It’s Black History month again. This past January, author and retired Piqua educator, Larry Hamilton, shared some truths about “African American Life in northern Ohio” at the Troy Miami-County Public Library in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day. Hamilton has extensive credentials in the field, being a former teacher of African American History.
Mr. Hamilton mentioned the fact that very few streets, buildings, bridges, etc. are named in honor of noteworthy African Americans. In Piqua, Hamilton worked for years to change this. Finally a bridge was dedicated for Dr. MLK Jr.
I found this history of the lack of naming public entities thought provoking. As a journalist, I have sometimes written about the subtle segregation that many Blacks encountered during the mid 1900s when they fled blatant segregation in the south, but were greeted with a more subtle form of racism in the north.
Yet during the racially turbulent sixties, as a Caucasian child growing up in northwestern Ohio, I didn’t know anything about racism. Therefore, it seemed natural when Clemmie came to take care of me and my siblings, while my mom was seriously ill.
Clemmie was an extremely overweight Black woman who had a heart as huge as the girth that surrounded it. My financially-struggling, large family couldn’t have paid her much of a salary, yet she lovingly looked after us. With Clemmie there, I instinctively knew that everything would be alright.
What I didn’t know then was that a Civil Rights movement was being birthed out of the frustration regarding injustices that African Americans like Clemmie could no longer bear. Not yet a first grader, I couldn’t imagine anyone hating such a wonderful woman, simply for the color of her skin. My mother eventually regained her health, so Clemmie no longer came to care for us. Yet her colorblind love, which was based on her faith in the Gospel’s message, “…Love one another, as I have loved you…” had made a lasting impression.
A few years later, on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave his memorable Civil Rights address calling for an end to the acceptance of segregation in educational institutions, retail establishments, restaurants, and hotels. He also demanded that African Americans be able to vote without the fear of harmful consequences.
Just hours after Kennedy’s eloquent speech, Medgar Evers, a Black Mississippi Civil Rights leader was brutally gunned down by a white Ku Klux Klan member. Evers, a World War II Army veteran had survived the Battle of Normandy, but that June night he lay bleeding to death in his own driveway. Fifty minutes later, he died at a local hospital.
Although I’ve never been grievously wounded like Evers, I do know what it feels like to lie on cold asphalt too hurt to move. As an eight-years-old girl walking to school, I tripped and fell so hard that it momentarily knocked the wind out of me and scattered my science project everywhere. Blocks from my home, a middle-aged woman heard my cries, and rushed down her porch steps to care for me.
I didn’t know my Good Samaritan who shared Clemmie’s mahogany complexion. My grandmotherly rescuer tended my cuts, and then she carefully helped me to put my science project back together. She smiled with maternal satisfaction when she finally sent me off to school. That beautiful smile is a treasured memory, as is the remembrance of Clemmie’s massive arms hugging me to her bountiful chest.
It’s important to remember the selfless acts of compassion of others. Because whatever our race, everyday society gives us the choice to tolerate racism based on the justification that someone of another ethnicity probably once mistreated us.
Jewish Holocaust survivor, Liesl Sondheimer often shared a profound truth regarding racial forgiveness. Like Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Mrs. Sondheimer spent decades sharing her painful account of the extermination of more than six million European Jews during World War II. Unlike Wiesenthal’s quandary concerning forgiveness outlined so poignantly in his book The Sunflower, my late friend Liesl always maintained that, “You must forgive, but never forget, or Hitler has won.”
Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once wrote, “…if we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.” But Mrs. Sondheimer didn’t have that choice.
Yet we all have a daily choice about permitting racism, which is still as deadly as Hitler’s gas chambers. Like Liesl, Clemmie, and Larry Hamilton, we can be part of the solution making a decision to be bridge builders for a better society.
Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.