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Reflecting on progress of racial equity

January 18, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- For one milestone, Hagerstown was ahead of the nation.

Millions of people will descend on Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to see history: the swearing in of the country's first black president.

Hagerstown went through that on a smaller scale nearly four years ago, when Alesia Parson-McBean, who is African-American, broke a racial barrier and became a city councilwoman.

Parson-McBean hesitates to group those feats together, but said both show the fruits of progress.

"What I have learned since being elected," she wrote in an e-mail interview, "is that there has been a growing sentiment throughout our nation to have minorities of color and their voices represented in the political arenas across the nation. These changes have been taking shape on all levels of government throughout the nation in places where they have not been seen before. This should be attributed in part to laws put into place by the Civil Rights Act."

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The 1964 act, a prohibition against discrimination by race or gender, grew from the advocacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose achievements are celebrated today with a national holiday.

William M. Breichner, a former Hagerstown mayor and councilman, points to the integration of the local schools in the 1950s as a pivotal point.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregating schools violated the "equal protection" clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Washington County discussed the next year how to carry out the new mandate.

Breichner said the opening of South Hagerstown High School in 1956 signaled the end of an era when Hagerstown High School was for white children and North Street School was for black children.

W. Princeton Young, the first African-American to serve on the Washington County Board of Education, said local integration took years to succeed. When black students were switched into the predominantly white system, they were "traumatized" by the loss of black teachers and administrators who guided them before, he said.

"You felt very isolated and alone," he said. "Times have changed so dramatically."

Young was appointed to the school board in May 2003, then lost in a primary the following March.

Andy Smith, the president of Brothers United Who Dare to Care, a black advocacy organization in Hagerstown, said that as significant as Parson-McBean's election was, Young's school board election defeat was a sign of residual racism.

Young disagreed, attributing his loss to his lack of footing within the school district.

"I was at a disadvantage because I didn't work my way through the educational system," he said.

Despite the positive changes, Smith said, current events are a reminder of progress not yet made. He said the recent fatal shooting in Oakland, Calif., of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, by a white transit police officer shows that unrest and prejudice live on.

"There's a lot of people filled with racial hatred," Smith said.

For a group of children at Hagerstown's Memorial Recreation Center on Thursday, deep divisions of the past are hard to imagine.

The children, ages 8 to 13, black and white, all said they have black friends and white friends. Races mix in their schools, with no obvious friction.

"I don't see anymore racism because everyone is talking to each other. They don't care if you're black or white," said George Robinson, 11, a sixth-grader at Northern Middle School.

"We're all getting along together, even though we're different colors," said Madison Weedon, 10, a Potomac Heights Elementary School fifth-grader.

"I think we're, like, nowhere near perfect," said Nicole Downing, 13, a seventh-grader at St. Mary School in Hagerstown. "I think we have a long way to go."

Four girls and two boys and their parents, all Hagerstown residents, gathered at the recreation center for a discussion of race, at the invitation of The Herald-Mail.

Madison's mother, Yvette Weedon, said she was glad she met a variety of people when she attended Smithsburg High School, thanks to the varied backgrounds of Fort Ritchie Army base children who were there.

George's mother, Ladetra Robinson, who helps run an etiquette program for children at the recreation center, said her private-school upbringing in California also exposed her to many social groups.

Nicole's mother, Catherine Downing -- the only white parent in the discussion group -- said race relations were fine when she grew up in Cambridge, Mass. She and her friends had sleepovers and never thought much about it.

But Luciana Dean, a Hagerstown native, said the racism she saw when she was younger hasn't gone away.

"Black people ... can't get the same opportunities as Caucasian people," she said. "I can go to Florida and it's totally different."

Yvette Weedon was more optimistic.

"I think the opportunities are there," she said. "Anybody can run for office. You just have to want to do it."

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