The “Community Conversation” accompanying the opening of the “Traveling While Black” exhibit at Millersville University’s Ware Center was rich in history and tense with frustration, as panelists discussed African American life past, present and future.
“Traveling While Black” is a virtual reality documentary that examines race relations through the lens of the “Green Book,” a guide for Black travelers published from 1936 to 1966, when discrimination was legal and widespread.
Millersville University is accompanying the exhibit with a series of eight panel discussions. The first one, held Thursday evening, focused on the Green Book, though much of the conversation ranged beyond its era.
Danielle Miles began the evening with a discussion of Lancaster’s NAACP, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the idea of legacy. She condemned the racist trope that African Americans were or are incapable of organizing and legislating, saying “We cannot allow different falsehoods to disrupt what we know to be true.”
Leroy Hopkins a local historian and retired Millersville University professor, gave a brief survey of the Black experience in Lancaster prior to the Green Book’s publication. He emphasized the lack of opportunity for African Americans, and the uphill battle for Black businesses, saying “the Great Depression killed a lot of Black businesses. Then urban renewal killed everything.”
Tom Ryan, president of LancasterHistory, spoke about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Christiana Riot of 1851, when free Blacks and escaped slaves fought against a group of slave raiders led by a federal marshal. It directly involved Thaddeus Stevens, who acted as defense attorney for the 41 men tried in its aftermath.
As for the Fugitive Slave Act, Ryan said some Quaker communities in Lancaster published official proclamations that their membership opposed it and would not comply.
Danielle Keperling, executive director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, spoke at length about the Green Book itself and Lancaster’s connection to it. Three families in Lancaster, including that of Abram Polite, accounted for the five local sites it listed.
While that history is being celebrated, she cautioned that much of the evidence of slavery in the north, like the houses in Lancaster City that held enslaved people, has been collectively forgotten. Preventing that, she said, is one of the important aspects of preservation: Of those five sites in the Green Book, only one remains. Most were demolished during urban renewal.
She reminded the audience that the Green Book was written for the Black middle class. She said African American drivers would keep chauffeur hats in their glove compartment so that, if pulled over by a police officer, they could pretend they were simply driving their boss’ car home.
The Rev. Edward Bailey, pastor of Bethel AME Church, expressed doubts about the efficacy of such conversations and panels, calling them “nice events that White folks like to hold and Black folks like to come to. Look at the community where I preach and compare it to the Ware Center.” He emphasized the importance of Black stories being told by the Black people who have lived them.
When asked to speak about Lancaster in 1966, he bristled: “The big mistake we make is that we keep on acting like it was back then. The same problem I had as a child is the same problem that people who look like me have today. Nothing has changed. Black folks are still being hurt and killed. Lancaster is still one of the most racist cities in America.”
Vincent Derek Smith, founder and president of the African American Cultural Alliance of Lancaster, said Black organizations “still have to dance and sing for money to please White funders. When we first started, we didn’t call the organization African American because I was worried we wouldn’t get any money.”
Josh Hunter, director of Crispus Attucks Community Center, spoke both to his personal experiences of race as well as his organization’s difficulties, like his building’s lack of air conditioning. “It’s great for us to have these conversations … but how do we move forward?”
“This generation feels abandoned,” he said. He touted the importance of mentorship programs and said he tries to visit city schools at least once a week so that young people of color can see a Black man in a leadership position.
To close, moderator Lenwood Sloan offered a smattering of thoughts on the resiliency of African Americans and the promise of youth, emphasizing as he had throughout the evening the importance of voting.
Joseph Horn decided to attend the panel after seeing the Traveling While Black exhibit the day before.
“The exhibit was beautiful. It stirred up different issues, in a good way, and I thought tonight did the same thing,” he said.
“It’s not that anyone’s angry. It’s just time to talk in more specifics. Most Caucasian people I come in contact with, they think things are better and that’s good enough. It’s not good enough! We’re not trying to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but we need to talk about racism and what has happened, for our own wellbeing.”