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Moving on by moving up

JournalismBarack ObamaThe New York TimesMorgan State UniversityPulitzer Prize Awards

Just as there are many roads to glory, there are myriad ways to grapple with the ghosts of racism past. Some seek, and eventually obtain, apologies such as the one issued by the Howard County school board last month. Others seek, and sometimes obtain, financial reparations — such as those who, decades after it happened, eventually divided several million dollars because of a 1920s racial cleansing in Rosewood, Fla.

But last month, Morgan State University took a giant step in a different direction, breaking ground for a new home for its business school. The location, the Northwood Shopping Plaza, marks more than a triumph for academics, politicians, activists and philanthropists. For those who went to jail to desegregate the shopping center long before the parents of some of the current students were born, this is their proverbial last laugh at those who once deemed them less than second-class citizens.

Back in the day, what is now a dismal commercial strip was the center of a sustained campaign by Morgan students and their allies to burst through Jim Crow walls that attempted to rigidly separate blacks from whites and diminish their opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — including access to what for many remains the elusive ideal of a quality education. For newcomers to Baltimore, such as myself, it is difficult to imagine that this place on the west side of Hillen Road was so worth fighting for that hundreds of young people went to jail while nonviolently storming its gates to see a movie, to eat in an upscale restaurant, even to try on garments in a department store. But City Councilman Robert Curran, for one, recalls Northwood as "one of the most vibrant shopping centers in all of Baltimore." Blacks demanded full access and, in time, got it. So Morgan's president, David Wilson, pays homage to those youthful protesters of the 1940s and 1950s: "Right here is where the use of mass arrests to end discriminatory practices got its start, and it spread from here all over the country."

To reach the campus, students often had to trudge through residential areas populated by whites who were not so welcoming. "They weren't hostile. They just didn't like us," Earl G. Graves Sr., the multimillionaire businessman and philanthropist, told me the other day, laughing now at the memory. It is Mr. Graves, Class of 1958, for whom the business school is named. The new building, to be constructed over the next 18 months, has a $72 million price tag — not counting the blood, sweat and tears of generations who have fought for racial justice with education as but one weapon. Mr. Graves' road to riches began with mowing lawns in the white neighborhoods near Morgan and hiring his fraternity brothers when the business grew.

In 1953, when Mr. Graves arrived at Morgan from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., with $440, the U. S. Supreme Court had not yet issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools, catapulted this country into a new era and culminated, to some degree, in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Mr. Graves said he never expected to see a black president in his lifetime. "If someone had told me that when we were in school, I would have said, 'Be serious.'" And yet some commentators, quite obviously divorced from reality, insist that the Obama victory has led to a "post-racial" society. Would that it were so. The multiethnic hiphop "nation" notwithstanding, statistics on crime and poverty and educational achievement in Baltimore alone belie the illusion of "post-racialism."

There is still much work to be done in this century before anyone can rest on laurels. Howard County certainly cannot, even though its educational leaders made the rare gesture of apologizing for taking until at least 1965 to desegregate its schools. Where I grew up, in Conyers, Ga., the schools remained separate and unequal until the early 1970s, and, to my knowledge, no one has apologized — though a new high school gymnasium is soon to be named for a black man who coached there for many years. Such gestures are no doubt heartfelt but do little to address the residual effects of generations of malfeasance and neglect. I am who I am despite the race-based obstacles put in my path since the day I was born in 1955 in the colored wing of the Rockdale County Hospital.

I applaud those who seek financial compensation for people who have documentable proof of their losses in massacres aimed at obliterating blacks in places like the then-wealthy Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla., in 1921. Those survivors have not fared as well in the courts as those of Rosewood, Fla., who some 70 years after a 1923 attack received modest payouts.

But I am not a believer in some grand financial accounting to us, the living, for the general pain and suffering sustained by blacks going back to the earliest days of the American brand of slavery. How do you place a dollar figure on that? And who can lay claim to such a pot of money? (When I think of reparations, I both cringe and chuckle at the memory of receiving a check for about $40 as compensation for the racism I had supposedly suffered in the nine months I worked at The New York Times before that newspaper reached a settlement with its black and Latino employees in a Title VII case more than 30 years ago.)

We blacks can waste our time daydreaming about a 21st century Lotto-like payout on a mythical 19th century promise of 40 acres and a mule per person in the days immediately following a formal end to slavery. Or, we can move forward like Morgan seems poised to do, bringing its Baltimore neighbors along with it. Lifting as we climb, our wise elders called it.

E.R. Shipp is a journalist who has worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the New York Daily News, where she won a Pulitzer Prize. Since August she has been an associate professor and Journalist in Residence at Morgan State University. Her email is er.shipp@morgan.edu.

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