(Updated 2018 post)
Unlike many places in the South in the Fifties and early Sixties, the racial biases of the white residents of Harrisburg and its surrounding suburbs, including the boroughs and townships on the “West Shore,” were hushed. In polite society, such things were not discussed, and attitudes reflected comedian and activist Dick Gregory’s characterization: “In the South, they don’t mind how close I get, so long as I don’t get too big. In the North, they don’t mind how big I get, so long as I don’t get too close.”
According to U.S. Census records in 1960, 14.4% of all housing units in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, were categorized as “Non-White,” which would have been units almost certainly and exclusively occupied by black people. According to my non-scientific sample of one, the school district in which I lived in 1960, which was directly across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg and included Lower Allen Township, along with the boroughs of Lemoyne, Wormleysburg, and New Cumberland, the percentage of “Black” housing units, and consequently, the number of black people living on the “West Shore” was 0%.
I was raised by a white mother who insisted I join her at the March on Washington in 1963. Back then, even as a young, white teen, I knew race wasn’t an issue that only existed in the South, despite the reporting of LIFE magazine and the 15-minute, nightly, network news shows, which made it appear that segregation (Boomers may recall that segregation was the word used then to signify racism) was an isolated vestige of the defeated Confederacy that had failed to die. Just by keeping my eyes open during my childhood, I knew racism was not a phenomenon unique to the South: where I grew up was as segregated as Selma.
The only black student with whom I went to school from first grade through graduation from a high school of 2000 kids was one, tiny, black girl in my first-grade class in Harrisburg’s Schimmel Elementary School. During the years when I was a student in the West Shore School District—1956 through 1965—I never attended a school in which a black student was enrolled.
If it were not for the fact that the church our family attended—The First Church of the Brethren—was situated on Hummel Street in The Hill section of Harrisburg, my direct exposure to racism would have been restricted to the media. In the late Fifties, the neighborhood around the church had begun to “change,” and as a result, conversations began among church members—all of whom professed to be devout Christians—about the need to move the congregation to the suburbs, a move that mirrored the moves many of the congregation’s families had already made.
There was a scrupulous “public” effort, on the part of those who wanted to move, to emphasize reasons to move that were other than fears born of racist emotions, but in frequent private conversations that I overheard, there was much bemoaning about the fact that long-standing, working-class, white neighborhoods were becoming “colored” neighborhoods, which would make it impossible to recruit new (white) members to the church. But I also overheard side comments about blacks that would not have been uncommon at that time in Selma.
Those private comments, and the absence of any people of color living on the West Shore taught me, even as a child, that racism was alive and well in the Capital of Pennsylvania, despite the massive monuments to liberty and freedom that anchored the west end of the State Street Bridge. As a child and as an adult, the evidence was and is clear that racism held sway in Harrisburg, just as it did in Selma, where the Edmond Pettus Bridge was witness to one of the seminal events in the Civil Rights Movement.
Eventually, the “First Church” congregation split in two, with a new church being founded in one of the Harrisburg suburbs to the east of the city. The congregants who remained, people like my parents, decided to build a major addition to the church building and to hire an assistant minister who would begin and coordinate a ministry focused on the needs of the evolving community surrounding the church. The church remains on Hummel Street, but the proportion of whites that once comprised the entire congregation has diminished to a handful of people who are committed to the community ministry of the church.
While racism in Selma had a face—Sheriff Jim Clark—and tactics that utilized fire hoses, dogs and billy clubs, racism in Harrisburg and its surrounding areas was insidious. Its tools of oppression were calculated and disingenuous real estate strategies and discriminatory lending practices energetically applied by anonymous realtors and bankers that had devastating effects on Harrisburg’s black families.
Those families found themselves restricted to classic urban ghettos beset by poverty and crime. One began at the northern edge of the State Capital grounds (take a right at the end of the bridge pictured above) and ran several blocks north and a half-dozen blocks wide; another began at the east end of the State Street bridge and ran east for several blocks; and a third was a small enclave just across the city line in Susquehanna Township.
The G.I. Bill that opened the door to a college education for my father and millions of other white veterans and F.H.A. loans that made buying new homes a possibility for so many young, white families were not available to African Americans. This was not because the laws themselves were specifically discriminatory; rather, it was how the laws were administered that allowed the racist intentions of white business and political leaders in the north to create segregated housing, segregated schools, and consequently, completely segregated communities.
Anyone who has had a passing familiarity with my (now defunct) blog, Education and Freedom, knows that racism is something that I often addressed, especially in the context of education. I am going to end this post with an excerpt from one such post—Race Relations and It’s Death by Diversity:
The high percentage of regular church attendance prior to the Seventies allowed suburban and urban churches to have more influence in the white community than—it can be argued—they have today. In the early Sixties in Harrisburg, segregation became a focus of conversations with an ecumenical bent among black and white city congregations (most of the white congregations pulled up stakes and moved to the suburbs by 1975), and thanks to the insistence of my mother, I attended many of those early Sixties’ conversations as a teen.
What I recall as distinctly different about those conversations compared to conversations related to race that I have experienced since that time is this: in the early Sixties there was never mention of the word or concept of diversity. As a white teenager, I knew there were differences between myself and black kids of the same age that were correlated with race, but like the adults who engaged in the ecumenical conversations, the differences seemed to be accepted as cultural window dressing. Apparently, diversity was then deemed insignificant in the greater discussion of improving race relations.
What I remember the conversations focusing upon was the identification and confirmation of important things that we all shared regardless of our race: the importance of family, the wish to provide a better life for children, the need to feel valued individually, the need to feel protected and safe, the wish to be treated fairly. There was a professed intent to draw people together based upon our common human wants and needs; a focus on diversity would have thwarted that goal.
Many of us came away from those conversations with a clearer understanding that there are things more important than cultural window dressings, which do have their place within our families and cultural communities. We learned that what we hold in common, regardless of our race, includes those things that each of us wants to experience, things that fall within the parameters of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Imagine how improved race relations might be today if, as a society, we had spent the last fifty years discussing the things we hold in common as human beings instead of being consumed by a destructive focus on what is different among us. Diversity Training may be one of the most deleterious things that has influenced race relations since the focus on diversity gained importance in the Seventies in education, business, and government.
Diversity training arose out of a misguided response to the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the urban riots, the paralyzing fear many white folks had about the Black Panthers, and the totally illogical view that by focusing on what makes “others” different from ourselves, we will become more accepting of those others. By 1970, in my little world at least, there was little that remained of the good intentions and the progress made in race relations in the early Sixties.
Instead of a land of love and acceptance, America has become a nation characterized by tribal intolerance and hatred, a primate characteristic imprinted in our DNA that generates behaviors against which all of the great prophets have warned as they provided humankind with the wisdom—if only it were to be followed—that would allow us to emerge from the World of Fang and Claw in which we seem to be mired.
Prior to 2016, I still held on to the aspirations I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. profess fifty-three years before as I stood in awe in front of him and the Lincoln Memorial. The past few years have left me feeling that, despite the gains that may have been made over the decades, the essence of his dream has been shattered, and I am profoundly saddened and concerned that the marching orders he declared on that day may have been deleted for all time from our national consciousness while we Boomers have been on watch; however, as I write this in (2020), I am heartened by the diverse multitudes across the world that are finally responding to MLK Jr’s clarion call that was shouted to the world 57 years ago:
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
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