A Chatham diplomat looks at reconciliation, lasting benefits


Editor’s note: W. Robert Pearson’s career as a diplomat and leader of an international humanitarian charity (IREX) has seen him engaged in reconciliation, problem solving and building relationships worldwide over four decades. With political and racial divisiveness on the rise, Pearson is actively engaged — along with leaders throughout the county — in discussing how the healing process of reconciliation works. In this two-part interview with News + Record Publisher Bill Horner III, Pearson discusses what reconciliation is and how it might happen in Chatham County.

What is reconciliation?

Simply put, reconciliation is taking diverse voices, like a choir, and producing a result shared in by all the participants, harmony from different voices. That result becomes the platform for a better choir — or a better community.

Reconciliation is a process I’ve studied, followed and practiced in my 40 years serving my country, including military service, diplomatic service and service with a global humanitarian charity. I’ve seen it work for individuals, for communities, and for countries. Like many things in life, it is easier to describe than to have happen, but where it has happened it has produced lasting benefits.

Why do you suggest we consider reconciliation?

Well, of course, if we don’t have a problem, we don’t need reconciliation. But we do have problems in our society — economic, political, scientific, social, health, education and others. We are always looking for better ways to solve the issues that arise.

One of those major problems in America is race, an issue that has been with us for more than 400 years. Why do we have major racial blowups in this country time after time after time? Why are there still issues in educating Black youth and finding good jobs for Black people? Why is the total equity of white owned homes thirteen times greater that the equity of Black owned homes? These are just a few of the “whys” that need an answer.

OK, someone might say there have been problems in the past, but things are much better now. “I’m not biased,” you hear people say, “and I’m not responsible for what happened in the past.” Why force it on me?

The solution is not that simple, and the answer is our society’s playing field has never been level. It has always been tilted to the disadvantage of Black Americans. The poverty, discrimination and exclusion — legal, social, economic and political — of the past is a landslide that rolled down into the middle of today. When you look at a list of barriers to Black progress (see sidebar accompanying this story), ask yourself if those things had happened to you and your family, would you be in the position you enjoy today? We may not be responsible for what happened in the past, but we are responsible for what happens today and tomorrow.

OK, so Black Americans have had a rough time of it. Why can’t they be the ones to solve their own problems?

The reason goes back to those barriers and our unlevel playing field. Today, some people are in a hole, and some are standing on level ground. The people in the hole have to get up to level ground just to start competing. The structure of our society has made it harder for Black people to get to level ground.

Well, some might say, maybe some of these problems exist around the country but here in Chatham County we’re doing fine. We’re an exception to what’s going on in the rest of the country. Right?

You are right that there are a lot of good things going in Chatham County today. We have good schools and good Black teachers, administrators and political leaders. We have strong Black churches and caring, engaged white churches. We have the only Black-owned fairgrounds in North Carolina. We are creating a park in Pittsboro to honor a free Black man who was a success in his life and a model for others. We have white people in business, in politics, in law enforcement and many regular citizens who believe in and work for a just and fair county for us all. We’re talking seriously about criminal justice issues, Black business and job issues, health equality issues, and education issues. These are only some of the good things happening.

However, if we are pleased to see these stories today, can we not also tell of the difficulties faced and overcome during 100 years and more of denial of basic rights? Have you read the article by Jim Wiggins on Reconstruction and Black rights after slavery in Chatham County, featured on the Chatham County Historical Association list of reports currently? I quote a line from Mr. Wiggins’ conclusion: “Slavery was gone, but voting restrictions, segregation, and Jim Crow laws restored and rein-forced White Supremacy.”

But aren’t we basically all right now? Aren’t we at least going in the right direction?

The good things are a foundation. But are we deciding that we could not do better, maybe much better?

Let’s start with history, which we in the South always say is very important. How much do we know about Chatham County’s Black history? Do we talk about Black Americans who came with the white settlers and their role in building the county? Do we teach our children about segregation and Jim Crow?

Do we ask why the county once was one-third Black and today is 13 percent Black? If in the past there had been more good prospects, jobs, and careers for Black people here, would that percentage be higher? What might we do to create more good jobs right here so our children would like to stay here and raise their families here?

Can we explain why so few people in the county know about the six lynchings that took place here? Do we know that Chatham County is second in North Carolina along with two other counties for the number of lynchings?

Telling the full history of the county, an effort endorsed by the Pittsboro City Commissioners last February, would be an excellent start to understanding the situation today.

When we reported on the legacy of those lynchings last year, some people responded by saying those lynchings took place many years ago. “We’re past all that now,” they said, “so why not just leave well enough alone?”

The hard, difficult, almost impossible to believe truth is that lynchings were “message killings” carried out by white mobs whose members were never indicted, tried, or convicted even though large numbers of people in the white community knew who they were. The message to Black Americans was to abandon forever any hope of having the law protect them or give them the right to vote or to act as free and equal citizens. That century long period left a long shadow.

What does “telling the truth about race” in our county look like?

In our community, it is knowing this hard history, including the lynchings and the Jim Crow period and the consequences. It’s not thinking that when Jim Crow ended everything was then OK, and people could just go on with their lives.

What is accepting the truth?

It is acknowledging that wrongs were done for the 400 years since Africans were enslaved in America. That includes learning about Jim Crow rule and memorializing the lives of the lynching victims.

And then what?

It is agreeing on what the whole community will do to right the results of those mistakes — the citizens, the leaders and the institutions.

How are those mistakes righted?

It involves making the changes in our justice system, our educational system, our economy and our politics that ensure equal justice for all our citizens. That process is already under way in the wake of the calls for reform since the end of May 2020.

We cannot hide history; it happened whether we like it or not, but we can do better because of the lessons learned from the wrongs of history. Most importantly, we — both the white and the Black community — can make those changes together. To quote Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Next week, in Part 2, Pearson discusses the notion of truth, the idea of restorative justice, the need for reconciliation to be a community-wide conversation, and more. Plus, thoughts from former Chatham County Commissioner Dr. Carl E. Thompson Sr., the senior pastor of Word of Life Christian Outreach Center in Siler City.

About Bob Pearson

During his long diplomatic career, W. Robert Pearson, 77, was an innovative diplomat, leader and crisis manager at the top levels of the U.S. government. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and completed a 30-year career in 2006 with the Department of State as Director General of the Foreign Service. He is a frequent writer and speaker on diplomacy, foreign policy, Turkey, NGOs and development.

Pearson served under six presidents (four Republican and two Democratic) and 11 secretaries of state. Retirement brought him to Chatham County; he lives in Fearrington Village with his wife of 45 years, Maggie.

A native of Tennessee, Pearson traces his Southern lineage back more than 300 years, with ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War. Two great-grandfathers were at Bennett Place in Durham in 1865 in the last surrender of a major Confederate army.