The Dream Is Local

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Local government can play a big role in improving race relations. It’s a choice.

Local government can play a big role in race relations. It’s a choice.

We got a nice email from the Delray Beach Historical Society last week.

The Historical Society is planning to take a deep dive into the history of race relations in Delray Beach. Working with the Spady Museum, the Historical Society plans to review a study they did with FAU in 2004.
At that time, more  than 100 people gave oral histories on their experiences in our town.
The effort was part of a race relations effort that the City of Delray Beach was doing at the time.
I was Mayor back then and along with Conmissioner Alberta McCarthy, we spearheaded an effort to explore race relations with a goal of building community unity and talking about some thorny issues that have impacted our city for decades.

Delray Beach is a diverse city but we are also a segregated one, with a line —Swinton Avenue—separating East from West, black from white.
As a native New Yorker, it was the first thing I noticed when I discovered Delray in 1987.
I rarely saw African American people “downtown” or at the beach. And I rarely saw people who looked like me on West Atlantic Avenue. I always found that odd. And while people mostly got along, there would be periodic flashpoints that would remind everyone that race was very much an issue in Delray Beach as it is throughout America.

As a young journalist assigned to cover Delray, I caught the eye of C. Spencer Pompey and his wife H. Ruth Pompey.
They were community giants; civil rights leaders, educators and held in immense esteem by everyone in town.
They invited me into their home adjacent to Pompey Park, a place named in their honor.
I felt at home with the Pompey’s and visited on many occasions. We would sit in the living room of their comfy home and they would tell me stories about Delray for hours.
I couldn’t get enough.
The Pompey’s generosity helped my reporting at the time and later would inform my tenure on the City Commission.
Soon after, I met Elizabeth Wesley, another community icon who founded the Roots Cultural Festival. There is a plaza named in Libby’s honor on West Atlantic. She would go on to play a big role in my life as she did for countless others. Around this time, I also got to know and cover the career of Commissioner David Randolph, who to this day as known as “the commissioner”.
In later years, I would be invited to breakfasts hosted by community elders where I would listen to people like Yvonne Odom, who integrated Atlantic High School, neighborhood leader Ernestine Holliday and Alfred “Zack” Straghn, a civil rights, civic and business leader. And there were more special people that I would come to know and cherish.
Every relationship was a learning experience. Every interaction helped me to understand Delray Beach.
I mention these experiences because I think it’s important for aspiring leaders to spend time learning from people who have given back to the community.
There’s just no substitute for listening to the stories and experiences of those who came before us.
It also important to spend time with people who bring a different perspective as a result of their unique experiences.
I’m not sure this is happening as much anymore.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I still talk to a wide range of people in our community and one of their complaints is that they don’t feel as connected to leadership as they once did.
That’s a mistake but also an opportunity because the answers to many complicated issues can be found by reaching out to the community.
Back in 2001,  when we announced our intent to make improved race relations
a central piece of our goals and aspirations as a city government we got mostly positive feedback.
Many people appreciated the effort. Because we had relationships the effort was viewed by most—as sincere and needed. Others thought we were rocking the boat.
“Why bring up these sensitive issues” they would ask?
Because we need too. If we aspire to being a close knit community we need to be able to talk about everything—especially the uncomfortable subjects.
And we did. For awhile at least, we moved the needle. Not enough but we moved it. But times change. Commissioners and mayors come and go and so did our race relations effort.

Today, the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd has got many of us thinking anew about all of these issues.
Racism. Social justice. Policing. Inequality. And for me anti-semitism which is also on the rise.
I’ll end this piece with a short story.
It was 2000 and I was campaigning for a seat on the City Commission, my first bid for public office.
I held a candidate ‘meet and greet’ at the Marriott on A1A.
It was a nice event, your typical have a drink and a bite while you mingle.
I remember saying hello to a pleasant looking elderly woman I had never seen before.
We talked for a few seconds while she ate chicken wings and drank wine.
When I said that I hoped I could count on her vote, she smiled and said.
“Oh, I won’t be voting for you,” she said. “We already have one of you on the commission.”
She smiled and walked away.
It took me a minute, but then I got it. I was Jewish and so was Commissioner Bill Schwartz who was serving at the time.
And so it goes…I suppose.
As a realist, if I let myself go there I can get pretty down on our flawed human condition. There’s so much hatred in our world.
But as an idealistic optimist, I remain hopeful that the pain we are experiencing will lead us to a better outcome for all…someday.
A world of love, compassion and understanding.
That world can start right here at home. But it won’t happen magically. We need to want it and we need to work for it.
It begins with getting to know and love thy neighbors. All of them.

Comments

  1. Yvonne Odom says:

    As always you have a way with words…. and as always “we” know how to do this. Sometimes “new comers “ don’t get Delray has always been just a little different in how we solve issues. “Mutual” respect! I await meaningful conversations .

  2. Lucy Larner says:

    Well said, Jeff. It’s been five years since I made Delray Beach my home. Like you, I’m a northerner and Jewish, and I discovered early on that there are two distinct Delrays. My volunteer experience here has given me the gift of working side by side with residents of The Set, sharing our goal of a level playing field for all residents of the city. Now, more than ever, the conversation—warts and all—must continue.

  3. Great article, Jeff, I had a similar experience to you when I moved to Delray Beach. I moved here from New York at the beginning of 2013. The first thing I noticed was that this place is divided in half. This may be better than when you moved here but how much better can it be if it’s the first thing I noticed about my new home?

    I just remember being very shocked by the separation and the underlying racism that went with it. I have a business in the set and what I’ve noticed is that area is the one that gets neglected. I don’t see people racing over to that area when there’s any sort of problem or if something falls into disrepair.

    There’s a lot to be done here and I think the first thing to do is for people to cop to the blatant racism that’s right in front of them. Admit it and then do something.

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      Thanks Tracy.
      I think your comments are spot on.
      There is so much work to do here in our hometown. What we need is compassionate leadership to move the conversation forward. I hope we don’t miss this important moment.

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