This week’s cover stories
February is Black History Month. This year, we decided to observe it by profiling three families from three distinct regions of Arkansas: the Delta, Northwest Arkansas and Central Arkansas. We sought young, college-educated professionals, people representing the next generation of potential community leaders.
While the experiences of these families are not representative of the entire range of black life in Arkansas, we believe they offer unique and interesting perspectives.
Sharon and Dion Wilson are successful by any standard, but in the Arkansas Delta city where they live, they really stand out.
Both are young and good-looking. She is a certified public accountant who works in a prominent building on a corner in downtown Forrest City, with a sign outside bearing her name. He is a lawyer who practices in Helena and Forrest City, and was involved in the high-profile Lake View education case, which made statewide headlines for months.
So it was no surprise that people noticed when they moved into one of Forrest City’s better neighborhoods five years ago.
“The neighborhood was predominantly white, I would say 80-20 white-black,” Sharon said. “We initially looked at the house for a year, and when we felt in a comfortable enough position to get it, we made some inquiries.
“The owner at the time was interested in selling to us, and we were able to negotiate a real good price. We found out later that a group of neighbors visited her to discourage her from talking to us. But she happened to have pictures of her child with its godparents, who were black. She was so infuriated, she decided to sell to us. In fact, she was so angry, she actually lost $40,000 selling to us.”
Dion added that, shortly after buying the house, he received a call from someone offering to give him an additional $50,000 above what he paid if he would turn around and sell the house.
Sharon and Dion relate the story easily, with amusement even. Both were raised in the Delta, where they gained a nuanced understanding of race relations.
Dion, for instance, grew up in Helena where his father, Jimmie Wilson, was a lawyer active in the civil rights movement, as well as the first black state legislator from Phillips County.
“I come from a place where race is order of the day,” Dion says, speaking slowly and deliberately. “Every move you make in Phillips County is that. We got involved early in boycotts, sit-ins. I saw racism at its ugliest, right at the end of the bitterness between whites and blacks, with white people spitting on us, throwing things at us. I saw the white flight from the public schools . . . White kids who were with us in junior high, by high school they were already in private school.”
Nevertheless, Dion’s experience with the worst kind of racial strife did not lead him to withdraw from relations with whites.
“I know who I am, and I know the ins and outs of racism,” he says. “I don’t let anyone treat me or my kids as second-class citizens. But that doesn’t mean I don’t open myself to have friends or camaraderie with white people.”
Forrest City is in St. Francis County, where the 2000 census showed the racial composition divided almost perfectly in half: 48.7 percent black, 48.9 percent white.
Perhaps as a result of their status in the community, Sharon believes some tensions are rooted more in differences between social classes than between races.
“Until they know what you do, they see you in terms of race, which puts you in the category as a black person,” she says. “That may not be racist, but more about class.”
Dion agrees, adding that a local bank once repossessed a car belonging to one of his friends. The friend went to the bank to get his car back, but he couldn’t get anyone to listen to him. Later, he returned with Sharon, and the bank immediately said they would work things out.
“But one time I went to the bank dressed down, in sweats,” Sharon recalls. “They didn’t know who I was, and when I asked for an interest rate, the woman ran me down, asking where I worked, what kind of work did I do, before she would give me the rate. I was offended. People shouldn’t have to go through that. I can just imagine how people who don’t fit the bill get treated. I wish people wouldn’t look at other people because of that.”
But she quickly adds, after a brief pause, “I think it’s class, not race.”
Two of the most significant parts of the Wilsons’ lives — work and church — are segregated in terms of race. Dion deals almost exclusively with black people in his law practice, and Sharon says her clientele is 70 percent black.
Before she opened her own office, Sharon was the first black person at a local CPA firm (“and I might be the last, too”).
“They had to ask clients if it was OK for a black CPA to work on their stuff,” Sharon says. “Some of the clients said they were stupid for asking, but they also didn’t give me some clients, because they knew [the clients] wouldn’t like it.”
It is less surprising that their church experience is segregated, because that is common throughout the country. Black churches historically have provided much of the spiritual, political and social life of black communities.
The Wilsons, who attend Beth Salem Baptist Church, think the role of the church has changed since their youth.
“When I was growing up, the church was more involved in the community, political activities, and everyday life of black people in the Delta,” Sharon says. “That has shifted now. People don’t depend on the church as much as they used to. The role that people want the church to play in their lives has diminished.”
Sharon thinks the church leadership is responsible for the decline.
“What it comes down to is the church leadership is not as strong as it used to be,” she says. “They are not seeking guidance from who they should in order to lead people. Churches in the Delta sometimes miss it. They preach, but they don’t minister to the needs of the people where they are. People feel like they have to clean themselves up before they come to church. We need to go to them, and let them know can come as they are.”
Sharon’s sister is a minister and a lawyer, and Sharon once accompanied her to some white Baptist churches.
“No one was rude to us,” she says, “but one was pretty cold. Everything is fine with the kids, but there are no adults worshipping together. I would love to see it happen, though.”
As far along as Sharon and Dion are in attitudes toward race, they hope for more harmony for the next generation. They have two kids: Haley, who is nine, and Kobe, who is five.
Haley attends third grade at Central Elementary School, which is racially mixed, and Kobe is in kindergarten at Stewart Elementary, which is predominantly black. Sharon and Dion say they pick schools based on “the best teacher in the best setting.” The teacher pool is transient, and every year presents a different situation.
“One thing we don’t like is that it is not racially balanced,” Dion says of Kobe’s school. “We like diversity for our kids.”
The children are comfortable with their white classmates. They attend Wednesday night services at a white church, and play in that church’s basketball league.
“We enrolled them in ballet, tap dance, baseball, tae kwan do,” Dion says. “We kept an open mind, and I believe because we kept an open mind, we showed that mixing races is not as bad as some think.”
Sharon adds: “Our daughter had a sleepover, and all of her friends came, black and white. This astonished our friend, a black woman who grew up here. She couldn’t believe the white parents let their kids come over. She could see things are changing.”
Still, both parents are aware that the easy rapport among young people can change as their children get older.
“What I would like to see, what would give me hope, would be for Haley to have those same friends when she is in 12th grade, and not somewhere along the way, they get separated,” Dion says. “Right now, they don’t see color. I see them calling each other on the phone, getting together at community programs, getting out of the car in the morning and walking into school together. I just hope they won’t get separated during their adolescent years like I did.”
Sharon and Dion have experienced resentment from other people because of their professional success and the apparent ease with which they mix with white people.
“Sometimes you feel the racism is 75-25,” Sharon says, “with 25 percent coming from your own people. Because you worked hard, studied, had opportunities — not more than they had — they have a preconceived idea we think we are better, and they decide they don’t like us.”
Dion adds that their black acquaintances didn’t say anything about their move into a racially mixed neighborhood, but only because they were not originally from Forrest City.
“We got no problems from fellow blacks because we’re not from here,” he says. “But if it was people who you lived with, they might say, ‘Now that you have money, you move across the tracks.’ ”
“Being called uppity? It doesn’t bother me,” Sharon adds. “I know who I am, and where I came from. Being self-employed makes us stand out. A lot of people don’t choose to stay here, and most local people leave after getting college degrees.”
Overall, Sharon and Dion think the racial climate is improving in the Delta. At least in Forrest City, the issue of race is “not in your face everyday,” as in Helena.
They have kept most of their white friends from their undergraduate and post-graduate days in Fayetteville, and in that sense, “our age is doing a lot better than the generation before us,” Dion said.
“I am mindful there are still barriers here,” Sharon says, “but I don’t let the barriers keep me from being open. I believe that what God has given to me, no one can take it away. That’s where we get strength from. I know that things can change, and I want to be used to help that change happen.”
Both also talk about racial problems in terms of practical concerns.
“The only way eastern Arkansas is going to be able to prosper one day ... ” Dion begins. “If we don’t extend an olive branch to each other, then our towns won’t ever be like the Jonesboros, Conways, Springdales — communities that can prosper with business and industry. As long as we continue to fight, it will be the ultimate turnoff to companies and corporate executives thinking about moving to the Delta. Nobody wants to put their child in that kind of situation, racial strife. Until corporations see a change in attitude, no one will want to put their business here or raise families here.
“I want to help take Forrest City to that place,” he continues. “I don’t meet anyone different unless they have their kids in activities. If not for the kids, and their activities, our paths may never cross. They’re teaching us.”