top of page

Why I never became a racist despite growing up in all-white town

Reprint from June 02, 2020

Kershaw Shannon, my first black friend Johnstown High School Yearbook, 1963

I am immensely grateful that I never became a racist. Growing up in an all-white coal-mining community in Western Pennsylvania, I never encountered a black in person until I was about ten-years-old. More about that later, but that experience helped me immeasurably in developing strong relationships with blacks during my lifetime. Hatred is the root of all evil, as Jesus Christ preached during his ministry. However, where does hatred come from with people? Why do people hate others of a different race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender — anything like that? Where does hatred emanate from in this life?

Lesson from a composer During my high school years, I competed against a few black athletes, but really did not know any of them. We had an all-white team, and my relationship with blacks was seldom and elusive. However, a musical that I saw in New York City with my father was one that should have explained the roots of racism — but it did not. The title of it was “South Pacific,” something that was written and composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. In it, two people are confronted with racism. One is a navy nurse from Arkansas and the other was a lieutenant who discovered the most beautiful Polynesian girl in the South Pacific. The nurse fell in love with a wealthy landowner and businessman until she discovered that he had two beautiful children — black children — from a previous marriage. Lt. Cable, the officer, said and then sang this song, one that explained a great deal to me,

You’ve got to be carefully taught Lt. Cable: [Racism] is not born in you. It happens after you’re born. [Verse 1] You've got to be taught to hate and fear You've got to be taught from year to year It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear You've got to be carefully taught [Verse 2] You've got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade You've got to be carefully taught [Verse 3] You've got to be taught before it's too late Before you are six or seven or eight To hate all the people your relatives hate You've got to be carefully taught Richard Rodgers, “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” South Pacific, 1949 In other words, people learn of hatred from others. That makes sense. Where do you find racism? Or white supremacism? Or ethnocentrism? Or religious bigotry? Or homophobia? Why would people join the Ku Klux Klan and kill people like my uncle, the Catholic child of an Irish immigrant? That hatred is learned from others. As Rodgers tells us through Lt. Cable, that is taught to others by those who have influence over others. Kershaw Shannon I wrote about this former childhood friend previously, but I will repeat it because the relationship had significant influence on my approach to race. As a child, I attended a YMCA camp in Entriken, Pa., one called Camp Reynolds. It is now part of the Raystown federal project, under probably 40 feet of water, but it was special for me because of what I wrote in 2017, Introduction to blacks I have written about this before, but my first introduction to blacks came at Camp Reynolds. That was very important for a young boy from an all-white community. My best friend in my first or second year was a young black man who was about [three] years older than I was. We were in the same tribe together, and he became my protector. I distinctly remember having no fear -- and few brains -- in those years. At about the age of eight or nine or ten, I was playing soccer against guys much bigger and older than I was. I ran into a crowd one day and was knocked to the ground. The ball hit me somewhere, and I was dazed. When I awoke, I saw Kershaw big eyes looking over me and saying, "You alive, man? I told you to stay away from those big guys." He was right, and for one summer, he became a great friend. It was important for me because I realized that blacks were just the same as whites, at least they were in my eyes. I never forgot that, and it helped me later in my adulthood in my teaching, coaching, and journalistic careers. Hugh Brady Conrad, “Camping as a kid in the 1950s” Boy Scouts in Lilly and YMCA in Entriken,” Blogspot, July 7, 2017 I never saw him again, but I never forgot him. We palled around for seven days, and the time is still a joy to me. He was the best friend I ever made in my years at that camp — and I never forgot him. However, my mind was not bigoted at the time because I was never taught to hate. Never taught racism, taught to love What I realize is that my parents never told me that blacks were any different than we were. I never asked, but still, there was no lesson about inferiority. My mother had grown up in Harrisburg, Pa., so she probably knew some blacks in her life. She did attend Catholic schools, which in the 19-teens and 20s, did not have many blacks there. She then attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, which had few blacks [does have 113 out of 2,399, about five percent]. I never remember talking to her about race. My grew up in the same community as I did, an all-white one. Nevertheless, he thought the world of blacks whom he worked with and met through his involvement in sports. He introduced me to Jesse Owens when I was a high school senior, and he told me tales about his accomplishments in the 1936 Olympics when he embarrassed Adolph Hitler and won four gold medals. Nevertheless, he never talked to me about race. In school, the nuns taught us to love one another, that Jesus’ message was one of love, that one of the great commandments was “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I never forgot that. In short, I had no reason to hate blacks or any other nationalities. Rodgers was correct in my analysis: We have to be taught to hate those of other races, religions, nationalities, sexual orientation, or anything else. That is not innate. “Turn the other cheek”? One of my favorite clergy is a man whom I have never met, but frequently read. His name is Thomas Gumbleton, and he is a retired archbishop who is about 90-years-old. He published a weekly column about his sermons, in one, I read this, Jesus teaches us peace, forgiveness, and love. We must listen. We must try to take the message in, let it change us so that in every circumstance in our daily life within our families, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, within our country, in our world, we can be those who follow Jesus, be those who extricate this evil of violence that seems to be overwhelming us. Thomas Gumbleton, “Follow Jesus who rejects violence, returns love for hate,” The Peace Pulpit, National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 1, 2018 That is such a powerful message, especially at this time in the United States of America. If only those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ would follow it. It made a distinct impression on me when I was young and read one of the most difficult set of words that Jesus Christ preached, 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Book of Matthew, Chapter 5: 38-42 Turn the other cheek? That is difficult for everyone. Life’s experiences teach us hatred I was thinking of the difficulty of handling hate when I wrote about forgiveness a few weeks ago. This involved two young men from Johnstown, Pa. who were abused a young boys by a Catholic priest. I asked myself this question, Could I have forgiven this priest and eliminated my hatred for him if that had happened to me? The answer is that I have no idea. Hating others for something like abuse, whether by clergy or teachers or coaches or parents or anyone else, is understandable. In life, we confront that with people who have hurt us deeply, whether it is a parent or a spouse or a sibling or a friend. That hurt is difficult to eliminate, and many go through life holding onto that hatred, even though psychologists and psychiatrists insist that it will devastate you and not the other person. This kind of hatred is not learned. We experience it through life, and it happens often. Should Shaun Dougherty and Brian Sabo, two men who were abused by Father George Koharchik at St. Clements Church in Johnstown more than 30 years ago, forgive him? Can they? In a meeting with the priest at a restaurant in Johnstown a few years ago, one that was surreptitiously taped by CBS News, Dougherty forgave the act, but not everything, “I’m going to tell you this. I’m angry with what you did. Right, I’m angry. But I have forgiven ou a long, long time ago for this. All right? The part that I cannot forgive is the cover-up. I xam — that crushed me. We were taught to — oh, there’s a God. I mean, I tried to kill myself over this when I was 24.” Nikki Batiste, CBS News, Oct. 2017 So, is it right to hate someone who drove you to the brink of suicide? That is the root part of this issue. Difference with racism The hatred that we find through life’s experiences is different from that which is learned from others. It is much different from a child being taught to hate by racists, white supremacists, KKK members, and others who hold that in their heart. It is different from people like Adolph Hitler, who presided over the extermination of more than six million people simply because they were Jews. However, that hatred is still present and it hurts perhaps more deeply than that described by Lt. Cable in South Pacific. Another friend, Hope Johnson During the time in which I was working in the field of public relations, I was assigned a job working to improve the relations of black people in the community with the American Red Cross. To understand the importance of this, remember that the Red Cross refused to take the blood of blacks during World War II, In December 1941, a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, a Detroit mother named Sylvia Tucker visited her local Red Cross donor center to give blood. Having heard the “soul-stirring” appeals for blood donors on her radio, she was determined to do her part. But when she arrived at the center, the supervisor turned her away. “Orders from the National Offices,” he explained, “barred Negro blood donors at this time.” “Shocked” and “grieved,” Tucker left in tears, later penning a letter of protest about the whole ordeal to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “Desegregating blood: A civil rights struggle to remember,”

The Conversation, Feb. 12, 2015 Because of that, I realized that this would be a challenge. So, I turned to a woman who had volunteered with the Red Cross chapter, Hope Johnson, a retired state employee who was widely respected in the black community in Johnstown — and in the white community, too. Ms. Johnson, then in her 70s, sat patiently for hours and told me what life was like for a black person in a community that had perhaps just five percent of its population in that city/community. I learned so much from her, and never could thank her enough. I sat with a meeting of blacks one day, and I was the only white person in the room. I understood so much after that experience about what life was like for blacks, and I was always grateful for that. Hope later wrote me a letter in which she said that I was a special person whom she would always consider a friend. Today, I am grateful that I did not learn racism in my youth or later in life. I met so many blacks in my life and had very good relationships with them, even if I never lived in a city or community with a significant number of blacks. And that, I believe, is why I never became a racist. Conclusion Special thanks for Kershaw, whom I learned a year or so ago entered the military during the Vietnam War, served honorably, and then spent decades as an officer with the District of Columbia police department. He passed away a few years ago when I was searching for him … And to Hope, a special lady … And to those who never taught me “to hate and fear” and to treat those “whose eyes are oddly made. And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade” any differently than I would my friends.

88 views0 comments


bottom of page