We have frequently written in this space that many older Harford County residents remain uncomfortable about their community’s racially segregated past, while the generations that first came to the county in the great housing boom of the latter 1980s and early 1990s were too often motivated by a desire to live in a predominately white community and have no compunction to address inequality in economics, housing or education.
As a consequence, there is a large swath of the local population that either tends to view the idea of racial equality in abstract terms at best or, more likely, ambivalently — downright hostilely, since it doesn’t affect them directly as part of the majority of 250,000 residents.
It’s always been important to those of us who produce this portion of The Aegis to recognize that a racial divide does still exist in Harford County, while celebrating the work of those who, regardless of race or ethnicity, have done magnificent work in trying to close that divide.
As an institution, The Aegis was in fact the voice of the Harford County white establishment for decades, from its founding by people who defended both the right to own slaves but also opposed dissolution of the Union, through its support of “separate but equal” in the Jim Crow era from the late 1800s well into the 1960s in the case of Harford County, to the more benign but still wrong forms of racial segregation in the county that persisted through the start of this century. While we have done our best to move beyond those eras, they are still part of our past and remain our responsibility to ameliorate.
In last Friday’s edition, staff member David Anderson recounted a recent tour of key places in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s across the South by a group of teachers. The group was led by Dr. William B. Allen, a Havre de Grace resident and retired political science professor, college dean and onetime head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Dr. William B. Allen, a retired Michigan State professor and dean who lives in Havre de Grace lead a group of 45 teachers on a week-long tour of key sites in the civil rights movement in Atlanta, Alabama, Memphis and Little Rock, Ark.
The purpose of the tour, which was organized by the Freedoms Foundation in Valley Forge, Pa., was to give 45 middle and high school teachers from across the United States an opportunity to see historic places such as the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., that played such a prominent role in King’s Selma to Montgomery March and the state capitol in Little Rock, where there is a monument to the nine African-American students who integrated that city’s Central High School over the resistance of the state’s governor.
Allen, who is black and grew up in segregated Florida in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, said a theme of overcoming entrenched — often institutionalized – racism and segregation “emerged as a very dramatic truth,” as his group made its way to stops in Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama, including the recently opened National Museum of Peace and Justice near Montgomery, where victims of lynchings in the 1800s and 1900s are memorialized, including Lewis Harris, who was hanged and shot to death by a mob in Bel Air in 1900.
“The most important mission was to make the history of the [civil rights] movement something [participants] would incorporate into their teachings,” Allen said.
In the mid-1960s, one of the most important American voices of the 20th century, James Bryant Conant, wrote that for a high school to be truly comprehensive, its 12th year students should be required to take a yearlong course on contemporary issues and problems.
Many schools of that era did indeed follow such advice, though not all, and in many cases, the cry for racial equality was considered only in the most abstract terms, as many schools were still racially segregated, if not by law, certainly in practice. A half a century later, we would all do well to push the reset button on our education system, particularly where relations among people of different backgrounds, beliefs, national origin and ethnicity are concerned.
People like Dr. Allen, whose tour hosted, judging by a group photograph, many more white than black teachers, have the right idea, but there needs to be many, many more of us with equal motivation and desires to close that seemingly unconquerable divide between white and black.