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June 25, 2019

Robert Walker, ‘role model,’ council pioneer dies at 85

File Photo/Lawrence Emerson
Mr. Walker briefly addresses the audience during Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration in 2018.
I’d like to think that I contributed something . . . . I’d like to think it’s important that people do something to uplift their community. I believe I tried to do that, that I tried to help somebody.
— Robert L. Walker
By Vicky Moon
For FauquierNow

Robert L. Walker, a lifelong resident of Warrenton, pioneering town council member, cherished school bus driver, devoted member of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and a beloved barber died Monday, June 24, at age 85.

“He was a role model,” said Karen Hughes White, co-founder and president of the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County in The Plains.

“There’s one statement attributed to Malcolm X, and I’m not a Malcolm X follower,” Mr. Walker said in a 2002 oral history interview for the museum. “He said, ‘It’s not so important how long you live but why,’ and I always liked that. I’d like to think that I contributed something. That I didn’t just go through here willy-nilly and making no contributions . . . .

“I’d like to think it’s important that people do something to uplift their community. I believe I tried to do that, that I tried to help somebody.”

Mr. Walker in 1986 won election to the Warrenton Town Council after settlement of a federal voting rights lawsuit, challenging a system that had produced only white council members since incorporation in 1810. As part of the settlement, Warrenton created the five town council wards, including the majority-black Ward 2 that he represented. He and the late John Mann, also a black member of the council, won election at the same time in the majority-white Ward 1.

They changed town government, bringing new perspective to council deliberations. They and their wives got to know, socialize with and attend Virginia Municipal League conferences with the town’s white council members, Mayor J. Willard Lineweaver and their wives.

Greater familiarity built trust and allowed the council to tackle initiatives, such as development of the Lineweaver Technology Park.

“I’m on the town council basically because of what Martin Luther King started,” Mr. Walker said in the 2002 oral history. “Mine is just a continuation of that struggle, and it’s been good for us. Now, there’s still racism out there, but at least it’s not as prevalent as it was in the past.”

During his tenure, the council began to discuss recreational opportunities and to improve Eva Walker Park, in the heart of town, bordering the historically black Haiti neighborhood.

Warrenton leaders began to address terrible drainage and flooding problems in the predominately-black Oliver City neighborhood just east of town. Warrenton annexed the area so it could fix the problem, with the help of state and federal grants.

Former council member Sunny Reynolds served one term with Mr. Walker and the late John Mann.

“We worked together,” Ms. Reynolds said Tuesday. “We all respected each other and worked for what we thought was best. We were able to bring it all together.”

Calling Mr. Walker “dedicated and determined,” she recalled that he helped get sidewalks built and streets paved in his predominately black ward. “Since then, we remained good friends. ”

Ms. Reynolds visited Mrs. Walker at home early Tuesday morning to help to make final calls and attend to details for a pending funeral service.

Countless children rode the Fauquier County school bus Mr. Walker drove for 32 years. If a child missed the bus after school, he’d get his own car and drive that student home.

An active member of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Warrenton for 68 years, Mr. Walker sang in the church choir most of his life and served four decades as treasurer. Admired as a compassionate member of the church, he often took juice and soup to fellow members confined at home by illness.

Hank Day served as the town attorney between from 1993 to 2002, overlapping with Mr. Walker’s 17 years on the council. Most of all, Mr. Day said he cherished the 20 minutes he spent in Mr. Walker’s barber chair every three weeks.

“He was always very convivial,” said the lawyer, who visited the shop for a haircut just two weeks ago. “He was able to laugh about life and tell a story or a joke. It was entertaining to be in the chair, a step back into old Warrenton.”

Part of that resurfaced when a major motion picture about the previously little-known guidebook became an overwhelming success last year. “The Green Book” won three Golden Globes and the Oscar for Best Motion Picture.

The diminutive book, “A Negro Motorist Guide: A Guide to Travel and Vacations,” helped African-Americans traveling in the South during the Jim Crow era.

A 1954 edition listed eight businesses in Warrenton, including Walker’s Barber Shop, then owned by Mr. Walker’s father, George B. Walker.

The black-and-white checked linoleum floor at 23 S. Third St. suggests a bygone era. Cluttered with brushes and combs and clippers, an old shampoo sink has remained in use. Old photos on the walls and magazines scattered all around ad to the vintage ambience at the shop, which opened 1938.

A 1954 graduate of segregated William C. Taylor High School in Warrenton, Mr. Walker started in the hair-cutting business at age 15, along with his since-deceased brothers, James and Shirley.

“I try to keep the name going,” Mr. Walker said earlier this year, adding that the best part of still operating remained “meeting people. It’s a great experience to talk to people from all walks of life. Now, guys that I knew when they were little bring their children and call me, ‘Mr. Bob.’

“I’ve been here long enough to remember when the town was smaller. The integration here was peaceful. I never felt any harassment. This is the beginning of the South here, but Richmond is different.”

Mr. Walker charged $12 and $14 on Wednesdays for an appointment. Mr. Day always gave him $20.

Mr. Walker’s wife, Lillian Nelson Walker, and four children survive.

The funeral will take place Tuesday, July 2.

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