Volume 11 Number 3
Getting to Grips With Race
01 June 1998
President Clinton has put race relations high on his political agenda. The following article by Carolyn Barta, reprinted with permission of 'The Dallas Morning News' (16 February), looks at an initiative which already has an impressive track record.
The capital of the Confederacy may seem an unlikely place to look for racial reconciliation. Yet, to some in this still Civil War-scarred city, it's the ideal venue.
Shadows of the past still linger over Richmond, even as it grapples with the present-day realities that typify race-strained urban centres.
Many area residents, for instance, called it a sacrilege when a statue of Arthur Ashe--the black tennis star once denied access to his hometown's public courts--was erected last year on Monument Avenue, the street lined by likenesses of Confederate heroes Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.
Others viewed it as a symbol of much-needed change in a community divided by race since its days as the nation's second-largest slave-trading port.
A growing number of local people, in fact, are working to unify the community through interracial discussions organized by Hope in the Cities, a group that seeks to use history as a tool for healing.
Richmond is one of dozens of cities in which race-related projects were under way even before President Clinton called last summer for a year-long national conversation on the topic.
Launched here in 1990, Hope in the Cities grew out of National Coordinator Rob Corcoran's belief that race is at the core of most urban crises, from crime and punishment to public school inadequacies, health care reform, immigration and welfare.
Like many Southern cities, Richmond has been in transition since the 1970s, when redistricting produced black majorities in local politics, bussing desegregated the schools and whites began their suburban flight. Almost overnight, most major political positions were claimed by blacks.
Race didn't become an issue, Mr Corcoran said, 'until black Richmond took control. Then it became a major issue. Of course, for half the population, it had been an issue for a long time.' Today, Richmond's 55 per cent black population is largely impoverished, although the city remains a business, cultural and government centre. City schools are 98 per cent black. Meanwhile, the three suburban counties around Richmond are exploding with jobs and population.
Hope in the Cities is trying through meetings and special events to build bridges between blacks and whites, the city and suburbs. Last year, the non-profit organization sponsored a structured series of cross-race dialogues.
Each discussion group was led by trained facilitators--one black and one white--covering similar ground. About 150 people participated in 17 small-group dialogues once a week for six weeks.
They met in homes and public places. Pairings brought together black and white churches, the Jewish Community Federation and members of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], and black and white women hosted by the Museum of the Confederacy.
Janene Charbeneau, the museum's marketing director, volunteered to be the white facilitator for that event because she felt black and white women 'need to understand each other's stories'. She grew up in Richmond and was bussed out of her neighbourhood to a predominantly black school.
'At the time, I resented it a little bit. But I always thought I was a part of history,' she said. 'As I got older, I realized, nothing changed. The school systems are now again segregated. I asked, why did we go through all of this?'
The dialogue resulted in some firsts. Black women were drawn into a museum they had never visited to see an exhibit on black and white women during the Civil War. And Ms Charbeneau made her first visit to a black person's home, when invited to a Christmas reunion by the Rev Paige Chargois, her fellow facilitator.
Dr Chargois, a Baptist minister and associate national coordinator of Hope in the Cities, believes racial healing cannot come without delicate work on issues surrounding the Civil War.
Her personal journey involved coming to grips with her hatred of the Confederate flag 'and anybody connected with it' by meeting with a leader in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. After listening to the elderly white woman, she was able to view the flag as a symbol of white pain and loss from the war, instead of a symbol of hatred of blacks.
'I was more surprised than anybody, that almost miraculously I was freed of that hatred of the flag,' she said. 'That led to the continual reaching out to that element of the Confederacy establishment.'
Mr Corcoran believes efforts to solve the problems of cities have foundered because of 'suspicion, denial and hostility arising from our unresolved racial history'. So part of the Richmond effort has been to recognize historical aspects of the city long pushed under the rug.
In 1993, the Rev Ben Campbell, pastoral director of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat centre, conceived the idea of a two-mile 'unity walk' through the city's history. It included some previously unacknowledged sites.
The walk was part of a national 'Healing the Heart of the City' conference, which drew 1,000 people from 50 cities to Richmond. Co-sponsors were the City of Richmond and former Mayor Walter Kenney, Hope in the Cities, and Richmond Hill.
The walk was repeated late last year for students from mostly suburban and private schools. Juxtaposed on the tour were sites such as St John's Church, where patriot Patrick Henry gave his 'Give me liberty or give me death' speech in 1775, and Manchester Docks, where slaves were unloaded on the James River from 1680 to 1780.
The students viewed the downtown site of Lumpkin's Slave Jail, where Africans were held awaiting the auction block, and the site of a mansion that was a stop on the Underground Railroad [the network of safe houses used by escaping slaves].
They learned that the landmark known as Powhatan Hill originally was inhabited by leaders of a large Indian nation displaced after English explorers arrived in 1607. And they saw a state capitol that not only houses statues of eight Virginia-born presidents but also was home to the nation's first African-American governor, Douglas Wilder.
Mr Campbell, descendant of an old-line white Virginia family, recalled Richmond's trauma at being burned by retreating Confederates. 'If you look at where we are as a city, you can see how it directly comes out of that time. There are still unhealed wounds,' he said.
Richmond leaders have offered to host a town hall meeting for the President's Initiative on Race, centring on the use of history for healing. However, Mr Corcoran said, Initiative staff members seem more interested in learning how Richmond is bringing alienated people to the table.
The key, he said, is to develop trust by involving people who are willing to work over a long period of time and serve as role models for the broader community.
Various people associated with Hope in the Cities believe it's having an impact.
About 350 people attended a kick-off breakfast for last year's dialogues representing such organizations as the Urban League, YWCA, Catholic Diocese, National Conference, Peace Education Centre, Richmond public schools and Leadership Metro Richmond.
Dialogue participants, while few in number, are taking different perspectives back to their families, workplaces, churches and civic organizations, they say. And more dialogues are planned this year.
JF Williams III, a real estate executive, said there is no way to quantify the group's results but he believes 'thousands of lives have been touched'. He said some business leaders who abdicated responsibility in the 1970s, now say, 'Well, we can't ignore this any more or we won't be in business.'
Dr Chargois feels Hope in the Cities helped to defuse the city's controversy over the Arthur Ashe statue by offering a safe place where people could share their opposition to the Monument Avenue location without being labelled racist.
As a result of one Hope in the Cities meeting, a group of black and white citizens made a joint appearance before the City Council, although they presented different positions on the issue.
David Kalman of the Jewish Community Federation said the dialogue he attended produced subtle changes in behaviour.
'It makes you not pull up next to a black person in a car and lock your doors,' he said.
His organization is building on the dialogues by sponsoring a discussion for an inter-racial youth group, after the youths see the movie, Amistad, and a bus trip for blacks and Jews to the Holocaust Museum and an African-American museum in Washington, DC.
Institutional results include programmes to help juveniles in detention and black fathers find jobs, and talk by suburban county officials about sharing revenue with the city on some projects.
To be sure, not everyone in Richmond is enamoured of Hope in the Cities--which has now spread to a dozen other cities--or even optimistic that cross-race dialogues will produce anything but more talk.
'There have been some very sincere and well-planned efforts to promote the idea of racial reconciliation, but we are just beginning this journey,' said Warren Kennedy, president of the Richmond chapter of the NAACP.
'We're still fighting discrimination in the area of housing and employment.... That is the major divide,' he said, along with the warehousing of blacks in the nation's prisons. 'Economic and social justice will be the bottom line.'
Dr Chagois acknowledges, 'We've encountered sceptics on both sides. But our perspective is, you move forward with people who are ready to move forward.'
Dr John Moeser, professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Richmond must deal not only with the legacies of the Civil War and massive resistance to integration this century, but also with remnants of the Southern aristocracy who believed it impolite to discuss matters of race.
'We have to surface this instead of dancing around it and being very polite,' he said.
But, he added, 'If we can come to grips with it here in Richmond, I think there's hope for the country.'