An Ongoing Journey
I grew up around people who taught me to care about others, to recognize God as the creator of all of us and to see the world as bigger than my own backyard. However, diversity was not visually obvious. A high school social studies class exercise revealed ancestry from around the globe, but Darnell was the only student of color in my class of about 160. Bussing wasn’t about desegregation but rather a matter of getting to school on roads meandering through Lancaster County cornfields.
College was an expectation and I ended up on a campus that my mother described as a mini United Nations. Diversity, injustice and world issues were daily conversations and actions. Protests were outside of my comfort zone but helped me to learn. Interestingly, this first U.S. college to be co-ed and award degrees to Black students struggled with campus racism in the 1980s and still does. In my years there, South African apartheid was an all-consuming topic and, amazingly, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at commencement.
It was outstanding grounding for my work as a history curator. But I’m afraid that racially diverse interpretation was often minimized in the face of being busy and finding my own feet. However, co-workers at Chester County History Center, Quakers and non-Quakers, helped keep the whole truth – including inequity and injustice – front and center.
Serving on the 2002 Underground Railroad exhibit team, with community and academic advisors, had a lasting impact. Though not perfect, acceptance of all at CCHC is a tradition. Several African-American seniors have shared that the History Center welcomed them as youngsters in the 1950s when the YMCA next door did not.
In about 2007, two African-American women made an appointment to learn about how history organizations operate because they were planning to start the Chester County Black Historical Society. It felt like a stab to the heart. Could they not see themselves at CCHC? One woman commented about some content they were developing, to which I lamely commented, “That sounds interesting.” She replied, “I researched the material in your library.” Ouch.
From that moment, I became determined to do my part to be more obviously inclusive. I had been given a voice in the work I was doing and wasn’t using it enough. Opportunities seemed to come out of the woodwork. For example, community members reminded us of local centennial birthdays: Samuel Barber in 2010 and Bayard Rustin in 2012. Each was featured with an exhibit and programming that highlighted their national and international influence. (Thank you Rev. Anderson Porter for being a Rustin program presenter.) Their almost parallel lives but unequal race-based experiences in West Chester and beyond are remarkable. Additionally, both kept going despite real and potential ostracism for being gay, a civil rights issue embraced by Rustin in the 1980s.
I continue to learn. In reality, if one seeks truth and justice, the diverse opportunities that seem to come out of the woodwork are really always there if I’m willing to pay attention and think about others. I can always be more sensitive in my vocabulary.
Whenever I have stepped out of my comfort zone amazing things have happened. I’m grateful for it. Meaningful progress may take the form of asking questions or it may mean listening with full attention. Racial justice is essential. So what am I going to do about it? I will attempt to be present and speak truth to power. Ephesians 4:15