REFLECTIONS ON RACE
NOVEMBER 23, 1995
A reunion of former North Florida University students who had taken a unique psychology class on race relations in the early 1970's, is the topic of a special report by Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was a day of embraces--
WOMAN: Oh, this is wonderful!
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --and of reminiscing.
WOMAN: My gosh, look at me. I was skinny.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This is a reunion of a group of former students who had all taken a psychology class on race relations at North Florida University in the early 70's. When they all came together in Jacksonville, many of them had not seen one another for 20 years. Prof. Peter Kranz was also there. He taught the class called Human Conflict, Black and White for five years. What made these classes unique was that Kranz required each of the students to live with the family of another race for a week.
PETER KRANZ, Professor: I wanted students, both black and white, to really get to know each other as people. I was hoping for friendships and learning beyond just the usual classroom atmosphere.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Twenty years later, Kranz conducted interviews with the students and found that the class had had profound effects on their lives. He taught the class from 1972 to 1977, the decade that followed the Civil Rights Movement.
PETER KRANZ: Many of the students at that time had had little or no contact with those of the other race.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: At this reunion, students from various years were joined by some of the hosts' families, anxious to learn what had become of their former guests. Minor Chamblin had volunteered his home for the project, and he had this to say about the experience.
MINOR CHAMBLIN: By virtue of talking with and interacting with young men that came and stayed with us for a week, it gave me a better appreciation as to what it's like to grow up as a minority in our society. This guy, even though he was very, very intelligent, very articulate, very self-assured and confident, also on some instances just enabled me to see what it was like growing up in an environment where you knew that things were going to go against you, where sometimes the opportunities would not be there, and that was, of course, totally foreign to my experience.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: After the reunion, I sat down and talked with six of the former students about how the class had influenced them. Karen Johnson Akers took the class in 1975 and is now a potter. Ann Whitherspoon was in the class of '77. She is now a substance abuse and mental health counselor in Jacksonville. Karl Swed took the class in 1973. He's now an army recruiter and living nearby. Clifford Bartley was in the class in 1973. He is now a manager at Sea World. Cary Burns took the class in 1975, and he's now planning to run for political office. Harold Lee, who took the class in 1973, is now a private investigator. He says all of his contracts are with white-owned firms.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you all for joining us. I'd like you to first start by telling me what your thoughts were when Prof. Kranz told you about the home visit.
CARY BURNS: I thought, "Oh, Lord, what have I gotten myself into." I thought this was going to be an easy class here, and when I got that first thought about the home visit, that really kind of scared me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was your biggest fear?
CARY BURNS: That I would do something wrong, I think, that I would offend somebody, or--you know, growing up in the South, I didn't--you know, I'd never really lived or, you know, been in real close contact with--on a personal level, like you would when you're living with somebody.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Harold, what about you, what was your biggest fear?
HAROLD LEE: The unknown. The only view of I've had of white families was what I saw on television, you know, "I Love Lucy" and shows like that, the "Dick Van Dyke Show," where the parents slept in separate bedrooms, and that seemed kind of strange to me. I just wanted to know, you know, was this how white Americans lived, you know, did the Mother come to the table, dinner table, dressed with her pearls, and did the father wear a coat and tie to lunch and dinner?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Anybody else?
KAREN JOHNSON AKERS: Jacksonville was very segregated at that time, and where I stayed was very close to Rebault High School, which at that point was predominantly black. When I was in high school, it was a white school, and so the whole racial mixture of this town, Rebault Scenic Drive, was, all of that area was all white when I was in high school. At this point it was all black, and so you were driving into areas that were not predominantly black, were all black, and that was a real problem for my family.
HAROLD LEE: That's something else we have to realize too. For a black male to be caught in a white neighborhood after dark in Jacksonville was not one of the most prestigious things that you could come up with.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Did that worry you? Did that work on your mind?
HAROLD LEE: Yes, it did, in terms of like when I would have classes, if I would get back late in the--you know--or at night, and or, you know, I would leave the part-time job I was working, it really, it really, you know, it bothered me to a degree, because I didn't want to be a mistake.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tell me some of the perceptions that you had about the other race that got changed when you got to your--when you had your time with your other family?
CARY BURNS: All I had going in was the stereotypes that I learned growing up.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Like?
CARY BURNS: That black people were dirty, that they, that they smelled differently. I mean, these were things that, that you just heard. I mean, my parents didn't teach that, but it was things that you heard. You know, it's kind of like your friends--and growing up in Jacksonville, you got to remember at the time when I graduated from high school in '69, I mean, the KKK was still very active in this town at the time. I mean, I went to school with kids that were my age and, and they didn't get Boy Scout uniforms; they got robes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: White ones?
CARY BURNS: White robes. That's right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you remember a light going off in your head once you got into this home, saying, mmm, this is different?
CARY BURNS: I don't think it was like a mystical conversion that just happened, but through the course of the semester that we went through and everything, you know, I became cognizant of the real insidious nature of racism, how the little things like a racial joke were really hurtful and it was really, you know, and even to this day after that, I'll tell you one of the big things was the word "nigger." That for me--I mean, this is probably the tenth time it's ever come out of my mouth since that class twenty years ago, because it became such a dirty word to me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ann Whitherspoon, what about you?
ANN WHITHERSPOON: I think the perception of them in terms of how they perceived me was different. As I indicated earlier, when I went to church with them and they were surprised that I knew the hymns, they were surprised that I knew the anthems and the spirituals and I think they had a perception that because I am of an African-American race that I would not listen to the same type music or be exposed to the same type music in a church environment that they were, that I was a little bit more non-traditional.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: They expected you to be singing spirituals, and you could sing the anthem?
ANN WHITHERSPOON: My point is that they thought that I would just be jumping up, clapping, like, you know, some of our churches do. And there's nothing wrong with that, but I think that they were very surprised at my decorum in church and the fact that I knew the music.
HAROLD LEE: The only opinions that I had of whites and their homes are what I saw on television, as I said before, so, you know, in my house, the parents didn't sleep in separate beds. You know, they slept in the same bed. But once I got into the home, I saw it was totally different. The father cooked, you know, and cooked very well. As a matter of fact, he introduced me to lasagna, you know, something that I hadn't had before, I was introduced to, you know, before that time. So it changed for me. It made white families the same as black families, to me.
MR. LEHRER: Karl Swed, any perceptions that changed for you?
KARL SWED: I stayed at Cliff's house and I didn't--I didn't know he was a Seventh Day Adventist, okay, and strictly vegetarian, the whole family, and I had a chance to get involved in that, some vegeburgers. Remember that, Cliff?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What did you think black people ate? (everyone laughing)
KARL SWED: Well, all I heard was collard greens and fried chicken and pork and beans, okay, but I was really surprised. It just really enlightened me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Didn't you--you had an experience at a college where you all were taken on a trip by your professor and you went to an all-black college.
HAROLD LEE: There were three black males, three white females, two white males and two black females, so the professor had us to pair off, and he wanted us to just go around the campus, you know, with all the different activities, the football game, and also wanted us to go into downtown Albany, Georgia, and ask, just try to ask something in a store, or try to talk to the people and see what their reaction was going to be to us. That was a trip. I mean, 1973, here I am, black, male, with a white female on my arm walking across this river, and I'm looking down, wondering how many of my people have been thrown off this bridge for looking at a white female, let alone walking with one.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You felt uncomfortable?
HAROLD LEE: That's putting it--that's putting it very mildly.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And then what happened with the white people when they saw you in town?
HAROLD LEE: Oh, we were downtown, and I think I went into a store with the, with the white girl with me, and we were asking the clerk, sales clerk, a white female, something. I can't remember what. And she told us we were in the wrong city. And so we kind of eased on out and hoped that no one bothered us on the way back to the campus, because we had to walk. See, we had no--the fan was at the college campus.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was the impact of this experience on your life over time? I mean, did this forever change the way you looked at things?
CLIFFORD BARTLEY: We kind of fear those things that we don't understand, and I know even now, as I'm in a work environment, the class has helped me to be more on an equal footing when I'm dealing with white or black in a work type situation. I'm not as concerned about them getting an upper hand, or me getting an upper hand. I basically can treat them just like I am, feel comfortable in dealing with them, and work on the issues, as opposed to working on getting involved with color. Color basically is negated at that point.
ANN WHITHERSPOON: I've been in a couple of settings where I've had to function as the only minority in those settings, work settings primarily, and I think that this experience prepared me for that. I'm getting ready to relocate to Minnesota in a few weeks, where there are still few blacks in that area. And I think that, consequently, with my experiences, it makes me have more fortitude about walking into situations that I feel like I can function effectively.
KAREN JOHNSON AKERS: By the conversations in the class, the home visit, I came to understand how insidious racism was and is. It made me more verbal about feelings that I had always had. I came from a neighborhood that was--part of it was all white, part of it was all black. I grew up on this property, and there's a black community down the street. There's two black communities. And so we had all played together, grown up together, but when we went to school, we went to separate schools, and maybe that makes me young, naive, stupid, insensitive, something, along the way. I never asked, why do you all go to different schools, you know, but through the class, it allowed me more self-confidence in that I felt that my feelings had validity to them, that I had a right to say the jokes that we've talked about, that I can tell people that that's offensive to me. The word he used describing blacks is the second time that word has been used in my home. The last person that used that word was related to me, and I asked 'em to leave, and they haven't been back since.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You mean the word "nigger?"
KAREN JOHNSON AKERS: Uh-huh.
KARL SWED: I've learned to accept people as they are, Okay. We're all working for the same goals, to raise our children and make the American dream come true, and it's not just the whites. It's the blacks, too. And that's where I sit. That's the impact I've had from it, just deal with each other as individuals; we're all the same.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you think that today classes like the one you took twenty some years ago would be useful?
KAREN JOHNSON AKERS: Too many mindsets are already in place, and I think that it has to be changed, and the earlier in elementary school, the better.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you all agree?
HAROLD LEE: It helped all of us. Professionally, yeah.
ANN WHITHERSPOON: I think that for me the stimulation in terms of the growth of becoming intricately connected to individuals, period, of different races is because I developed personal relationships, and they're maintained. It's not just about staying in somebody's house and being exposed, because in a week, you're not going to learn that much to begin with. You're gonna dispel just, you know, a minute part of a myth, but in terms of living and functioning with individuals that are part of your life, you grow constantly and you learn so much.
KARL SWED: I think what we did was fantastic, okay. And I think it should go on, even you said elementary school. And that's where it needs to start is with kids.
CLIFFORD BARTLEY: I don't think any one of us would have visited and stayed overnight in the opposite race's home outside of this class. We would not have on our own. But the class helped us to do that. And because of that experience, we've been enriched. We're more comfortable with our white brothers and sisters. We're more at ease, and we're able to deal with them on a personal level, not on a racial level.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But how do you see the racial situation today compared to when you were taking this class?
CARY BURNS: I see that intelligent, moderate people have moved to the center, but the extremes seemed to have moved farther out. I was telling Dr. Kranz when I brought him from the airport, related a story that just recently happened with me, because the--Johnny Gammage was a friend of mine that got killed in Pittsburgh just recently. I worked with him in St. Pete, and Johnny was, you know, was a really neat guy and black, and he got killed up there by four policemen, driving through a white neighborhood. And I know this guy, and he wouldn't have done that. He wouldn't have caused them a problem. And when my friend called me to tell me about it, I said, "You know, God, I thought it was getting better, but it's not." And so that was real--that really brought it home to me, that there are still some really bad problems out there.
CLIFFORD BARTLEY: Legislation has helped in the outward perception, but legislation don't change the hurts of people. And the hearts of people change over time. We see a difference in generations here. We are probably twenty some odd years older than the time that we took the class, over twenty some odd years, and you can see the changes that have taken place, but--and it's helped, it helped in the overall environment, but I think what's happening is those individuals who are, who are die-hard segregationists, racists, racist or whatever--you see them polarizing, backing up into corners, and you're seeing those corners being entrenched which are very, very difficult to get at, and sometimes the only way you can get at it is lawsuits, whatever means that are possible that are legal to try and break down those barriers.
HAROLD LEE: Every day as a black man, I must be very cognizant of the fact that you are a black investigator, you may be in a million dollar neighborhood today interviewing people, and if you stop to check the address, someone's going to call the police. And they're not going to say that there's a black investigator in my neighborhood, there's going to say, there's this black, whatever you want to call me, individual in this neighborhood who shouldn't be there. And until we can sit down with each other not based on race but based on who you are and talk about any subject, be it golf, be it--be it education, be it anything, you know, we're still going to have problems.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, thank you all for joining us.