Many of the earliest memories of my childhood in the early 1960s include playing with a boy named Jerry who lived next door.
Our Southern Avenue houses were separated by the “ditch”. While only a few feet wide, it might as well have been a mile wide with vast differences separating the two. I never knew Jerry’s last name, never went inside his house or met his family, never had a conversation about our differences. We were happy to meet in the sanctuary that was the ditch, play for hours looking for frogs and salamanders, oblivious to the realities of the world around us or the changes that were about to come.
Jerry was black. I think he was my friend.
I am embarrassed to think back now about societal attitudes back then. Segregation was the law of the land and the attitude of many of the people. It manifested itself in many ways: in separate water fountains, different schools and, in our neighborhood, the ditch.
But change was coming for Jerry and me. Our country moved to improve civil rights, social justice and to rid ourselves of segregation. Fayetteville and the South moved more slowly, but move they did, and real progress was made. Laws were enacted that attempted to address many of the issues, but laws themselves don’t change beliefs, foster better understanding or promote dialogue.
Thankfully, among most people, especially the younger generations, race relations have improved significantly since that time. But we still find ourselves a half century later, dealing with many of the same misconceptions and lack of understanding that plagued us then. Too often we see the same feelings of distrust and defensiveness arise when we talk about Medicare expansion, or community policing, or the real meaning of patriotism.
I wonder sometimes what would have happened had we chosen a different path. Would it have made a difference if we had taken the time to listen and to learn, to gain a better understanding of each person’s culture and beliefs? Would we be in a better place today? Is it ever too late?
The N.C. Civil War & Reconstruction History Center provides an opportunity to make a real difference in improving race relations in our community and the entire state. It is not merely about a building with interesting displays or an economic impact study. It is about asking the hard questions, facing the real truths and investing in listening and learning. It is about looking in the mirror and beginning a journey toward mutual respect and understanding.
The ditch on Southern Avenue is long gone, filled in by the passage of time and progress. But the memories remain and so do the hopes that one day we will live in that world Dr. King spoke of just a few years later – a nation where people would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
We can begin to remove the ditches that divide us.
I like to think Jerry, wherever he is now, would appreciate that.
CityView, in conjunction with WIDU and WFNC, is proud to host a community discussion about the N.C. Civil War Reconstruction and History Center on Thursday, April 9 at 7:30 a.m. at Highland Country Club. Go to cityviewnc.com to join in the discussion or for more information.