Embrace Diversity With Stedman Graham

So we grew up knowing we were different. And in different mediums, we heard the same message over and over: "You are not as smart as whites." Though we lived in a town with few resources, we were lucky to be blessed with several outstanding, no-nonsense teachers at my school, Whitesboro Grammar School. These teachers took it upon themselves to sternly prepare us for the rough ride ahead. The memorable lessons taught by Charlotte Harmon, Alice Jones, and Ines Edmunds reverberate even today. They insisted we focus heavily on reading, math, and science and impressed upon us that we had better know our lessons well. If we didn't, they would make darn sure our parents knew all about it -- immediately. Our school only went up to fifth grade, and we knew we'd soon be attending white schools outside Whitesboro's city limits. In essence, the teachers were telling us, "We don't want you to go up to those white schools and embarrass us."

So we grew up with a sense of pride in Whitesboro. We respected our family members and we respected the elderly. We didn't tolerate namecalling. However, there was an unwritten rule when I was a kid that white folks weren't allowed in Whitesboro. It was our haven -- our respite. If white people ventured into town, we chased them off, with the exception of sports teams that would come down to our fields for home games.

When that happened, it was a huge event in the community. Because we constantly felt we had to prove ourselves, we knew we had to be twice as good as white kids to get anywhere, and we weren't going to let these guys beat us on our own ball fields. Pride was all we had and pride took over. My family worked hard to develop the few resources we had. We struggled like many families did in Whitesboro. My father was a painter and carpenter, but he would not teach me those skills because he did not want me to follow in his footsteps. He wanted me to get my education and grow up to be something else. Because my father was a person of color, he couldn't get into a painters' union. So he had to take on all the odd jobs that no one else wanted. All his life, he had a sense that he was being put in his place, and that his family was being put in its place too.

You could count on reading anything negative that happened in Whitesboro in the newspaper. Incidents that would have never been significant enough to write about in a white community became news when they happened there. Sometimes that negativity was a self-fulfilling prophecy. A number of my friends and classmates who had been good, smart, and athletic kids turned on themselves and got involved with drugs. Some were sent to prison. They were looking for a way out and often didn't find one.

Students were bused from Whitesboro to attend Middle Township schools, where I attended an integrated high school. I was a drum major there, a basketball player and founder and president of a club called Betterment Through Understanding (BTU). I was a Boy Scout and was treasurer of the freshman class. As active as I was, I still hadn't come to fully understand the real value of education.

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