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Writer: We accepted racism



Published: Tue, May 18, 2004 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- When Mel Watkins was a pupil at Hillman Middle School in the 1950s, there were no black teachers.

Pupils didn't read anything written by black authors.

There were few, if any, black intellectual role models.

"We're talking about a different world, one you probably can't even imagine," Watkins said Monday as he met with pupils at Hillman.

Blacks were prohibited from certain hotels and restaurants and could not swim in the same pool as whites in 1950s Youngstown. They could not eat inside hot dog stands and were forced to sit in the balcony at theaters.

'Just accepted'

"What was eerie about living in Youngstown at that point is that no one acknowledged that racism controlled people's lives," Watkins said. "It was just accepted as being natural. No one complained. & quot;

Watkins, author and former editor, writer and critic for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, visited his former school Monday as part of an "All Deliberate Speed: Brown v. Board of Education at 50" event.

Besides meeting with the Youngstown pupils, he also visited with pupils in Boardman and Liberty and with area educators and librarians.

The events marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ended racial segregation in public schools. It is heralded as leading to other desegregation movements and, eventually, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At Hillman, Watkins said he decided he wanted to be a writer. He began writing down his thoughts, learning new words and reading. He graduated from South High School and attended Colgate University in Ithaca, N.Y. on an athletic scholarship.

"I went through some problems here myself and had to make sense of things in order to go to college and follow my dream," he told the youngsters. "You have to figure out your dream and go for it. Don't let anyone deter you."

Other events

Watkins' visit was just one of the events being held to commemorate the Brown decision. Local state and federal officials gathered at the Thomas D. Lambros Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse for an anniversary ceremony. Federal District Judge Peter Economus explained that the decision involved four families who sought help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"We should never forget the heroism shown by those families that sought the NAACP to challenge segregation," Economus said.

He also referred to the words of then-NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who said "our work has just begun."

"That statement still rings true as there is still much more work to be done in reaching a truly equal society," Economus said.

Also at the ceremony, the Brown vs. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commemoration Committee was presented resolutions praising its work by City Council President James Fortune, state Sen. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles.

The Commemoration Committee was composed of faculty and staff members from Youngstown State University and administrative staff from area schools. It was sponsored by the YSU Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, the YSU Provost's Office, the YSU Beeghly College of Education, the YSU College of Arts and Sciences, the Youngstown schools, the Boardman schools, the LaBrae Teachers Association and the Trumbull Career and Technical Center.

The Watkins events were sponsored by the Baptist Pastors Council, the Ruth Beecher Charitable Trust, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, the Mahoning Valley International Reading Association, the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Ohio Library Council and the YSU Commission on Diversity.




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