The work of conflict transformation depends upon the authentic telling and hearing of one another’s stories. As a first response to the events in Charlottesville, I would like to tell you one part of my story of race. My story of race is told from the perspective of a white, cis-gender, middle class, middle-aged, female United Methodist pastor living and serving in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
I was not born in the South; I was born in Evanston, Illinois. Evanston is the first suburb of Chicago along the Lake Michigan to the west/northwest. Evanston is a lovely, leafy green hamlet probably best known as the home of Northwestern University. My parents lived in Evanston and my father commuted to his job at a Chicago law firm. My mother was a full-time wife and at-home mother of two daughters.
My parents lived about three hours away from their parents. My mom’s father was a businessman; my mom’s mother was a full-time homemaker. My father’s father was a professor at the University of Illinois; my father’s mother was a full-time homemaker. My parents met young, dated throughout their teenage years, and married in 1961, shortly after graduating from college. They set out on life together with all of the promise and hope of educated, white, middle-class, Midwestern Americans.
In 1967, Chicago experienced a blizzard of epic proportions: 23 inches of snow fell over 48 hours in late January. My sister was 19 months old; I was 9 months old; and we both were sick with winter colds. Barricaded by snow drifts, my parents wisely decided to flee Chicago for warmer climes. My father accepted a teaching post at the University of Georgia and we arrived in Athens. After a few years in Athens, my family moved to Chapel Hill for my father to join the UNC faculty.
Chapel Hill was a quite a different place in 1971 than it is now. The town population was about 26,000 souls. There was one high school. There was some diversity in the town due to the presence of the University of North Carolina. Many of my friends were faculty kids transplanted to Chapel Hill like I was. I remember the culture shock my family felt moving from a large Midwestern city to a small Southern town. “What on earth is a pig pickin’?” I wondered more than once.
True southerners want to know who my people are. My people hail from Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa by way of New England. Their last names reflect English, Welsh, Irish, and German origins. My ancestors have been farmers, teachers, preachers, doctors, sea captains, and business leaders. They have worked hard. They have paid their taxes. They have gone to church. They have raised their children to be good citizens. Not a single one of my ancestors owned slaves or fought for the Confederacy.
Does that heritage make me innocent of racism? I have proof, after all, that my people were on the right side of the Northern/Southern divide! When we were cleaning out my grandmother’s things after she died, I found letters from Union soldiers stationed in Tennessee. I know nothing of how these letters came to be in my grandmother’s attic. All I can figure is that someone in my family wrote to Union soldiers as a part of a campaign to lift morale amongst some of the troops fighting in Tennessee.
Surely, I am innocent of the sin of racism. My people have been on the “right” side of history.
Here is another part of my story: I went to college in Tennessee. My alma mater, Vanderbilt University, has deep ties to the slave-owning past of the American South. My sophomore year, I lived next to a dormitory named “Confederate Memorial Hall.” I didn’t think that much about the name; I considered it a relic of history. I certainly didn’t think carefully about how the name “Confederate Hall” could be offensive to others (note: Vanderbilt has recently changed the name of Confederate Memorial Hall to “Memorial Hall”).
I almost never thought deeply about or learned about how the respected institution that granted me a baccalaureate degree had a racist history.
Three times this week, I have taken my dog and walked around campus at the University of North Carolina. As I have walked and prayed, I have reflected on the prominent “Silent Sam” memorial and the less prominent Unsung Founders memorial on McCorkle Place. I have a graduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. I have walked or driven past Silent Sam probably hundreds of times. Because I am white, I have had the luxury not to feel insulted.
Thursday I was on campus at Duke University. Duke University recently removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from the facade of Duke Chapel. I have a professional degree from Duke Divinity School. Many times I walked through the front doors of the Chapel without a second glance at the figures flanking the front doors. Because I am white, I have had the luxury not to be offended.
I am not innocent of the sin of racism. I have benefited my entire life from the color of my skin. I continue to benefit socially, economically, and politically from my whiteness.
This one part of one American story of race. There is more to come.
Thank you for reading one part of my story of race.