Panelists assembled for a Black History Month program Thursday afternoon have seen it all — from the days of separate water fountains and schools to more recent times when America elected an African-American president.
While acknowledging such gains made in civil rights, race relations and other areas over the past 50 years, concern also was expressed during the event in L.H. Jones Auditorium that the country could be reverting to its more-repressive days.
“Have we made progress, or are we going back?” asked Katie Hatcher, 92, a retired local educator who earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and taught at the local all-black Ridge-Westfield School in the days before integration.
Hatcher was one of four panelists assembled for Thursday’s black history celebration in Mount Airy which had the theme “Sound the Trumpet: Great Struggles, Great Strides.”
“We’re thinking about how things have been, how they are and where we want to go,” explained Shepaille Dobson, one of the moderators for the program.
The gathering was sponsored by the Surry County branch of the National Association of University Women, the Surry County Senior Center and the J.J. Jones Alumni Association. The latter group is made up of persons who were students at the campus by that name on Jones School Road which once served the African-American community.
In addition to Katie Hatcher, the question of where blacks were, are and want to be in the future was tackled by Shelby King, Edward McDaniels and the Rev. Daryl Beamer. Beamer also was a special speaker Thursday.
There was general agreement during the panel discussion — moderated by John Jessup — that African-Americans have come a long way, but there is still much to be done. Both McDaniels and Beamer expressed concern that the gains made to this point might disappear due to the present political climate in Washington.
“I am so heartbroken by the country,” said Beamer, who is approaching his 60th birthday. “This country needs to make sure we don’t go back to the past and repeat those things we had to go through.”
“I’ve learned one thing — if we don’t watch out, history is going to repeat itself,” McDaniels said.
Beamer also referred to the presidency of Barack Obama. “It seemed like people were happier then,” he said, adding that conditions have shifted backward since Obama left office, somewhat representative of the terror waged by the Ku Klux Klan.
“Now they don’t wear hoods — they wear coats and ties,” the local reverend commented. “We are living in perilous times.”
However, Beamer said African-Americans also are to blame for some problems, mentioning rampant inner-city violence as an example.
Yet much of the focus for Thursday’s discussion was on what has been accomplished to the benefit of African-Americans.
“Each of us has gone through a number of changes,” said Jessup, the moderator. “And it seems sometimes like things haven’t changed — when they have.”
Panelist Shelby King recalled the days of white-only water fountains when restaurants also were off-limits to African-Americans.
“We are doing a lot better than we used to,” observed King, a longtime Mount Airy business owner.
“It has changed some, yes,” Hatcher, the retired teacher, agreed.
Yet she and other panelists pointed out that any lack of progress, and improvement still to be made, largely rests on the shoulders of the African-American community itself.
“A lot of times we throw the blame on someone else,” King said, “but we share the blame, too.”
“You have to cause the change yourself,” Hatcher concurred.
“We can’t sit around and depend on somebody else to make the change.”
“We have come a long way,” King summed-up. “But we’ve still got a ways to go.”
Jobs remain an issue
One of the things on the to-do list, according to the panelists’ consensus Thursday, was a need for more jobs for local young people.
In many cases, youths, of all races, get a college education only to have to relocate outside Surry County to find a job.
And Beamer hinted that racism could be a factor concerning lack of employment opportunities locally.
The reverend told the audience about how he had visited banks in Mount Airy, and seen no “person of our culture” employed in any of them.
“And even in the real estate business, you don’t see any African-Americans,” Beamer lamented.
The same goes for local governmental and other offices, he said.
“How do you get that fixed? I’m not sure.”
Cheryl “Yellow Fawn” Scott, a key organizer of Thursday’s program, read from a list of visions offered by audience members, who were polled as they entered the auditorium Thursday.
One suggestion was for African-Americans to be more visible in this community, including to tourists. “We are treated a lot as if we are invisible,” Scott related from the list.
More minority business ownership and diversity also are viewed as local needs.
Future of youth
Additional concerns were raised Thursday about the present state of young people overall in America.
“The youth are our future,” McDaniel said in highlighting the need to look out for that segment of the population — which is facing unprecedented threats.
“More people are getting killed and there are shootings more than ever before,” said Hatcher, who referred, along with others who spoke Thursday, to recent campus attacks such as the one last week in Florida.
“As they are watching all these shootings, children are getting ideas,” Dobson, one of the moderators, said of that exposure, coupled with the effects of violent television shows and certain song lyrics.
Young people also don’t attend church as much as their counterparts in the past, which those on Thursday’s program see as further eroding the upcoming generations.
“If we’re losing our children now, what is our future?” asked Dobson, who believes they will be on a path to destruction if things don’t change.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen 50 years from now,” Hatcher said.
In addition to sharing his thoughts during the panel discussion, the Rev. Beamer ended Thursday’s program with a sermonette in which he put all the concerns into perspective.
“We must keep hope alive,” he concluded.
Dobson, who has worked as a kindergarten teacher, offered similar sentiments when closing out the event.
Saying her hope overall is for a stronger community that helps change the world, Dobson says this can begin with positive attitudes and deeds toward one’s fellow man which produce worthwhile outcomes in return:
“Good stuff in, good stuff out,” she said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.