Friday, February 08, 2013

In Search of Harriet Tubman

“As a race, here in America, we are still seeking our identity. It has been a painful gradual process — seeking our true place in society, a process marked by a sudden and dramatic societal change as we gain an even greater awareness of who we are. What we are.”

— Carl B. Stokes, from the preface to his political autobiography, Promises of Power.

In Search of Harriet Tubman

One of the recurring themes in my conversations with young African Americans is the noticeable absence of professional elders willing to mentor and support their growth and development. Of course there are a substantial number of people who do encourage and support those who follow in our footsteps. But far too often, especially in corridors of power, finance, and influence, there seems to be an excess of “wait your turn”, “I got mine the hard way, you do the same”, or “I can’t help you without hurting me”.

I would argue that this is one of the key factors that keep our community from enjoying the progress we should based on the talent at hand. Much of this shortsightedness could be overcome in the African American community if our esteemed church leaders and nonprofit institutions focused on the critical need to develop the next generation by exposing them to opportunities to develop and demonstrate leadership skills.

I have run on in the past about how some of what should be our best known organizations — NAACP, the Urban League, United Black Fund, Phillis Wheatley — have seen people entrench themselves in positions of prominence unmatched by performance. And I have been glad to see in the past couple of years that many of these and other organizations have secured new leadership at the helm that seems committed to bringing younger people on board.

What happens in Cleveland’s African American community mimics to a considerable extent what takes place in the larger community. The territorial old boy nature of our county politics — I’m not focused on the scandalous corruption that was here, but rather the myopic pettiness and parochialism among the political class that retards community development — has pretty much been reprised in the black political community. The same could be said, perhaps to a lesser degree, of the corresponding business and civic communities.

Last year I heard our justly venerated former Congressman Louis Stokes share reminiscences of his storied career with groups of young people looking for life lessons from one who had "been there and done that so well for so long". Perhaps it was his intent not to discourage his listeners but I was startled to find him so kind to the establishment. He talked about how he and his brother Carl [future state rep, mayor, judge, ambassador] had been mentored by John O. Holly and other community leaders. He extrapolated that support to suggest that if you wanted to do something positive in Cleveland there were legions of people ready to lend a hand.

Perhaps that was true if you were the Congressman, and if your brother was the mayor. While I have never dwelled in those rarified corridors of power, I do understand how the Stokes boys had to battle the establishment both within and outside the black community. Back then, in Carl’s own words, he had to “run over … the black politicians in the Democratic Party” even as he had to battle the Party’s racist hierarchy. It was much the same when Martin Luther King came to town: much established black clergy wanted little to do with him. This is not even to mention our plague of gatekeepers.

So, to retrieve a familiar phrase, where do we go from here?

Policy Bridge, generally referred to as Cleveland’s black think tank, proposes that we answer that question by looking back and asking ourselves another question: Why Did Harriet (Tubman) Go Back?*

That’s the topic of a special Black History Month forum being co-presented on Tuesday, February 26 at 5 PM by PolicyBridge and the City Club of Cleveland. Randell McShepard, PolicyBridge’s chairman and co-founder, will moderate a panel that includes the organization’s executive director, Gregory Brown; the always astute and incisive Rhonda Y. Williams, Case Western Reserve University history professor and director of its Social Justice Institute; the Rev. Todd C. Davidson, recently called to pastor Antioch Baptist Church; and President Gerald Ford [that is, president of the Urban League’s Young Professionals].

What inspired Tubman repeatedly to put her life in danger repeatedly on behalf of others? What are the lessons that apply even today about her courageous and selfless acts of compassion and leadership? 

Come discuss these questions with the panel and ask your own. Bring answers if you have them!

For tickets [$15.] or information, visit or call The City Club: 216.621-0082.

*  Harriet Tubman led more than 13 missions to rescue 70 slaves using the network of anti-slavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. And she never lost a passenger!  [from PolicyBridge event flier].

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