I am 23 years old. I have spent 16 of those years in school. In grade school I learned about the founding of the United States. In middle school I learned about the Civil War. In high school I learned about slavery and the civil rights movement.
But it wasn’t until this February that I learned what all of that really stood for.
As most of you know, I am a native of New Jersey. I went to a high school where I was the minority, and where racism just never happened. When we learned about the Civil War, it was all facts. When I heard about the civil rights movement, it was through textbooks.
Yes, I knew the facts. But I never saw the deeper meaning.
Throughout February I have been assigned to cover numerous Black History Month events. From readings to acting, to a dedication ceremony, there is no limit to the things I have learned and the people I have experienced, but it all brought up one very important point: Black History Month in a Southern state that experienced the Civil War and experienced segregation at its worst is much, much different from reading about it in textbooks.
It all came to a head while I was sitting in the office of Robert Coleman, president of the W.C. Young Community Center. Coleman is a retired Paducah city commissioner. He is well-spoken, extensively educated and a wealth of knowledge.
For the better part of an hour and a half, I sat in Coleman’s office. I had come to interview him about the center’s dedication to Rosa Parks. But the interview turned into a conversation, the conversation turned into a history lesson, and the history lesson turned into an eye-opening realization.
Yes, I had gone to great schools and received a great education, but this kind of first-hand knowledge was unheard of in New Jersey. Coleman had seen “separate but equal.” He had watched Martin Luther King Jr. rise and tragically fall. Talking to him, hearing his story, is the true history lesson.
As Americans, we have come very far toward equality, but there are still places to go. Just last month, offensive words and context were eliminated from the classic novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” There is still racism in this country, however hard we try to cover it up.
America was founded on the basis of ideas — pick and choose, compromise, and move forward. Most importantly, speak your mind. Coleman taught me that this past Saturday, as I sat in his office at the center, listening to his life (which, by the way, reads out somewhat like Forrest Gump).
No matter where you live, North or South, the progress needs to keep moving forward. There still needs to be a push for equality. We, as a nation, need to get over our differences, or at the very least acknowledge them.
“We have come a long ways,” Coleman said. “We have to keep moving forward.
“America is a great place,” he added, “but our work is just beginning.”
Contact Corianne Egan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8652.