Living African American History
Often when I tell folks that I grew up in a Southern city (Norfolk, Virginia) in the 1940s, the immediate reaction is one of commiseration. Images of blatant discrimination, lynching, separate public facilities, and schools and communities under siege come to mind.
Certainly all of those observations are true and were a part of my experience and that of almost all Blacks growing up in America. Yet, I believe that to focus only on the hardships that Blacks endured during that and other periods in American history would be a mistake. It denies our children the richness of our history, the magnificence of our response to adversity and the enormity of our accomplishments and contributions to America.
My experiences are of a vibrant community, with black doctors, business owners, labor unions and relatives marching off to picket downtown stores that would not change policies for another 20 years. I remember fear but never a feeling of inferiority, and at no time did people around me think that change wasn’t possible.
My images are of African-American newspapers and Spotswoods Robinson III and Thurgood Marshall, among others, fighting lonely battles in court. I remember my fifth grade teacher entrusting me with books outlawed by the school board. I remember an entire community gathering around the radio to hear and celebrate a Joe Louis victory, and I remember when Marian Anderson was the finest singer in all the land.
I remember the pastors of local churches who operated human services programs with such efficiency that no one ever fell through the cracks in my community.
I share these observations with you because I believe that the support and richness of our community was one of the main keys in helping African-Americans overcome adversity and prosper in a hostile land.
More importantly, it has provided me with a legacy of respect and appreciation for community, which in turn has given me the confidence and joy to observe and appreciate the richness, diversity and accomplishments of other communities.
It just doesn’t get any better than that!
Al Poole is the Director of Homelessness Intervention & Block Grant Administration for the Seattle Human Services Department. This article originally appeared in HSD Musings August 15, 2002.
Thurgood Marshall and Marian Anderson photos: U.S. Library of Congress