I turned 65 years old this year. More significant than reaching my status as an elderly black man of Baltimore, however, is that I am one of the last of a kind.
My kind, elderly black men and women, are the last remaining links to a past that subsequent generations have only read about or viewed electronically. Everyone older than me, but far fewer younger than me, have lived in Baltimore when segregation was the way of life and a culture of open racism was the norm. But by the time the next generation matures, there will be none of us left.
Granted, I was just a child of Baltimore then, but I remember sitting with my mother in the back of a Catholic church because she could not sit anywhere else. I watched my sister on TV, on "Colored Day," on The Buddy Dean Show.
However, if all the black elders departed this life today, the segregated Baltimore we lived in as youngsters was a better place for black people to live in than the current segregated Baltimore. Growing up, we had a community, a real black community, not what we loosely refer to as "The Black Community" today. Black lawyers, doctors and sanitation workers lived in the same neighborhoods because they had no choice. Black teachers, mostly female, were revered and held the status of professionals, signified by the wearing of white gloves to work. Black steel workers held out brown lunch bags on North Avenue, looking to car pool with those of us with cars to Sparrows Point.
Sure, there were poor, very poor black people in Baltimore. My parents happen to have been among them. But they were commonly referred to as the proud and dignified poor. They lived in the "Projects" without shame because there was a real community of black people there as well. When we were teenagers, the young men were starching their collars, sporting varsity letters and wearing Belmore shoes because the young ladies demanded to be impressed.
We had crime. Every community does. But nowhere near the violence of current day Baltimore. We had drugs. But not open drug markets controlled by gang violence.
What went wrong? What caused our communal consciousness to forget our core strength in family and community? We can all render opinions and make judgments, but I can offer at least one cause: We, the village elders, our generation, did a poor job of transferring our "Yes, Sir" and "Yes, Ma'am" values on to the generations that followed.
Is it too late? Maybe, but this is the only time we have left to tell, to teach, to guide some young man or woman toward a better life in a better Baltimore. As the black village elders, we need to stop watching our children and young adults kill each other. If our young adults won't listen to life-saving counsel, then bend down to their children, our grandchildren and the greats as well. Before they, too, are indoctrinated into the hopelessness that persuades too many of our young that it is acceptable to forfeit their future by breaking the law or worse, by dying young.
In our elderly ranks are those with trade skills and business experience to share. Among us are veterans of Vietnam and Desert Storm with valuable training to instill self-discipline. And many more with wisdom, all capable of being that bridge over troubled waters to a safer, healthier, better educated, wealthier black community in Baltimore.
This is a time for Baltimore's Black Elders to assume, by the authority of their vested cultural and historic heritage, their rightful place in the black community with honor and commitment.
Erich W. March, Baltimore