Embrace Diversity With Stedman Graham

ByABC News via logo
September 20, 2006, 3:17 PM

Sept. 21, 2006 — -- In his latest book, "Diversity: Leaders Not Labels," renowned businessman, educator and author Stedman Graham discusses how in the global economy of the 21st century, diversity has become a defining quality of business.

More than ever before, maintaining individuality while accepting others' uniqueness is key to personal and professional success.

By profiling people who have done this, Graham teaches readers how to grow to their full potential.

"Diversity: Leaders Not Labels" is essential for anyone who hopes to excel in all aspects of life.

The Lessons of Whitesboro

First, I must tell you about an instrument of change in my own life, aman who was central to my transition from race-based thinking, a manwhom I never met.

As I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, racism still infected theblack communities of our country like a plague. It was more conspicuousin the South, but it lingered in the North as well, and New Jersey was noexception.

Whitesboro, New Jersey, was much like other black towns thatsprang up across America in response to antiblack violence and segregation.It was also my hometown, my sanctuary, as I grew up. In areassurrounding our town, blacks were still being openly disrespected, shutout of jobs, and treated like second-class citizens. A kid growing up inWhitesboro felt a little more insulated from this day-to-day despair.But the story of this unique town's founder, George Henry White,dates back far before my time there. White, in fact, was born a full centurybefore me. But his legacy lives on in my heart and the hearts of thethousands who have dwelled in Whitesboro over generations.

White was a visionary man who devoted his adult life to securingthe most basic rights for the underrepresented. He understood the powerof leadership and education in overcoming the label of "second-class citizen."Born in Bladen County, North Carolina, in 1852, he spent much ofhis childhood in servitude, working as a slave in the humid forests of theregion to harvest the precious pine gum used in the making of turpentineand many other common products. He toiled from sunrise to sunset forthe benefit of wealthy slave-owning families in a youth he called a "strugglefor bread and very little butter."

White was thirteen years old when slavery ended. He knew that extremepoverty was inevitable for most former slaves, so he rededicated hislife to helping the legions of newly freed yet disenfranchised men andwomen gain access to the only thing he knew could give them hope:education. He worked his way through a teaching school and thenHoward University in Washington, D.C., later earning a law degree. Hegot elected to a seat in North Carolina's House of Representatives, wherehe fervidly petitioned for increased funding of African American schools.He would serve as district attorney in New Bern, North Carolina, andlater as state senator.

In 1894, White took an even bolder step, running for a seat in theU.S. Congress. He lost but was not deterred and clawed his way backto capture the post two years later. A brilliant orator, White made impassioned,classic speeches about the prejudices and brutality plaguingAfrican Americans in the South. White, as it turns out, was the last formerslave to serve in Congress, and by 1898 was the only African Americanremaining in the House of Representatives.

White went down in history as the first to introduce an antilynchingbill, illuminating his colleagues on the sobering fact that 80 percent of thepeople who were being lynched across America in his time were AfricanAmericans. But White's bill stalled in the Senate, and similar House billsmet the same fate over the next hundred years. On June 13, 2005, an antilynchingbill finally passed the U.S. Senate, with language apologizingfor the many previous failures to address the violence that killed thousandsin our nation's past. White's century-old quest for contrition fromhis country was finally realized.

But that's just one part of the George Henry White story. Back in1900, White began to realize the hopelessness of pursuing a third term.North Carolina's legislature, you see, had ushered through legislation thatbanned blacks from voting. White saw the writing on the wall and knewhis days in the House were numbered. Before leaving, White delivered hisfinal congressional speech, the historic "Defense of the Negro Race," inJanuary of 1901, refuting white-supremacist claims and recounting howracism had unduly influenced our country's legislative process. He promisedthat blacks "will rise up again some day and come again" and thenspoke his parting words "on behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruisedand bleeding people -- but God-fearing people -- faithful, industrious,loyal people, rising people, full of potential force."

White's moving farewell speech was in many ways a new beginning.For years, White felt that African Americans could thrive if given thechance to build their own communities. Blacks in the South -- while freein theory -- were still being afforded precious few civil rights when he leftoffice. So White hatched the idea of developing an all-black town somewherein the North.

Not long after his departure from Congress, White and a handful ofloyal friends bought 1,700 acres of a former slave plantation on thesouthern tip of New Jersey -- in Cape May County -- to birth a town thatwould soon come to bear his name: Whitesboro.