Sunday, April 20, 2008

Blacks in area have made progress, but there is more to be done


Mr. Horton is a retired vice president of an Ohio-based, handheld computer company and a former resident who has returned to his hometown of Kingsport.

Recently, a former Riverview resident provided me a copy of Pastor Doug Tweed’s column “It’s Time to Make Amends for Our City’s Racism,” which I understand he wrote in observance of Black History Month. I found it appropriate and timely. I cannot attest to the racial climate in Kingsport prior to the 1950s, but I can speak with clarity about the climate of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The old Douglass School, aka V.O. Dobbins Community Center, was not properly equipped. Frequently, it did not have the appropriate Bunsen burners, measuring instruments and other laboratory equipment. The science teacher or principal would have to beg equipment from Dobyns-Bennett. The books, while provided freely, in many cases had been used at Dobyns-Bennett. Funding for athletic programs and the arts was limited or nonexistent.

Whether I was living in Los Angeles, Columbus, OH, or Cedar Rapids, IA, the story which I always like to tell the audiences — it never fails to cause folks to express disbelief — deals with the unholy alliance between the State of Tennessee and Kingsport Board of Education and the State of Virginia and Gate City Board of Education to bus about six or eight black students across the state line to attend classes in Riverview. I tell my listeners that the good people of Gate City failed to even hire a driver to bring the kids across the mountain — one of the older students was entrusted with the responsibility.

In many of the cities where I was stationed, the issue of busing white students a few neighborhoods away from their homes was abhorrent. The uproar was deafening. However, during my academic career here in Kingsport, no one on either side of the railroad tracks complained.

In the spring of 1977, I was in the area to arrange for the burial of my mother and took a side trip to Gate City High School and noticed how small the facility was. Imagine my surprise when I began to read about the poor academic achievement of students in the Southwest Virginia section, especially when standard testing instruments were used. I had assumed that the bar was set so high in those schools that the six to eight black students were not capable of being reached. The other sad part of this story is that the Gate City leadership did not deem it appropriate to hire a properly trained driver to make the trip.

Upon my return here two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to reunite with a few of those bused students and learn how successful they had become. Two or three had made careers of the military, several had earned bachelor’s and in some cases master’s degrees. Sadly enough, many had moved to larger localities, and neither Virginia or Tennessee will ever benefit from their talent nor the tax revenue generated from their significantly enhanced salaries.

Pastor Doug wrote about the black teachers and business types who had to develop their careers within the small black community. I was shocked after leaving the area to learn that many of the black teachers who cycled through our community were never compensated on a par with their white colleagues. As I reflected later, after I had completed my graduate studies at Tennessee State and was pursuing my post graduate work at the University of California at Los Angeles, I thought that doing janitorial work at the old Mead plant or cleaning offices downtown during the summers was normal for black teachers. I remembered my homeroom teacher who would spend his summers working as a waiter on the trains which traveled from Chicago to Seattle. The rumor was that he made in three months half of his annual teacher’s salary. The only white people who related to me while I was in school were the teachers who would conduct Bible study on Wednesday afternoon who were assigned by the Kingsport Council of Churches.

Paster Tweed cited the names of several black professionals who have distinguished themselves locally. I think that is marvelous considering their meager beginnings on small tobacco farms in North Carolina and Southwest Virginia from which most have come. I am impressed with the upward mobility of many of the formerly disadvantaged persons in the area. It is indeed refreshing to see the change. I am, however, amazed at the lack of clout these persons seem to have in their respective organizations.

I tried to refer several candidates to a black professional who works for a major employer. The candidates are still waiting to be contacted. I was referred to another black professional who I assumed had a key role on the management team helping to chart and influence the direction of the corporation. I discovered he had nothing to do with the management council, could not discuss the direction of his employer, or the price of the stock.

As a former vice president of an Ohio-based, publicly listed computer company, I frequently review the announcements of the Security Exchange Commissions (SEC) filings of stock issued to their executives. As of today, I have yet to see this black executive awarded any stock options, nor does his picture appear in the annual reports or any of the quarterly reports.

I am further amused at the number of black employees who supposedly have a technical background or are working in HR or procurement or in some sub-professional capacity. My sense is that most are tokens or part of a window dressing scenario in order to comply with a mildly effective initiative called affirmative active.

This type of Equal Opportunity program is OK in a small East Tennessee town; however, it would not fly in a large metropolitan community.