experiences in her life: living in a converted chicken coop, dropping out of college twice, and minor-league baseball games with her dad at War Memorial Stadium on Yanceyville Street.

Brian Lampkin, a co-founder and owner of the bookstore, sat to Woodroof’s right, and after waiting for what likely felt like an eternity, he leapt at an appropriate lull in the conversation to ask about the sit-ins.

It was a cold and windy day, Woodroof recalled, when her mom took her and her older sister down to the lunch counter. It was February, she said, later in the same month that four NC A&T College students ignited a movement.

Lines of white and black demonstrators took turns sitting at the counter, asking for service for themselves or their counterparts. Woodroof remembers white hecklers being there, but she remembers the Woolworth’s waitstaff more.

She had loved Woolworth’s up to that point, considering the staff friendly and welcoming, and she admired the women’s imprinted handkerchiefs. She didn’t realize until much later the gravity of what she had stepped into.

“I don’t remember being afraid but I do remember how agitated people were,” she said, “and there was some namecalling…. And then we got into a ’47 Chevy and drove home.”

Woodroof talks to Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann and bookstore owner Brian Lampkin after the reading.
Woodroof talks to Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann and bookstore owner Brian Lampkin after the reading.

She did, while in Greensboro this time, have a chance to enter the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in the shell of Woolworth’s, and bought a leather band with a plastic peace symbol that she plans on wearing “for quite a while.”

Woodroof was already versed in “swimming against the current,” as she put it, recalling at the reading how her teacher used to make anyone who missed Sunday School stand up so the class “could pray for my imperiled soul.” Woodroof was usually standing alone, but her parents instilled the importance of being honest and standing by one’s beliefs. There are other family stories too — her mother would drive their black maid home in the front seat, against convention — that speak to her family’s values.

A few years after taking part in the sit-ins, she joined a group tutoring black students who were behind in integrated schools. Woodroof seemed to be recounting the story as it came back to her, as if she hadn’t thought about it in decades.

When she was a high school sophomore, the tutoring group was holding a planning meeting outside Greensboro in a converted tobacco barn when a couple “fat guys in sheets” showed up. It was nighttime, but Woodroof doesn’t remember being intimidated as the Klansmen erected and torched a cross on the adjacent property.

“They looked really stupid,” she said. “I just remember how ludicrous they looked. I think we were worried they would set the cornfield on fire.”

To an extent, the burgeoning anti-war, civil-rights activists were probably full of themselves, she conceded. She remembers an old peacenik who was with them being furious and firing a BB gun in the air. The experience is one of her stronger memories from her time as a participant in social movements.

“After the Vietnam war finally ended, I pretty quickly began working as a journalist, which precluded public social activism,” she said. “My heart, however, remains easily outraged.”

As for her political views, she writes on Facebook: “Please, I’m a reporter.”

Woodroof, of course, has other memories of Greensboro that resurfaced because of her return. Many of them related to summertime, including playing with the boys in the neighborhood and wanting to stay outside on those long, hot summer evenings forever. Or laying in her backyard on “hot as hell” afternoons and eating “those great big South Carolina peaches.”

Those summers also contained another significant memory, the formative experience of watching the Greensboro Yankees with her dad. He taught her about the game, and what to look for while sitting on real bleachers and eating popcorn.

“Did I tell you my childhood dream was to be the first female player in the major leagues?” she asked during an interview. “As soon as I got into journalism I insisted on covering sports. I was an early woman in locker rooms and press boxes. I have covered car racing and horse racing and basketball… but it’s usually from the perspective of the athlete, the participant. That’s what I really love, is talking to anybody about something the do because they have to do it and they love it.”

Woodroof covering NASCAR
Woodroof covering NASCAR

Woodroof was embarrassed, as a kid, that her dad worked for a company making men’s underwear. After holding the shame for a while she finally admitted it to him, and he offered that she could just say he worked in textiles. The anecdote, to her, is an example of his kindness.

“He was a man of very fine conscience and very fine heart,” she said. “He was so not perfect, but he was close enough.”

Woodroof didn’t have time to stop by War Memorial Stadium where the Greensboro Yankees once played, or to see the Greensboro Grasshoppers play at their relatively new ballpark. But as she walked back up Elm Street towards her hotel room, her husband Charlie assured her that the Grasshoppers’ regular-season finale fireworks show had everything to do with her Small Blessings reading and return to her hometown.

She wasn’t able to physically revisit Page High School either, and didn’t have time to figure out where the public library is now, but Woodroof did return to one place she remembers vividly.

“The one thing we did is we hoofed it down Elm Street,” she said, “and the Schiffman’s Jewelers is still there. Shopping was pretty ceremonial there. We’d always dress nicely and I had on white gloves. I think I’ve always kind of believed in magic and magic seemed real in that crystal room [in the back]. I sent my sister a picture and said, ‘Oh! It’s still there.’”

Most else has fallen to the tides of time, she observed, but that can be a good thing.

“I lived in a still very segregated city and the physical lines of society were strongly marked when I lived there,” Woodroof said after leaving. “From what little I saw they seemed more blurred, and that made me happy.”

In writing and conversation, Woodroof is warm and open, but to the point. She isn’t used to being in the spotlight and doesn’t particularly like its glow — she would rather be the one doing the interviewing. She kept her reading short to avoid losing anyone’s attention and expressed most of her sharp, astute remarks concisely. Her emails frequently end in ellipses, as if to connote possibility.

Throughout life she has continually reinvented herself, sometimes “out of necessity and sometimes out of a ‘yee-haw-ness,’” she said.

Woodroof as a kid
Woodroof as a kid

Woodroof is the kind of person who owns her failures. The first sentence of her biography on her website states that she dropped out of college and graduate school, something she offered freely at her Greensboro talk as well. It goes on to note that she failed at selling cars and held an eclectic mix of other jobs, the first of which was as a teacher’s aide in pilot Head Start program in Greensboro.

The kids she taught hadn’t interacted intimately with anyone with blond hair before Woodroof, and she remembers them climbing on her to touch it. She bonded with those kids, particularly one girl named Patricia.

“I’m a hell of a dancer and it’s because of those kids,” Woodroof said, leaning back and laughing. “We’d be outside and it would be hot as blazes. The [1965 Robert Parker] song ‘Barefootin’’ would be on, and Patricia would be out there on her tricycle. I never hear music from that era or of that danceable-ness without thinking of her.”

Woodroof’s path to journalism wasn’t a straight line, beginning in television.

“That was just not me,” she said. “It was too much built around me and not enough built around stories.”

She veered in different directions, including working as a freelancer for public radio in the ’80s, driving around in a pick-up truck and hunting for stories. Woodroof started doing features for a local radio station.

“They just gave me a recorder and said go out and do radio,” she said. “I fell in love with the access it gave me to other people’s stories.”

Woodroof was living in Charlottesville, Va. when she attended a party — “Life really is often what parties you go to,” she said — where she met NPR titan Wendy Kaufman. That led, at Kaufman’s urging, to an interview with producer Jay Kernis, who listened to an edited tape with a blues singer Woodroof compiled and told her that she was an excellent interviewer but lacked technical skills.

He told her to come back once she acquired some.

“It was great, it was so educational to me,” she said of the rejection. “I tend to be able to charm my way into situations and that will only take you so far. Jay essentially told me I needed chops to go with that. I don’t think I would’ve had one hundredth of the fun or satisfaction if he hadn’t put it that bluntly.”

She honed her craft after that meeting but turned away from public radio for most of the ’90s, returning in 1999 to NPR affiliate station WMRA in Virginia, a station that spoiled her “to a ridiculous degree.” Woodroof hosted “The Spark,” a full-length program on creativity, for the station.

She is still there now, but given her focus on Small Blessings and writing more generally, she is down to a 10-minute segment each week.

Over the years, Woodroof has done a considerable amount of freelancing for NPR, particularly about books and publishing. Her work has been featured on popular shows such as “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and “Weekend Edition.”

But Woodroof is the kind of person who talks about her successes as well as her failures, embracing the full scope of her experiences.

“I’ve been a job gypsy my whole life,” she said at the Greensboro reading, mentioning a stint as Mrs. Claus at a convenience store and co-owning a restaurant.

She also worked a gig at the bookstore at Sweet Briar College, a liberal arts women’s school in Virginia. While emphasizing that Small Blessings is a novel and not autobiographical, Woodroof said she shares some similarities with one of the main characters.

“I’m not Rose, but I had Rose’s job,” she said, referring to the bookstore.

The book takes place at a fictional college, with characters who live “parched emotional lives” but who “see each other and they just feel possibility.”

One character in the book is in recovery and another needs to be, something Woodroof can relate to. In her forties, Woodroof experienced a “midlife train wreck,” as her struggles with alcohol and pills slammed into her. She has since righted her ship, but isn’t shy about discussing her struggles.

She tried to deal with the disease of addiction in her book in a somewhat comical way, Woodroof said, adding that she hopes it still comes across with compassion and empathy.

Woodroof has written four novels, one that didn’t sell and two, she said, that might be salvageable with editing. Small Blessings is the fourth, and almost remained permanently unseen to the public.

“I hauled this out and read it and thought, ‘I like these people and I think they deserve a better life than in a cardboard box,” she said.

St. Martin’s Press agreed, and published Small Blessings this summer. It has already received widespread acclaim.

“I see life as long and you keep living until you keel over,” Woodroof said. “I’ve lost my status as a babe, I’m now a retired babe, but I have gained focus, perspective, empathy, understanding…. We all know we have to allow the world to change but we have to allow ourselves to change to keep our lives as involved and as engaged as possible.”

And though she has never been particularly fond of being the focus of attention, preferring to be the one asking questions rather than responding to them, Woodroof has allowed that to change slowly as well.

The view from Woodroof's backyard in Virginia
The view from Woodroof’s backyard in Virginia

Back at home in rural Virginia, answering questions about herself on the phone while digging around for an essay of hers that the New York Times op-ed page requested and promptly lost, Woodroof said the tour, and revisiting Greensboro, were fulfilling.

“It’s quite magical to sit there and read these words aloud and watch people’s faces and see them react to the characters,” she said. “Writing is about communicating and sharing stories, so that is deeply satisfying.”

But that doesn’t mean Woodroof will make a habit out of it.

“The main takeaway though is I hope that I never drive in Atlanta on a football weekend again,” she said, laughing that she had to drive around a barricade to reach her destination. “You know, you do what you’ve got to do. To tell you the truth, I was really glad to be back at home in my his and hers recliners, watching baseball.”

Find more information about Martha Woodroof at marthawoodroof.com or find her book, Small Blessings, at Scuppernong Books.