As February ends, it would be remiss not to mention that it’s Black History month. I’d like to tell you that Black History is an inspirational narrative about societal acceptance and positive change, but often it’s not. Sadly, it’s more of a one step forward and two steps back kind of progression. Although sometimes it’s been the other way around. “The ASALH [Association for the Study of African American Life and History has dedicated] … the 2013 Annual Black History Theme to celebrating the anniversary of two important African American turning points – the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1963 March on Washington,” reported the Davenport University Library Services.
In explanation, on August 28, 1963, approximately a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington D. C. There are historical photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. waving to the huge crowd. That summer day, the Lincoln Memorial audience heard the Civil Rights leader share his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King spoke passionately about his vision of an America where one day in the future, his children would “… not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I thought about the progression of racial equality, while celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day this past January at the Mount Zion Holy Union Church of God in Sidney, an event organized by Rev. Phil Chilcote. Keynote speaker, 73-year-old Dr. Ervin Smith of Columbus, an emeritus professor of Christian Ethics at Methesco, a Methodist Seminary, explained what segregation in Georgia looked like in his youth. Dr. Smith shared that he couldn’t go into the main library, restaurants, get the same medical treatment, or drink out of the same drinking fountains as whites, solely because of being black. Eventually, the scholar authored his own books including: “The Ethics of Martin Luther King Jr.,” and “Black Theology: Toward an Inclusive Church,” among others. Segregation affected Smith’s choice of a college as well. “I couldn’t go to the University of Georgia…couldn’t go to Georgia Tech. Why? Because of the color of my skin,” he said. When the educator who obtained his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Illinois moved to Delaware, Ohio, in 1971, he thought he had escaped segregation. Yet he met a different kind of segregation in the north.
Bishop Ernest Wilson, pastor at Mount Zion, says that he could identify with Dr. Smith’s story. After all, he was “reared in Alabama.” He said, “I’ve been here [in Sidney] 52 years, but I remember where I came from.” For Bishop Wilson many of those memories are painful. He said, “I would talk to my mom…I can’t go around here saying, ‘Yes, Sir’ and they calling me a boy.” The 72 year old minister told of other serious injustices when he was teenager. Like seeing a friend stabbed for no reason, who “walked to the doctor’s offices with his intestines in his hands, only because he was black.” Bishop Wilson defines, “Equality, [as] the state or quality of being equal…we just wanted to be treated fairly,” he said. “One of the great deceptions I had 52 years ago when I came to Shelby County… [I] was really surprised some things going on here [concerning racism]. Thought I was leaving those things behind,” said the pastor. During the sixties, he found out that Blacks could only live in certain neighborhoods, and that there were still local businesses where he couldn’t get service.
I listened as both older African American men portrayed growing up in the segregated south. Escaping to the Midwest, believing they would be accepted for who they were. Although often they were met with a subtle segregation, that was a difficult enemy to combat. In past interviews with Lima’s Black History expert, the now deceased Miss Georgia Newsome, she and her sister, Mrs. Maggie Breaston, also spoke of the subtle segregation they experienced many decades ago moving here from the south. After all, it happened most everywhere.
Maybe some folks would say, it’s over and we should just forget it. Yet to paraphrase the wise words of late Holocaust survivor, Elisabeth Sondheimer of Lima, Ohio, “If we bury the past, we are likely to repeat it.” Instead, “We’ve got to do better,” urged Bishop Wilson. “Fifty years after Dr. King made the speech I’m finding out…We’ve got to do better.” But how can we? Dr. Ervin Smith believes there is a remedy to the racism that seeks to destroy communities. The retired educator said, [We have] “Got to work with our children, work with each other…until we all see each other as children of God.”
Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in the Sidney Daily News on Feb. 22, 2013.