This month’s Virtual Lunch with the League focuses on the important issue of how welcoming our rural county is to those who differ from our majority white population. Our guests, Lamore Boudoin, Marlon Lewis and James Anthony Williams, are graduating virtually this weekend from Wabash College. All three are African American and hail from three different parts of the country. They were interviewed by Clyde Morgan, Associate Director of the Malcolm X Institute and Wabash College’s Track & Field, and Cross-Country Coach.
Morgan began by asking these distinguished seniors, who have each been deeply involved in Wabash life, what “home” means to them. To Boudoin, who comes from a tiny town of less than 1,000 residents, located on the bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, home will never be a big city. So, to come to Montgomery County was to come to a more populous place but with the knowledge that small communities tend to be close-knit and so he expected it would feel familiar. In other ways, it would be a sea change. As Boudoin noted, “Any change for me would have been a huge change. Edgard [his home town] has one stoplight. Our schools are 90% black, African-American.”
Lewis, who comes from Chicago, was eager to get to a “small, quiet campus, more peaceful, less populated” than home. He also noted that for him “truthfully home to me is where I am.” Home is the “family that you build and make.” Williams (from South Bend) echoed that noting that home is not so much a place as “connection and relationship with a body of people who support you.”
To explore more deeply how these young men had navigated our community, Morgan asked each to comment on challenges they had faced here. All answered about how they minimized possible challenges. “I minimized trips to Walmart, and would always go with others.” They were all familiar with a routine cluster of pickups with Confederate flags near the Walmart gas station. Downtown didn’t always feel safe either: “At 6:30 a.m. [while walking from campus to the Amtrak station] and there was nothing but pickup trucks … and [when] they see one of us, make derogatory remarks. That’s expected, but you worry if you have to stop at a stoplight what might go down.” “So,” added the third senior, “I wasn’t motivated, I guess, to get out and explore.”
Morgan asked each young man if he wore his Wabash gear when they left campus. To that question, all three answered simultaneously and chuckling: “Yes.” “Def-in-it-ely!” , “… headband, sweater, jacket — everything.”
Morgan pressed onward: “Why do you do that?” The seniors said, “People don’t see African American population so much here” and so the gear shows “I’m supposed to be here,” it shows “who I am to the city,” adding matter-of-factly, “but this is no different than elsewhere. This is mostly just because we’re black men in America.”
Morgan paused and noted, “That shouldn’t be like that.” He then described an “experiment” he did about 20 years ago when he was a senior in college in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t an assignment or a project, he just “wanted to see.” So, he went downtown dressed three different ways: once in his full college gear, once in his student teacher outfit of shirt, coat and tie, and once as a 20-year-old in jeans and T-shirt. The differences in how he was regarded were striking and caused lots of community dialogue when he reported his “findings.” The Wabash seniors nodded in silent recognition: “That shouldn’t be like that.”
Yet, Anthony, Marlon and Lamore all felt welcomed downtown, in stores, in cafes and at community events. All of them, in fact, had been involved in community projects. They spoke with warmth and enthusiasm about Maxine’s on Green and its proprietor, Hannah Thompson. The men also noted Humans United for Equality, Athens Arts, the AME Church, the Lew Wallace Study, Kiwanis Club, the Newman Center, and, with special affection, Allen’s Country Kitchen, as places where they felt especially welcomed and had made connections. “In this town I always felt, Crawfordsville being small, protected me. I knew I was wanted and belonged.”
None of the panel members had ever felt direct fear, but, expressing the reality of young black men, noted that it’s “important just to be careful. If I didn’t have to go out [into the town] I wouldn’t.” Since all these men had traveled abroad as part of Wabash programs and also to many parts of the country, they had become more sophisticated about “having that awareness.” Having your “head on a swivel” as a fact of life.
The panel discussion wound up with reflection about what these three would do differently and what might Crawfordsville do to improve things for people of color.
Speaking warmly of their many positive community connections, the seniors said they would “start early,” build on those “positive first impressions” they had gotten the summer of 2016, and then “maintain and sustain” the ties that mattered to them, revisiting the community “with frequency.”
What can Crawfordsville and Montgomery County do to help? Williams said with a smile in his voice, “Well, we might start with the Confederate flags. That makes a statement.” It gets us to “start feeling uncomfortable so we build walls of protection.” Boudoin suggested the community get more involved with the Malcolm X Institute and MXI with the community. Lewis summed it up by noting: “A community is individuals. It’s individuals that have to be more accepting.”
If you wish to view the entire discussion, find it on the League of Women Voters YouTube channel. League of Women Voters is an organization fully committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in principle and in practice.