(WAVY) — There are two things that normally take place in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. One is the Potato Festival, which was generally viewed as a “white” event.
On the other hand, Juneteenth, on June 19, was generally viewed as an “African American” event.
That’s just one example of racial tension in northeast North Carolina, according to Hezekiah Brown, a resident, community leader and former federal mediator.
During two days last week, Brown, and other members of his civic group “100 Black Men” helped pull together about 40 community leaders, from government, business, schools and neighborhoods.
Their goal: talk out perceived racial problems that apparently run deeper than separate festivals. And, during the talk, participants would come up with solutions.
They did this in two eight-hour sessions at the College of the Albermarle in Elizabeth City on June 23 and 24.
“I think it (the meetings) needed to happen because there’s a lot of tension, there’s a lot of people who don’t know what to do, what to say, what the actual environment is at this time,” says Glendora Brothers, an associate minister at Faith and Victory Christian Church in E.C. Brothers works as a case manager at Sentara Albermarle Hospital, and serves on Gov. Roy Cooper’s State Health Coordinating Council.
“One of the things a lot of people now who are more progressive are saying ‘I don’t see color.’ And one of the things that came out of that is that if you don’t see color, you don’t see the person,” said Brothers.
“I think one of the things that really surprised me is maybe the fear that we all have of getting to know one another … the fear of the unknown.”– The Rev. Daniel Cenci, the rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Elizabeth City.
“I think the idea that racism even exists, was hard to say, at first. And then, the idea of coming together and seeing how it existed in our community, and how it, um, we can start to change it, was a big deal for us.”– Beth Cross, administrator at Mid-Atlantic Christian University
Enter, mediator Brown.
“All across the country, as you watch television, read the newspaper, just the whole media, they’re only talking about the problem very few people — I’m not saying no one — are talking about. What’s the solution to the problem?” he said.
Brown was determined to find out by organizing these “Building Bridges” conferences — something he says he’s done all over the country as a federal mediator.
Another member of 100 Black Men, retired Col. Curtis Wrenn, was focused on goals for the sessions, with an emphasis on history.
“We specified objectives, action items and designated who would be responsible for that. To give you an example, one of the things we said was our textbooks don’t really speak the truth about history. A lot of people are now really learning about the Tulsa race riots. And the fact that we used airplanes to drop incendiary devices on black folks in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Well, it’s barely taught in the state of Oklahoma. But how do we now get that into the textbooks that we teach our children?”
“One of the biggest things that I got out of it was conversation, understanding. When we started to talk about our lives, our past, where we come from, how we unified and come together, for me, it broke down walls and it allowed me to see some understanding in others.”– Chris Lockamy, an economic development director in Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County
“This sort of — I call it a “class” — is essential because the conversation is so crucial right now. We need to talk about our differences in what’s going on right now and know that, when we talk about it, eventually we will come up with a solution that works for everyone.”– Community activist Jackie Latson
“We talked about having UNITY events,” said Cenci. “We’re all good southerners and we love barbecue — maybe having everyone come together for a town-wide barbecue. We talked about book clubs where we could read texts that address these issues of racial injustice then come together and talk about it across racial lines.”
Coming together, that’s the goal of the “Building Bridges” crew.
Brown says they’ll come together again in the next 30 to 90 days to report back on how well it’s going.
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