Local students meet to reckon with the legacy of segregation.
The topic of race is charged with 400 years of ugly history in the United States, much of it left to fester unexamined in the dark. As author Wil Haygood says, “We tend in this country to want reconciliation around the issue of race, but we rarely talk about the truth of the matter.”
So, on a Friday morning in September, he seeks to provoke that discussion by gathering a few dozen students from predominantly black East High School and largely white Big Walnut High School. Haygood asks questions that would unnerve most public officials. When was the last time you had to think about race in America? What represents racial progress or racial backsliding? What would you do to improve race relations?
The students surround him in the library at East, which he’s visiting to promote his new book, “Tigerland.” The story is set at this school, which Haygood attended as a sophomore, and it tells how the Near East Side black community was unified and empowered by the East Tigers’ 1968-69 basketball and baseball state championships, while the country struggled with racial strife. Today’s mixer and discussion is based on a similar cultural exchange held that school year between East and Northland—a mostly white, suburban high school at the time—under the direction of East’s Jack Gibbs, the first black high school principal in Columbus.
Fifty years later, in the same library, Big Walnut principal Andy Jados hopes the exchange introduces his students to a larger, more diverse world. The Sunbury school’s population is 92 percent white, and Jados says students rarely travel south of Polaris. East principal Charles Richardson says he wants to spark a generation of independent thinkers who will participate in social movements.
At the outset, students have easygoing conversations about similarities in their everyday lives, but then Haygood shifts the dialogue toward race. Some are silenced by his questions, whether from shyness or apathy or fear of saying the wrong thing. There are platitudes of course—talk of treating each other with respect rather than hate—but there’s such hunger for common ground and progress that even those statements sometimes receive enthusiastic applause.
Several times, Haygood implores the teens to ask something they want to know about students from a different geographic area. It highlights a demoralizing reality of the latent racial divide. These youths can connect so easily—effortlessly sharing their Instagram handles—but they’re still profoundly separated. Despite attempts to integrate schools, the legacy of segregation and white flight has maintained the isolation that Gibbs hoped to overcome 50 years ago.
The students from East and Big Walnut appear genuine in their desire to narrow that distance. Their answers may be oversimplified at times, but there’s also willingness to address questions that it seems most Americans would rather dodge forever. Haygood tells Tori Rammelsberg, a Big Walnut student, to ask someone from East a question about race she’s always wanted to ask. She directs her question to Zo Crawford: What does he think when he sees a big group of white students from Big Walnut?
He doesn’t look at white people as that different, he says. He and his peers don’t discriminate because they were raised not to be racist. Also, they’re all family—everyone from East and Big Walnut. Haygood announces a brief break, and Rammelsberg walks over to Crawford to continue the discussion. A small crowd gathers to listen.
In the hallway afterward, Crawford says he and Rammelsberg talked about race in general and about the difficulties of his daily life as a person of color. He hopes the Big Walnut students spread what they learned when they go home. Does he think today was helpful? “I hope so,” he says.
Rammelsberg says she sought out Crawford during the break because she respected his response to her question. “I just felt like with how deep his answer was, I almost felt closer to him,” she says, “and so I guess I just wanted to get to know him more.”
Jados plans to host the East students at Big Walnut on Nov. 16. Regardless of what comes from that discussion, Haygood hopes to highlight stories of positive racial interaction that too often get lost, he says, and to remind everyone of how young people can galvanize a social movement. “So if that mini session at East High School served to light a few candles against the dark, then that is a very good thing.”
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