CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Growing up in Radford, Virginia, Sonya Curry once saw a Ku Klux Klansman light a cross on fire. She heard stories about how her mother was part of the desegregation of a high school and regularly got into fights over being called the N-word. She learned early on in her life that “racism is real.”
But through sports, Curry found a way to overcome the racism she experienced in small-town Virginia.
And while her NBA sons, Stephen and Seth Curry, were blessed to be raised by successful, educated and wealthy parents in Charlotte, she made sure they knew about her upbringing.
“The biggest thing she told us is that we grew up a little different than she did,” said Stephen Curry. “She was always quick to remind us up on the realities around the country and to appreciate our experience.”
During a weekend celebrating the NBA’s biggest stars, it was the Curry family who took center stage in Charlotte as the official hosts. For Sonya Curry, it was also a moment for her to reflect on her past—Radford sits 150 plus miles north of Charlotte.
Sonya Curry grew up in a poor African-American community where her family lived in a trailer home. Her hometown of Radford, Va. was named after the Radford family, which owned about 100 slaves, according to the The Roanoke Times via historian Jack Davis. There is a historic landmark in Radford called the Glencoe Mansion, which was built by Confederate Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton before the Civil War. Wharton’s family owned about 30 slaves, according to the paper.
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Sonya’s mother, Candy Adams, said she walked 5 miles as a child to the closest all-black school in nearby Christiansburg in the 1950s and 1960s. She said blacks in Radford didn’t travel much back then because “cars weren’t readily available to black people as they are today.” Her family also shopped at black-owned stores in large part because of the racism they endured in white stores.
“If you went into a [white] store, they followed you around,” Adams told The Undefeated. “You couldn’t ride the city buses. We had to walk to school, maybe about 5 miles, because they didn’t have city buses for us and we didn’t have school buses because it was a local high school.
“We didn’t think it was that bad then. When I tell people today they say how horrible it was, but it was normal to us. We didn’t know any better.”
Public school desegregation in Virginia began on Feb. 2, 1959, and continued through the early 1970s. Adams said she was a junior in high school when she had a “frightening” experience as part of the first class that was desegregated at Radford High.
“The school was about 30 percent black and 70 percent white,” she said. “The school mascot was a [Confederate] Rebel. They had Army guards, Confederate flags and everything. They sung a racist song.”
Adams also said her brothers were beaten up by white students several times. Her mother did not let her do much outside of the family during her youth in fear of her getting in trouble. But when she did get out, she said she got into a few fights after being called the “N-word” by whites in town.
“I always got in fights,” she said. “Every time I got out I would get into a scuffle because I’m not going to be [called] too many ‘n——.’ That’s just me.”
Adams admitted her experiences made her develop a deep distrust of whites. She has overcome the pain of the racist past by talking about it over the years.
Said Sonya Curry: “She would tell me stories about almost fighting every day.”
Curry, 52, recalls being 11 years old when she was a scorekeeper at a championship game for a women’s softball league in Radford. There was an all-black team primarily made up of her family members, including her mother, playing against an all-white team. Before the first pitch, Curry and her mother said a member of the Ku Klux Klan wearing a white hood rode a white horse onto the outfield before the game.
“The game was getting ready to start, and then all of the sudden out in the field a guy in white garb from the Ku Klux Klan on a white horse rode across the outfield and lit the cross right when the game was about to start,” Curry said. “I guess it was a fear tactic. It didn’t work because all hell broke loose. My mom was on that team, aunts, cousins. They ambushed, and it was an all-out fistfight between the two teams, all women.
“[My mom’s team] was holding court, and I was like, ‘I just came here to keep score.’ Then it got broken up. They didn’t finish that game.”
Said Adams: “They thought we were going to run. We pulled up to them with bats and they ran.”
Curry said Radford High was “less than 1 percent black” when she attended the school. She was a talented athlete who was a three-sport star. She played for Radford High’s volleyball team while in the eighth grade and led the school to a Virginia AA championship as a senior. She was also on Radford’s girls’ basketball team that won two state titles and competed at the state level in the 400-meter hurdles and on the relay team.
Curry said her athletic talent shielded her from racism in high school. “You had to play sports. I had to be the best to force them to play with me,” she said.
To become the first college student in her family, she took the same classes as the top white students at Radford High. It paid off, as she was accepted to Virginia Tech as a student and volleyball player and eventually graduated with a degree in education.
“What God has for you, God has for you and nothing can block it,” Sonya Curry said. “I’m a first-generation college graduate. It wasn’t an expectation that I would go to college, period. … I made it my own personal competition that any white person next to me wasn’t going to be any better than I was. I’m going to watch them and take the classes that they take because no one is telling me what to take and I’m going to take the same classes. And that is how I ended up in college.”
While at Virginia Tech, where she was a standout volleyball player, she met future NBA star Dell Curry, a four-year starter on the Hokies’ men’s basketball team. The couple married in 1988, and their first son, Stephen, was born in Akron, Ohio, while Dell was playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
When Dell Curry was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1988 NBA expansion draft, the Currys experienced more racism. The Hornets were owned at that time by George Shinn. Sonya Curry, who is a fair-skinned African-American woman, recalls Shinn erroneously thinking she was a white woman and not liking the fact that one of his black players was married to her.
“The owner called in another player, a white guy player who dated black women, and said, ‘We drafted you. We know who you like to date. But we just want to tell you to really be careful about letting people see because Dell Curry is married to a white woman and we don’t know how people are going to take them either,’ ” Sonya Curry said. “The player was like, ‘You are not going to believe what they just said.’ I was like, ‘What?’ Just the assumption of what I look like and all that.”
Dell and Sonya Curry went on to raise three children who also became sports stars. Stephen is a six-time All-Star, a three-time NBA champion and a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. Seth is a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers who also starred at Duke. Their sister, Sydel, played volleyball at Elon University.
When it became age-appropriate, Sonya began telling her kids stories from Radford.
“I don’t know what age I began telling them things, but when things came up I would say, ‘Did you know that your grandmother was part of integration as a junior in high school? Think about that,’ ” Sonya Curry said.
Stephen Curry credits his mother for helping him develop the strength of his voice on social and racial issues.
“I understand that there was stuff going on and stuff that she dealt with on a daily basis in Radford that were necessary for us to understand, even though we were brought up in a different space,” he said. “I never had to live it, per se, but I definitely understood. You could see it in her eyes when she talked about it.”
Seth Curry said he and his siblings knew they were “privileged” having a father who made millions playing in the NBA. But it was tough for them to see the trailer park she grew up in and hear her story.
“My mom always made it known to appreciate what we have and where we grew up,” Seth Curry said. “She always took us back home to where she grew up. We saw the environment. It instilled our core values in us, and she is the main reason we are the way we are today. She raised us on faith and to be grateful for everything.”
The entire Curry family was on hand as the Stephen and Ayesha Curry Family Foundation unveiled a large-scale renovation of the Carole Hoefener Center. The gym and community center has been instrumental in helping serve Charlotte. Sonya Curry said she had tears entering All-Star Weekend thinking about what impact Charlotte had on her family.
“This town raised us and has poured out love,” she said. “Now we are able to give back love to them.”
Many members of Sonya Curry’s family, who have moved from Radford to Charlotte, were on hand to see the Currys celebrate the renovation of the Hoefener Center on Friday, watch both Curry boys in the 3-point competition on Saturday and see Steph start in the All-Star Game on Sunday.
“They seem to be the first family of Charlotte, at least this week,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “I have to say, on behalf of the league, we’re really appreciative of the entire family’s commitment to working with us on numerous and countless events in the community. I just hope that the Currys have energy left for the basketball.”
The highlight of All-Star Weekend for the Currys might have been Sonya hitting a stunning half-court underhand shot during a shooting competition. She said she developed the shot a couple of days earlier while practicing for the event and hitting the rim a couple of times. Her husband has said numerous times that she is the best athlete in the family.
“I can’t wait to watch it back on video and say, ‘Oh my God, it worked!’ ” Sonya Curry said about the half-court shot.
Years after using sports to survive Radford, Sonya Curry is still taking her game to new heights.