May 13 , 2019 /


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:

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 still a work in progress.

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 seemed to have 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, an attractive 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.

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. A friend whom I knew found Roger on the hall floor, no pulse and blood on the wall.  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 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 sixties and beyond. Meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. fueled that work for years afterwards.  I have documented that elsewhere in a brief memoir entitled Seven Decades: A Learning Memoir (2013).

I am returning to Oxford, Ohio, on the weekend of June 7-8 to attend my 60th graduation reunion and while there I plan to do some more research and see if I can piece together the rest of this story and correct any errors that may have been published inadvertently.

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,’

Additional resources for your consideration:

The Autobiography of Malcolm X;                                                                                                                                                The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin;                                                                                                                                   Native Son by Richard Wright;                                                                                                                                                       To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee;                                                                                                                                         White Privilege Unmasked by Judy Ryde;                                                                                                                             Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates;                                                                                                                       The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and                                                                                                                           A Call to Conscience by Clayborne Carson, Kris Shepard                                                                                                         White Fragility by Robin DeAngelo;                                                                                                                                              The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson;                                                                                                                          The Long Walk to Freedom and Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela                                                                                                                                                                                          So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Please share your thoughts and opinions