MAXWELL:  A model of racial harmony

6/23/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As I drove into this North Central Florida town, home of the University of Florida, a radio news program announced that another black church in the South had been torched.

An angry parishioner of the church, a black woman in her 70s, called on “racist white folks to search their conscience.” A white man, a lifetime resident of the community, said that blacks should not blame all white people for the burnings. “All white people aren’t bad,” he said. “Many of us are good Christians who hate these burnings, too.”

Mindful of this racially charged climate, I checked into the University Centre Hotel, worried that my weekend mission may have changed. My mission was to conduct a program that would bring young strangers together in racial and ethnic harmony to discuss how we can better empower black youngsters. But I worried that our goal may have been pre-empted by the ignorance and sins of some adults.

We were gathered as part of the work of Role Models Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization two of my colleagues and I formed two years ago to help deal with the serious problems African-American youngsters face. The main engine of the foundation is our four-page, statewide newsletter, Role Models. We publish upbeat articles that show young black people in school how to succeed in a complex society that has many rigid standards and concrete expectations.

During its maiden year, the newsletter attracted 35,000 readers in elementary, middle and high school. But as the accolades streamed in, one question constantly nagged us: Should the newsletter continue to highlight only black students, or should it become a publication that features all races and ethnic groups?

To answer the question, we invited eight students of various racial and ethnic heritages from each region of the state to participate in our second annual planning session, to give us ideas for articles and to help redesign the format.

We did not know what to expect. In the end, four black students, two whites and one Hispanic, all accompanied by their parents, came to Gainesville. The youngest was 8, and the oldest was 17.

Immediately, as the staff greeted the first arrivals _ Jennifer McQueen, a 16-year-old white student at Gainesville’s Buchholz High School, and Christopher Young, a 15-year-old black student at Tallahassee’s Rickards High _ we knew that the conference, although intended for planning the newsletter, also would be a laboratory for working on human relations.

Jennifer’s natural warmth and radiant smile captivated all of us. Even Christopher, a macho football player, relaxed, smiled and grasped everyone’s hand with a measured firmness. His parents apparently sensed the cordiality, greeted everyone, moved to a corner and chatted with Jennifer’s mother. As they checked in, the other conferees and their parents were met in the same manner.

At our major planning session, I was thrilled to see how easily these young people interacted with no hint of race and ethnicity. In three separate teams, we brainstormed for several hours, discussing story ideas, identifying interesting young people to profile and outlining special features to entertain a diverse readership.

When I asked if Role Models should remain all black, the passion of the responses surprised but encouraged me. Each student and parent said that the newsletter should include all races and ethnic groups, along with people with various disabilities.

“We need to do things to help young people get along,” said Shadrick Alexander, who is a black 11th-grader at Orlando’s Edgewater High. “Adults can help, but some of them pass on their problems to their kids. The newsletter can show all kids, black and white, that we can help everyone succeed by getting along with others.”

Christopher agreed: “I think we should go out and try to understand the things that make people different. I play football and basketball with whites, Hispanics and everyone. We’re a team. The whole country should be a team.”

Jennifer, an avid churchgoer, said that she has no time for racism and would dedicate her life to bridging the gap between the different groups. “We need to learn to love other people and to respect their rights,” she said.

I watched the students as we ate lunch on the University of Florida campus. The black students actively sought the company of the whites. And Isaac Hernandez, our lone Hispanic and honor student from Interlachen High, acted as if he had known everyone for years.

Saturday night over dinner at the Olive Garden, the fellowship was more spontaneous than any of us could have imagined. For two hours, we talked and joked, laughed and anguished over the enmity and lack of understanding among the nation’s various groups. We, young people and adults, actually discussed race without shouting. Later, with two parents driving, the students went to movies. Afterward, several got together in a room near mine and talked into the early hours.

The next morning, I left Gainesville feeling wonderful, believing that I had been part of an encounter, as simple as it was, that would make a difference in the lives of young people.

Nearing my home in St. Petersburg, however, I tried to ignore the news on National Public Radio that at least two black churches in Lake City, a small town north of Gainesville, had received letters threatening that they would be the next to burn. I wanted to relive the conference, to re-experience the hopefulness of youth.