As some of you know, I have a long history with civil rights and the issues surrounding race relations in these Disunited States. I have written about it previously, documented some of my experience in the 60’s and posted another piece recently here, “Understanding Racism.” This one is a revision and update of a blog post last year.
There is a well-documented article in the June 4-11, 2018 issue of The New Yorker Magazine by Jelani Cobb about white spaces where many of us have lived and worked: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/04/starbucks-and-the-issue-of-white-space
The issue of racism, especially implicit bias, goes largely unnoticed until it is brought into our consciousness by some of the events which we see and hear in news stories. The following story is a personal story about a project I started last year. I doubt I will finish it out of respect for those involved.
I grew up in a small town, Greenville, Ohio, population then about 10,000. As I recall, we had one African-American family living there. I remember them well. The four kids in the Dunlap family were all ahead of me in school with the youngest, Ferris, just one year ahead and her sister Emma, and two brothers, Willie and Harvey, several years beyond. They had the respect and admiration from their peers because they were good students, athletes, musicians and headed for college. I do not ever remember anyone saying anything that was negative, using any racial slurs or anything even close. They seemed to fit in, not because they “knew their place” but because we saw them simply as one of us. They may have looked different but so did everyone else. I know that may sound strange for the 1950’s but that is what I remember.
About 10 miles west from my childhood home was an even smaller town that sprouted up there because it became a stop on the underground railroad. Longtown began in 1818, when James Clemens, a freed slave from Rockingham County, Virginia, settled in Darke County, Ohio, with his wife Sophia Sellers and their five children, and began to farm. “They were the sons and daughters of slave masters,” says historian and Longtown descendant Roane Smothers. Here’s a story that gives an update on the history of Longtown. Please note that this is a story about a place where races have mixed freely for 200 years. That is significant:
Fast forward to 1959. A student from Longtown, Sandra Epps, went to the same university that I did. She was a few years behind me and although I did not know her well, I knew who she was, that she was a good student, a bright young woman from a community not far from where I lived. I knew several people from Longtown, one of whom was an auto mechanic in the car dealership that my Dad managed. Jesse Hickman took an interest in me and my education and we had some great conversations around some of our mutual interests. I loved hearing his stories, seeing his family and considered him a good friend. He was curious about my experiences as I was about his. Turns out Jesse married Sandy’s older sister Gloria, their mother being Gladys Epps. Gladys lived her last years in Greenville, Ohio, but I did not know her or have the opportunity to meet her. I found a copy of her Last Will & Testament in which she said, “both my daughters have always bestowed on me their entire love and affection, respect and assistance.” Such a great testimonial.
When Sandra Epps got to Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, she met and dated a student from Springfield, Ohio, Herb Lucas. Springfield is the 12th largest city in Ohio. Lucas was also from a mixed-race family but with a very different history. He was quite probably rejected by the black community because he was too light and rejected by the white community because he was too dark. When he met and dated Sandy, he saw her as someone who was like he was, who understood what it felt like to be in his skin, except that he was wrong. He had not had her experience nor had she had his. They came from two very different worlds. Longtown was an entire community of mixed-race families and a small, tight-knit village and surrounding farms in rural Ohio, a total of some 100 families. Springfield was large, urban, divided and polarized, in part because of racism.
Sandy then dated another young black man, Jimmy Walker, who lived in Reid Hall, a freshman dormitory. The next night, Lucas went to Walker’s room where a fight began and Lucas shot Walker twice, one bullet going through his neck. Lucas had apparently stolen the gun from an ROTC locker. Walker survived but did not finish school Another young man, Roger Sayles, a Resident Assistant, a counselor, heard the shots, ran into the hall to try and stop Lucas and Lucas shot Sayles who died on the spot. I knew Roger and I had also been a freshman and a counselor my second year in that same dormitory.
Another friend, whom I knew, found Roger on the hall floor, no pulse and blood on the wall. I spoke with him personally for more verification. Finally, as best as I can determine, Lucas then ran to Ogden Hall, called Sandy, told her what he had done and then killed himself. A murder, a suicide and someone seriously wounded. Other wounds that could not be seen were felt deeply.
This happened sixty-one years ago when I was 21, on Mother’s Day weekend, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it ever since. I know it affected me and was the seed for some of my later work in civil rights in the 60’s and beyond. Meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. fueled that work for years afterwards. I have documented that elsewhere in a small book entitled Seven Decades: A Learning Memoir (2013).
I returned to Oxford, Ohio, on the weekend of June 7-8, 2019, to attend my 60th graduation reunion and while there did some more research in the library archives to see if I could piece together the rest of this story and correct any errors that may have been published inadvertently. I visited the former site of Longtown, did further research at the Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio, that has some local, historical materials, and made further discoveries that opened my eyes to much I did not know growing up there. One that was especially impressive is that there was an academy known as the Union Literary Institute near Longtown that prepared students to go out into the world to become lawyers, doctors, bishops, presidents of colleges, etc. The Institute was one of the means of holding the settlement together. Longtown was further described being full of people who were generally “religious, industrious, patriotic and temperate and had advanced moral ideals, commanding respect of the general populace.”
I had an occasion to speak personally with Sandra Epps who, after Miami, went on to graduate school in the field of health care, married someone in the same field and they have contributed in many positive ways to their family and community. Sandy and I shared our memories of Miami, including the traumatic events of that May, and at this point, I have decided not to pursue those further.
One thing that I am sure of is that we seem to continue to be divided over issues of equity and race with people harboring resentments, anger and bitterness that cause misunderstanding, conflicts and tragedies. There are those who are building bridges to understanding and improving relationships and there are those who refuse to cross that bridge or even look at it.
Here are a few resources for those interested, including this article by Kelly Wickham Hurst that I stumbled across recently. and my comment follows.
Whether we identify as white, black, brown, red, mixed, pink or green we need to pay attention to this very important good work: “dismantling the social and political construct of racism” while seeing that we have all been co-opted into this ideology,’
Here’s a little more historical perspective, written in 1998.
For a detailed report, check out the following article and ask the question, what have we learned and how have we changed in 52 years? https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/05/the-report-on-race-that-shook-america/556850/