Warren County Organization Tries To Break Down Racial Barriers
Publication date: 2000-06-18
Celebration recognizes importance of unity
LEBANON - Elsie O'Donnell remembers her first experience with racism, although it happened more than 60 years ago.
O'Donnell, who is black, was in kindergarten, and a white student blew her nose and wiped the handkerchief on O'Donnell's arm.
Years later, the two women met at high school reunions, but her classmate had no memory of what she had done.
"She apparently forgot about the incident," said O'Donnell, 73, who has lived in Lebanon her entire life. "I've tried to forget about it, but can't."
Incidents like these prompted O'Donnell to help start the Warren County Race Unity Group in 1992 out of the Lebanon Peace Fellowship.
The group celebrated Saturday at Colonial Park South with a cookout, a performance by a local blues band and a proclamation read by Mayor James Mills recognizing the importance of racial harmony to Lebanon's survival. About 50 people attended.
"Their lives depict what they say," said Mills of the interdenominational group, which started because black and white members felt their own churches weren't addressing racial issues.
In 1998, the U.S. Census estimated that Warren County had 3,309 black residents out of a total population of 146,027, or 2.3 percent.
Mills, Lebanon's first black mayor, said the group helped cool racial tension at Warren County Career Center recently. When members learned that black students were being called racial slurs, they called the school's principal and organized a dialogue between nearly 40 white and black students.
Conversation, not confrontation or protest, is how the group wants to break down racial barriers.
"We recognize prejudice by going to people's houses, sharing food, sharing their lives with them," said Jean Benning, 58, one of the group's eight founders, who said that she's made more black friends since joining the group.
At the beginning, these conversations were more structured than just blacks and whites talking about race at dinner. They used a curriculum developed by the Baha'i Faith, which stresses unity among all religions and maintains 1,125 assemblies in the United States.
"Some of the older African-Americans were skeptical," said Jackie Hagan, 52, a local Baha'i leader, who facilitated the discussion. "They thought, this will never work."
Members started meeting at local coffee shops, only to have customers' jaws drop at the open display of mixed friendships, Hagan said.
Judy Wade, 41, said that when she hugs O'Donnell at the grocery store, she feels conscious of people's stares.
Still, the Morrow native said she wants to be a model for her five children, who are biracial.
"Racial unity is to say that we all belong together," said Wade, who felt the brunt of prejudice after marrying a black man.
O'Donnell, who is no longer bothered by people's stares, said that she won't give up hope that changes in racial attitudes are possible. "It's silly to let color color your life."
Publication date: 2000-06-18
©Copyright 2000, Dayton Daily News