During Black History Month, the News + Record is featuring discussions about issues related to the African American experience in our Chatham Chats. This week, we speak with Mary Nettles of the Chatham Community (East) Branch of the NAACP and Larry Brooks, Mary Harris and Norma Boone, representing the West Chatham NAACP.
The world has certainly changed much in the last year. The COVID-19 pandemic and a tumultuous election season were certainly remarkable, but the death of George Floyd was part of a catalyst of change as well (not to mention Breonna Taylor and others) in the United States. As we observe Black History Month this month, how would you assess the state of African Americans living in Chatham County?
MARY NETTLES: Some Chatham County residents are still trying to live in denial in thinking everyone has been treated fairly or in thinking we will continue to accept the unfair treatment when they know in their hearts Blacks in the county have not been treated fairly. Everyone needs to stand up for truth/justice and talk about the past so mistakes of the past will not be repeated. When racial inequity has been acknowledged by all then we can all move forward.
What’s changed in the last year? What hasn’t changed — what needs to change?
WEST CHATHAM NAACP: Of course, the climate in Chatham County mirrors the climate across the Country. The racial unrest, political unrest and the unemployment has caused many people to speak out and face the issues head-on. Many are organizing to address the concerns. These groups include African Americans, Whites and other people of color coming together to find common ground and to look at possible solutions to what might be considered dominant groups and others who don’t feel connected.
The feeling that there still exist what some describe as “White” privilege. Most who are in this category do not see it because they have not experienced being on the “other” side. Yes, some people are still treated differently due to the color of their skin or because they are socio-economically disadvantaged.
The powers that be need to really sit down and have open and honest conversations about their perceptions and/or misconceptions about other groups. Being open and willing to take a risk is paramount to getting to the heart of what keeps racism and inequality in place. Nobody benefits or everyone continues to suffer.
We hear terms like “racial equity” and “systemic racism” a lot these days. As leaders in local branches of the NAACP, how have your conversations changed in the last 12 months around those and other subjects?
NETTLES: Within weeks of the murder of George Floyd last year the NAACP and the Community Remembrance Coalition (CRC-C) held a rally in Pittsboro on “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation.” Many young people and adults, Black and White, attended. Law enforcement, government officials, Black ministers and community leaders spoke. These leaders, Black and White, spoke of the positive spirit in the county to make concrete progress toward equal justice for all. The Chatham County Historical Association has published a number of articles highlighting our county’s Black History — its struggles and its triumphs. There is strong support for the Lewis Freeman Park in Pittsboro to remember this prominent free Black leader and businessman during slave times. The county’s Public Health Department has shown its commitment to eliminating systemic racism in all its activities. We have held productive talks directly with the three law enforcement agencies in the county on the NAACP’s national “Six Point Agenda” for equal justice. Black and White, we still have major challenges remaining in education, in jobs creation and training, in protecting the right to vote, and in sharing fairly in the growth and new prosperity of Chatham County.
WEST CHATHAM NAACP: Just a few weeks ago was the riot/protest at the Capitol. It was astonishing and amazing that the approach to the predominately White group of violent protesters seemed extremely different than the approach that so many African Americans met with as they peacefully protested on the same grounds. They did not storm the capital or commit any of the other atrocities committed by the other group. Blacks would have been shot. So, the conversations have changed, but the actions/responses are much the same. Of course, there has been many broad conversations, but we must wait for the outcome of these critical to see if there is a more positive response in the future.
We also see groups — some of which have been active in Chatham County — denying racial injustice. What kinds of exchanges do you have with those organizations and individuals, and do you see any movement in those conversations toward a better place?
NETTLES: Unfortunately, these past years have seen a rise in white supremacy groups and activities. Groups demonstrating in Pittsboro against the removal of the Confederate statue have hurt our city’s economy and the willingness of Blacks to shop or visit downtown. For our part, we are ready to engage with all groups and welcome the opportunity to come together for public discussion on race issues. Our CRC-C website (CRC-C.org) presents articles, news and a blog for better community conversations. We are looking at the future with optimism and determination.
WEST CHATHAM NAACP: The conversations are meaningful, working toward common ground is daunting, yet productive in that the difficult topics are being addressed. Hopefully that will bring about more positive results as we create a climate whose intent is to work toward a common good and a common goal. We do not want to become polarized by speaking but not acting on what we learn from each other. We must all stand together and work together for creating that “more perfect union.”
What’s on your wish list for 2021?
NETTLES: My wish list is for Horton Middle School to be renamed George Moses Horton Middle School and for Lewis Freeman Park to open. The school and the park will honor the accomplishments of Black men who succeeded during the time of slavery. I look forward to the NAACP and the Community Remembrance Coalition – Chatham to memorialize Eugene Daniel, John Pattisall, Lee Tyson, Henry Jones, Harriet Finch and Jerry Finch. The lynching of these six individuals has remained a horrible and hidden secret of Chatham County.
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