- VIRGIL MILLER: One of the '100.'
If the story Virgil Miller tells wasn’t so tragic, it might be funny.
An executive at Metropolitan National Bank with an office up where the birds fly, Miller is the kind of man so handsome and perpetually groomed that you immediately start tugging at your clothes when you enter a space he occupies. A couple years back, when his daughter Morgan was in grade school, he would occasionally go and eat lunch with her in the cafeteria. Once, he said, a little black boy ran up to him and asked why he always wore his church clothes when he came to school.
“Morgan laughed at him and said, ‘My daddy works at a bank. These are the clothes he wears to work.’ ” Miller said. “This little black boy hadn’t seen a black man in a suit and tie except at church.”
Among the 100 Black Men of Greater Little Rock, the 3-year-old group that counts Miller as a charter member, his tale has reached the status of legend. The way the members tell it, the kid raises his hand in a group Miller has gone to speak to (he doesn’t turn down any invitation, he said). Or the boy asks, “Who died?” because he assumes Miller is on his way to a funeral. The only element that doesn’t change is Miller — anybody’s vision of a put-together man.
The reason the story is so often told might be because it perfectly encapsulates the mission the 100 Black Men of Greater Little Rock — or “the One Hundred” as many members call themselves — have undertaken. Currently a group of 33 Little Rock professionals (the name is an homage to the original chapter, started in New York in 1963), the Little Rock One Hundred counts businessmen, physicians, lawyers and corporate executives among its ranks. By way of an extensive program of mentoring, education, health and wellness and economic development initiatives, the group hopes to teach black kids that they have options for success outside the narrow few presented to them by television stereotypes — drug dealer, rapper, professional athlete. By taking a hands-on approach and living up to the group’s motto — “What They See Is What They’ll Be” — Miller and others believe they can keep children in school, make learning enjoyable, and do nothing less than change the lifelong fate of the kids they work with.
Though leaders of the One Hundred nix the assumption that they are a fraternal organization as the name might imply (they prefer “community-based organization”), the group is the latest in a long line of groups that have sought to better the fortunes of Little Rock blacks.
John Graves is the chair of the social sciences department at Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. Author of the book “Town and Country: Race Relations in an Urban/Rural Context, Arkansas 1865-1905,” Graves is a founding member of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Society, and is also a member of the Arkansas Black History Advisory Committee. He said that the history of black community groups in Little Rock is a long one, with a number of organizations springing up after the Civil War to help newly freed slaves do everything from socialize to buy burial insurance. Though most — including the Mosaic Templars, once the largest black-owned business in the world — were wiped out by the Great Depression, he said the Little Rock directory of 1900 lists dozens of fraternal organizations, both black and white.
“They served as social outlets,” Graves said. “Also these lodges had emergency funds so that if a member was ill, the lodge members would help them out” — a service that, in the days before “safety net” style social programs like Medicare and Medicaid, was very important.
Graves said these organizations also worked for political aims. In 1893 and 1903, he said, fraternal organizations like the Mosaic Templars were “very active” in mass protests against segregation. In 1903, when Jim Crow came to Arkansas’s streetcars, boycotts were organized in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and Little Rock that lasted for weeks. “Everyone remembers Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott in 1956,” Graves said, “but the black streetcar traffic in Little Rock initially dropped by over 90 percent.”
Though segregation and the civil rights movement served as a lens to focus blacks on political and social gains, since the 1960s, some leaders say, the community can’t seem to get behind large-scale movements. Since then, NAACP membership has fallen drastically, and the Urban League — once a hub for the city’s social change — has left Little Rock altogether.
State Rep. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock said that in the days of the civil rights struggle, the inequities and the lack of opportunities for blacks were so apparent that nobody could say that blacks and whites had reached the point of equality. “You had to be asleep not to see it,” she said. “But now, because there has been a great deal of progress, I think that many times people want to supplant that progress for a lack of focus or a lack of activity.” While there has been a great deal of progress since the ’60s, Elliott said, it hasn’t trickled down to everybody. By not looking “beneath the surface,” she said, many blacks have convinced themselves that all is well.
Dale Charles is the president of the Little Rock chapter of the NAACP. Charles believes the black community has become apathetic about political and social concerns, and no longer feels that organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP can change its quality of life. The bulk of those who used to participate in community groups have moved on, Charles said. What is left in black communities, he said, are people who don’t have the time or money to participate.
“Their main concern is: ‘How do I earn enough money to pay my rent and take care of my family?’ ” Charles said. “Once they do that, then they aren’t inspired enough to do those things with the NAACP and the Urban League.”
Until the older generation starts talking about the struggles of the past, Charles said, the current generation will have a hard time organizing for future change, like raising the minimum wage.
“The face of racism has changed from black and white water fountains and not being able to go into hotel or a restaurant to eat your food. All those benefits are there, but the issue on the table now is whether you are making enough money to afford them.”
State Sen. Tracy Steele agrees. The head of the Martin Luther King Commission, Steele said that while community organizations are certainly still relevant and necessary to help further black causes, he sees an ongoing shift from political organizations back to a source blacks have often turned to in times of crisis: the church.
“We are a people of faith in a large part,” Steele said, “and church has become the one place where we gather. I am seeing a strong influx of young African-American ministers in this community, and their churches are growing incredibly fast.” While blacks turned to more secular organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP in the days of the civil rights struggle, Steele said he sees a “renewed faith” in the black church in social matters.
“I see a new generation of leaders that are finally emerging,” Steele said. “I say ‘finally’ because it’s been several years in the making. But new leaders are starting to emerge in this community. Their methods may be different — technology certainly plays a part of that, using the media in different ways plays a part of that — but I see a new generation starting to emerge here in Arkansas.”
That focus on the next generation is what led to the formation of the Little Rock chapter of 100 Black Men of America. One of 102 chapters worldwide, the Little Rock branch has for the last two years adopted Rightsell Academy, a Little Rock School District elementary school, as an ongoing project. For the members of the group, that can mean anything from showing up at the school for an afternoon reading session to — as was done recently at Rightsell, where many children come to school wearing the same uniform as the day before — purchasing a washer and dryer.
Sherman Tate is the vice president and general manager for Central Arkansas operations at Alltel, and the president of the 100 Black Men of Greater Little Rock. He is quick to point out that the group’s goal is service, not social interaction. Though anyone can apply to the join the One Hundred, Tate said those looking for powerful connections should look elsewhere.
“We are not interested in those who just want to associate with our organization,” he said. “It’s an organization of those who want to do, who care, who understand and who are committed,” Tate said. “Simply stated, it’s about sweat equity. You’ve got to want to work. It’s real men giving real time.”
Though the One Hundred has recently taken Dunbar Middle School under its wing, its work at Rightsell is on the front burner right now. “We know that if you don’t change minds at the elementary level, the probability is slim that that child, whether it’s a boy or girl, will successfully complete the 12th grade,” Tate said. “What we are able to do at the elementary level is critical.”
Tate said that the first step in helping the children at Rightsell was to “exhaust every effort to quantify,” working with the counselor, principal and teachers, the needs of individual students. “We get a sense of where the kids are that we’re working with,” Tate said. “Then we also look at programs that we are trying to put in place.” This leads to programs like an upcoming health and wellness fair — which will feature physicians from the group coming in to talk about and test for common ailments — and a money and banking course for grade-schoolers put together by Merrill Lynch. (“We go in and teach them what a check is,” Tate said, “and how to write a check, and when you write a check, what that really means — that you can’t write a check if you don’t really have some real money somewhere. It’s very basic.”)
The most difficult part, Tate said, is trying to get parents involved — what he calls the “360-degree approach” to reaching a child. “That’s the greatest challenge,” he said. “That’s been real difficult, but we know that if and when you get the parent or parents involved, the probability of that child’s learning curve increasing is enhanced tremendously.”
One of the most important missions of the One Hundred, Tate and others say, is just showing up and being seen — giving a professional black role model to children used to living in a world mostly devoid of successful men.
Monica Norwood is a first- and second-grade teacher at Rightsell. Virgil Miller has been to speak to her class twice, reading to the children and speaking to them about his work as a banker. She said that many of the students in her class are from poor backgrounds, and don’t get to see professional blacks very often. “A lot of the children are from single-parent households where their mothers are the head of the household,” Norwood said. “I think just seeing professional black males is a powerful influence on the children, both male and female. It gives them something to aspire to, and it sets an expectation for them for their own future. It gives them something to strive for.”
Virgil Miller counts a similar black male role model as partially responsible for his own success. At his grade school in Berkeley, Calif., Miller said there was a playground supervisor named Leo that he always looked up to. “I thought that guy was eight feet tall,” he said, “and he never knew it. I was checking him out, and he didn’t even know it.”
Since those days, he said, black males have mostly disappeared from kids’ lives, with television taking control of the images black children see, reinforcing the stereotypes that “99 percent of the time” have the black kids he talks to saying that they want to be a professional athlete or a rapper when they grow up, but never a banker. Those stereotypes need to be knocked down not only for black children, he insists. Recently, he was asked to come speak to an all-white elementary school class in Cabot.
“They need to see some professional black men too,” Miller said. “What stereotypes are [white children] getting from what they see on television? Have they ever seen a black banker? Have they ever seen a professional black man?”
In terms of success, though the group’s “What They See …” mantra might seem a little simplistic to the casual observer, the proof is in the numbers. Though the Little Rock chapter hasn’t been around long enough to see change in the black and white of grades and graduation rates, Dewayne Crawford, chief operating officer of the 100 Black Men of America Inc., based in Atlanta, said that the gains to be had by the hands-on mentoring employed by the group’s chapter since the organization’s founding in the 1960s are long established.
Crawford said the group’s Wimberly Initiative, a mentoring and tutoring program that works to help special education students thrive in a regular classroom setting, has been met with an 80 percent success rate. “We’re taking these kids who they say can’t learn,” Crawford said. “And what we’re finding is that, there are a lot of reasons why a kid can’t learn. Say a kid has a toothache and doesn’t have any dental insurance. He comes to school and of course that child’s focus is not on learning. Say that child doesn’t get three square meals a day and is coming to school hungry. Say that child is maybe seeing some kind of domestic violence. … It’s easier to put that child in special education than to understand why.”
Crawford said the goal is “broadening their reference points” beyond the negative images kids see in their lives. “What we’re really talking about is letting a kid know that someone loves and cares about them, and is willing to invest time and energy in them,” he said. “The bulb starts to go off in that child’s head, but also the child has an advocate now that’s meeting with the teacher, that’s meeting with the principal to understand: What is it going to take to make this child learn?”
With any hard data to prove educational gains still a few years off, however, President Sherman Tate said that success for the 100 Black Men of Greater Little Rock is still about the little things.
“Any improvement is a success right now,” Tate said. “Any opportunity to look at a little girl or a little boy and pat them on the back and say ‘You’ve done a good job’ — that’s success. Any opportunity to talk to a parent and say to that parent, ‘Here’s where your child was, here’s where they are now,’ that’s success. That’s what we want to do: To watch a child get motivated and stay motivated.”