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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Two Baltimore men cross a bridge and a racial divide

When they were boys, Ken Bancroft and John Bruce were warned to never cross the bridges over the Jones Falls Expressway. The JFX was still new at the time, delivering commuters as far south as Guilford Avenue by 1963, and punctuating a dividing line in the city.

To the west were Druid Hill Park, Mondawmin and other neighborhoods that had become predominantly black. On the eastern side of the new highway were Hampden, Remington and the predominantly white neighborhoods of north-central Baltimore.

Ken Bancroft grew up in a rowhouse in Remington.

John Bruce grew up in Gilmor Homes public housing.

One man was white, the other black. They were both told, in fear-inspiring terms, to keep to their sides of the Jones Falls.

Bancroft remembers friends and family members saying, “Don’t go over that bridge. If you go over there, it’s all blacks living over there. You’re gonna get beat up. You should never go over there.”

Bruce remembers his father taking him to Druid Hill Park and the public swimming pool that had been desegregated in the mid-1950s. The pool was as far as Bruce was allowed to go. “We were forbidden to cross the bridge,” he says. “My dad said, ‘If you cross that 29th Street bridge, or the 28th Street bridge, you’re not gonna live. They got Klansman over there. They will kill us. Never, ever cross that bridge.”

So, of course, Bancroft and Bruce never met. They learned, as so many others did, to fear people who did not look like them. Desegregation had come, the civil rights movement was underway, anti-discrimination measures were being signed into law, but the races in Baltimore were as separate as ever.

More than 50 years later, the two men are friends who serve as local leaders of a faith-based group, Be The Bridge, that encourages conversations toward racial understanding and reconciliation, a challenging but important and timely endeavor. Bancroft and Bruce met in a men’s group at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium after living thoroughly separate lives.

Bancroft had a long career in hospital administration. He’s in his early 70s now, the retired CEO and president of St. Agnes Hospital.

Bruce, about 10 years younger, has had a long career in computer science; he’s a systems administrator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Bancroft and Bruce met about seven years ago at Grace Fellowship and discovered that they had grown up on opposite sides of the Jones Falls and had received the same warnings from elders.

By then, Bancroft had heard about Be The Bridge, a program that encourages Christians to have honest dialogue across racial lines and offers curricula to get the conversations started. Be The Bridge groups have formed across the country.

After Bancroft heard a sermon about the Christian imperative to build bridges, he enlisted Bruce to help form a group. Starting in 2016, four white men and five men of color met over a year to talk about the hard stuff: Their personal experiences with people of different races, the fatal shootings of black men by police, the riots in Ferguson, the death of Freddie Gray, Black Lives Matter, the white supremacist demonstrations and counter-demonstrations at Charlottesville, the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump.

There was some support for Trump in the group, Bruce says, and things got heated at times. “But everyone wanted to be there and talk,” he says. “It was an opportunity for people to say what they really think in a non-threatening environment. You can respond all day long on social media, but to sit in a safe environment and talk face-to-face is so much better.”

The first meeting after the violence in Charlottesville was hard, says Bancroft, with an African-American member of the group coming to tears. And when Bruce described the demeaning way white police officers treated him during a traffic stop in Greenbelt, the white members of the group were appalled.

“This was a person we had come to know very well and to really like a lot,” Bancroft says. “It was like, ‘We can’t believe this is happening to John.’ That [incident] and other things began to illustrate a pattern that, throughout his life, the message John has been given is, ‘You are less than, you are not the same as, other people.’ And we began to imagine the hurt that that could create for someone like John, and it made it all personal.”

Ken Bancroft and John Bruce crossed a once-forbidden bridge, and now they want others to do the same, though Bancroft says recruiting people for discussions about racial issues has been tough.

Still, he and Bruce are spreading the word about Be The Bridge. “It is deeply needed in the city,” Bancroft says, “ and in our country, neighborhoods and churches.”

A long-form conversation with John Bruce and Ken Bancroft, recorded on 29th Street, is featured in Episode 425 of my Roughly Speaking podcast.

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