We welcome our second guest blogger of the year, Avis Stewart. Avis shares his thoughts with us on Wayne County’s black history and ways that we can look to our future.

Avis Stewart

Retired Earlham College Administrator

I was asked to share a few thoughts about our community. The request was unique in that someone wanted to know how a black male, who has spent 50 years in our community; served on more than 20 boards of directors; and in different leadership roles, viewed Richmond and Wayne County.

I’ve spent many hours contemplating what purposeful message I would like to share. My hope is that what I have to say is meaningful and worthy of your time and attention. And I hope that our county can serve as a model for how our community can move forward together.

I wish I could say I’ve lived a flawless life, but that would definitely not be true, but then, who has, right? Has every decision I’ve made always been the right one? That’s also a no.

I also wish I could say that our community has fully embraced diversity, inclusivity, and progressive thinking, but like it or not, we’ve fallen short.

Yet, our history and our hearts give me hope that we can serve as “the shining [city] community on a hill.” (Ronald Reagan)

Falling short, when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and progressive thought, means the glass is either half-empty or half-full. It’s really up to us to decide whether we continue to drain the glass of its contents.

Or do we decide to share it with others? And will we allow diverse perspectives to help us fill it to the brim?

Freedom Seekers to Future Framers: Our History and DNA

Recently, a friend of mine asked me to share some historical information during Black History Month with our community. Specifically, Richmond and Wayne County black history.

Those conversations led to the NAACP project, From Freedom Seekers to Future Framers. It’s a snapshot of black life in Richmond and Wayne County.

It is sponsored by the Wayne County Foundation and a private donor, and is supported by Forward Wayne County. The project provides a brief overview of what was once Indiana’s most populous area for early black settlers-Richmond/Wayne County.

That’s correct. Between 1840 and 1860 more black freedom seekers made our neighborhoods their home than any other county in Indiana. So our history really does speak to our welcoming attitude and environment. Look for this project throughout 2021.

Levi and Catharine Coffin welcomed goal-driven, people of color nearly 200 years ago from all over. In fact, the Coffins, their neighbors, and other locals shared many of the same values that the freedom seekers possessed. We could legitimately argue that it’s in Wayne County’s DNA to be a leader when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Let’s figure out how to build on their vision, not bury it.

Respectful, Civil, Difficult, yet Necessary and Rewarding Conversations

The freedom seekers speak to a significant part of black history, but just as important, is who is going to frame our future.

Each day I remind myself that people should be judged by the “content of their character, rather than the color of their skin” (Martin Luther King, Jr).

All of us are flawed, so finding a way to have difficult, courageous, civil conversations about our differences is not and will not be easy, yet necessary. It will more-than-likely challenge all of us.

If we accept this challenge with the same openness that the Coffins and others did some 200+ years ago, then we can make Wayne County the exemplary community it strives be.

A Recent Personal Epiphany

In 2019, my wife and I accompanied some Earlham students to Capetown, South Africa. We visited Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years before becoming President.

Our tour guide was a fellow prisoner during Mandela’s sentence and he shared the less than pleasant details of what Mandela’s life was like as a young man. As we left, I purchased a shirt featuring Mandela’s picture. When people ask about the shirt, I share the following:

Given all of the divisiveness we are experiencing as a society today, I often think about Mandela’s long-suffering, painful, yet rewarding journey through life.

I admire and appreciate his wisdom, strength, mental, and physical toughness, perseverance, unwavering hope, and the kind compassionate spirit he had for all South Africans, even though he was treated unjustly and inhumanely.

The Mandela shirt gives me a kind of peaceful energy that keeps me going; it gives me hope that someday we (Richmond, Wayne County, the State of Indiana, the United States, and the world) will understand that we are all inextricably linked to, and accountable for, our finding a better, more promising path forward for us all.

It’s up to us.

Final Thoughts: We Can Do This!

I do understand that our local history of black freedom seekers and the welcoming attitudes of many early white settlers toward people of all races and backgrounds makes this place unique and special.

I also understand that if we believe that we are all tied together, and responsible for finding a better, more positive way forward, then we do have a good chance to be the example that helps our state and our nation move toward all of us being treated equally.

It won’t be easy, but if we choose this path, and treat each other respectfully and civilly, then our community has a high probability of addressing difficult issues in a constructive way. It will once again show that Wayne County’s DNA welcomes individuals of all races, genders, ages, backgrounds, and nationalities.

We all have platforms for how we might move together as a community. It’s up to us whether we choose to do it or ignore it. I plan to do something and hope you will join me in helping our community realize its potential while serving as a model for others to follow.

And, if we fall a bit short, that’s okay, as we’ll just keep trying just as the freedom seekers, Coffins and other early settlers did to make their vision, our reality.

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