Residents gather for community conversation

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Dr. Etheleen Renee “E. R.” Shipp (left) leads the audience in a discussion of Cambridge in the 1960s and perceptions of race relations in the city today.

CAMBRIDGE — Cambridge residents gathered at Bethel AME Church on Pine Street on July 22, for a community conversation on race relations. The event, which was part of the Reflections on Pine commemoration weekend, was attended by approximately 175 people. Two thirds of the attendees were African-American and one third were white.
The gathering filled the sanctuary of Bethel Church, where Dr. Etheleen Renee “E. R.” Shipp moderated the discussion. Dr. Shipp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who grew up in extremely poor conditions in Conyers, Ga., and attended Rockdale County High School as one of the first black students. Encouraged by teachers to apply for scholarships, Ms. Shipp attended Georgia State University where she graduated in 1976 with a B.A. in journalism.
Ms. Shipp went on to earn a Masters degree in journalism and a Juris Doctor degree in law, both from Columbia University in New York. She has worked at the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the Washington Post, and is currently an associate professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore in the School of Global Journalism & Communication.
The Reflections on Pine event was organized by Cambridge residents Dion Banks and Kisha Petticolas, and Ms. Petticolas welcomed the crowd on hand by saying, “We really appreciate this turnout to have this difficult, but much, much needed conversation about race in our community.”
“Today, I am telling you, I feel like a kid in a candy store,” said Mr. Banks, “I am just overwhelmed at the turnout here. I thank you all for not just believing in our vision, but believing in our community.”
Dr. Shipp encouraged the attendees to approach two microphones convenient to the audience to voice their experiences. The discussion began with a call for “a few volunteers to tell us who you are, why you decided to come to this conversation today, and what it is you really want to hear us talk about.”
Bill Epps, of the Dorchester County Public Library, was the first to speak, saying he was happy to be there and was hopeful he could gain information that could be used to “solve some of the social and economic problems that stem from the past and are still with us today.” Bill said that his belief was that better education that could lead to better jobs and better living conditions in the region.
Joshua Braxton, a youngster in the audience, got up and announced that he came because he wanted to learn more about the Pine Street fire, where the Pine Street School was set on fire (during the civil rights disturbances in 1967) “and why the white fireman didn’t put out the fire as it burned down half the city, and I want to learn more about that and my history…,” he said.

Consensus was that the audience was there to learn more about the causes of the civil disturbances 50 years ago, what folks say when they talk about it, “and is it ever going to be more than just talk,” according to one audience member.
Dr. Shipp then called for audience members to relate their fondest memories growing up in Cambridge, and try to recall when they might have realized there was “another Cambridge,” meaning to say a Cambridge dominated by white customs and rules.
Robin Stanley of the Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce volunteered her thoughts, noting that she was “the first black person to work for the Chamber of Commerce, 10 years ago.” She said that her fondest memories were as a child, playing on Cornish Drive, but noted that she came to realize that when shopping in Woolworths that the owner treated black people “pretty bad” and that black people were followed throughout the store by employees. This was in the late 1970s, she said.
Another resident named Gwen agreed that her fondest memories were her school days, from first through 12th grade, in the Pine Street School, St. Clair Elementary, and Mace’s Lane High School. She said her “entire life it was obvious” that there was a different world, and spoke of different water fountains and restrooms for white and black. “I say that my school memories are fondest because our teachers made sure we were prepared. They let us know that the real world was going to be like once we stepped out of high school. We were always taught, ‘you’ve got to do it better,’ and so that’s what I’ve always tried to do, and I’ve always come back, to give back.”
She brought up a point that has come up in each of the community conversations held in Cambridge in the past year, that of the superiority of the segregated schools, before integration, to the children of the black community. In those days, the teachers in the segregated schools were also community members and neighbors of all the parents, and they worked the kids hard in those schools, as if they were their own. Graduates of the segregated schools all agree that “we were never able to get away with anything!” on the way to acquiring their education.
Dr. Shipp talked about the perception of race relations in Cambridge in 1963, and asked the audience about the local attitudes then. William Jackson pointed out that prior to 1963, “Cambridge was a community that was divided into black and white … Cambridge had businesses up and down Pine Street … almost every business that was (available) in the white community, was in our community. We had other people coming here, and I would see them go out and protest injustices, and they’d come back beaten and bloody. And I thought, if these people can come and be a part of something to free us (of racism), we ought to be a part of it ourselves.”
When asked by Dr. Shipp if black people were satisfied with their lot, prior to the arrival of the college students that led the early protests, Mr. Jackson said, “We weren’t satisfied as much as we were ignorant. Sometimes you really don’t know what you have, or what you should have, until somebody else makes you aware of it, you know. We thought we were doing fine, but if things were like they should have been, we would have been doing great.”
The conversation continued along these lines for about two and a half hours, with very interesting and enlightening insights being revealed and discussed. Organizers Ms. Petticolas and Mr. Banks agreed that the discussion held this day at Bethel Church was “the best yet,” and they hoped for more and better conversations in the future.
The sad reality of the day was that of the white people in attendance, though most were residents, most did not grow up in Cambridge during the turmoil of the 1960s. In order for race relations to take a quantum leap in improving, more of the “from here” white residents of the city need to attend the conversation gatherings. This writer noted a lot of fear and anxiety in local Facebook posts prior to the Reflections on Pine event, with one city resident stating that his family was leaving town for the weekend, in fear of what might happen. Salisbury TV station WBOC also aired a news segment saying that Cambridge was “remembering H. Rap Brown and the riots of 1967” and that “Civil rights activists from across the country were being invited to Cambridge” for the Reflections on Pine event, adding fuel to the negative perception of the event.
In reality, the weekend was full of peaceful, thoughtful gatherings of local residents who obviously care about their community, and the city. Like Ms. Petticolas and Mr. Banks continued to affirm, the weekend was about finding a dialog that will allow both communities, black and white, to discuss their differences and allow them to move on, in a healing direction away from the disturbances of the 1960s and towards a future of tolerance of our differences and a mutual view of common good. Local funeral director Lorraine Henry said it well when she declared, “We can’t make a difference unless we’re willing to make a difference.”
Ms. Petticolas and Mr. Banks promised that though the Reflections on Pine weekend would soon be over, their organization, the Eastern Shore Network for Change, promises more community conversations in the future, and that all residents of Cambridge are encouraged to attend.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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