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A Challenge and Reflection on Asking “Why”

By Rex Everett, Vice President, Business Development

Last month, I completed my 64th trip around the sun. In the previous 10 years, I and my younger sister started a tradition of celebrating our birthdays together with family. COVID put a pause in our tradition, so this year would be the first time we could enjoy our birthdays in person in two years.

We decided on a Sunday afternoon lunch at Riverview Café, one of our favorite restaurants in our hometown, Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, and the oldest restaurant in Onslow County. For decades people have come from all over the state to dine there. Great atmosphere, beautiful views and southern hospitality—the staff makes you feel right at home. Not to mention, the best seafood on the Carolina coast. Okay, I might be a little biased. Joining us—our mother, who will turn 90 years old in March, our siblings, our first cousin, my niece and her husband, and their three well-mannered but very entertaining children ages 14, 11 and 8 years old. We were seated in an overflow dining room typically reserved for large parties or private events with a great view.

Challenging Memories Together

There is ongoing conversation that eventually leads down memory lane when we’re together. As we reach our senior years in life, that lane gets longer and longer. With four generations of family at the table, it becomes a learning experience. While we were enjoying our time together and observing the view, the conversation turned to memories of when we could not dine inside this restaurant.

Years ago, there was a walk-up window in the back where we would have only been allowed to order take-out. This wasn’t just a North Carolina custom, it was a reflection of the socio-political culture at the time. The question then emerged from the table, “What year did that end?”  I’ve heard a quote and can’t remember the author, but it went something like this, “Memories are not precise reflections of reality; they are autobiographies.” When we are together, we challenge those memories. True-to-form, my older sister stated without hesitation, “1968, 1969.”

Georgetown School

To understand the significance of the years she quoted, I have to go back to 1966, a time we didn’t have to read in history books as it was the time we lived through. Although the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, Onslow County Public Schools were not fully integrated until the fall of 1966. All of the Black students in our town were bussed 20 miles to Georgetown School bypassing Dixon School, which was seven miles away. Georgetown and Dixon School each had their 1st-12th grade schools located on one campus. Most of the Black students in Onslow County attended Georgetown, which was also the first public high school in the county accredited by the state.

In May of 1966, my sister was a marshal for the eighth-grade graduating class of Georgetown on a Friday night. Sunday morning, exactly twelve hours before the 1966 Senior High School graduation ceremony in the gym, an explosion destroyed our beloved school. Later that afternoon, our parents loaded us in the car to see the devastation.

Dixon School

That fall was the first year we attended Dixon School. I was in the third grade. I marvel at the things an eight-year-old can recall. I remember the bus ride on the first day of school. There were over 20 of us at our bus stop – elementary to high school age and all related. The bus didn’t stop at the driveway. It stopped several feet away, causing us to walk through a ditch to get on the bus. The driver picked up all the white students first before coming to our road. I remember getting on the bus for the first time.

At eight years old, I was eye level with everyone seated as I walked down the aisle. They were all sitting at the front of the bus, so we had to walk past them to get to empty seats. I will never forget the looks on their faces as we walked by.

One morning the bus didn’t stop to pick us up, it just kept going. Our parents were just getting ready to go to work, most of them were employed at Marine Corps  Base Camp Lejeune. They loaded us in cars, and we were off to school. The first couple of months, it seemed parents were out there every week dealing with something. Our father, who was very active in the civil rights movement, and the last PTA president at Georgetown, took a position that others soon followed: if the parents get out of the way, the kids will figure it out. With the help of some good teachers, that’s exactly what happened.

Paving the Way

So fast forward to 1969. My sister was the first Black high school cheerleader at Dixon. For away games, the cheerleaders traveled in a van with their sponsor who was one of the teachers. One night, they stopped at a restaurant for dinner on their way back from a game. She just happened to be at the end of the line as they were entering the building. A man stopped her, turned to the sponsor and said, “She can’t come in here.” The sponsor bit back, “If she can’t come in here, neither will we,” and instructed the cheerleaders to get back in the van.  They ate at another restaurant that night. It’s a memory we often recall and my sister narrates it best: “I was a young teenager and couldn’t defend myself.  She stepped in and took up for me.”  It took the boldness and, quite frankly, the bravery of teachers like that to help the students figure it out as my dad predicted we would.

In 1975, my younger sister was the first Black Miss Dixon High School (DHS) and the first Black Homecoming Queen. Since then, there have been several young girls of color that, unbeknownst to them, have followed in her footsteps. In 1976, I was the first Black Mr. Dixon High School. We certainly felt we’d figured it out, and even more, we’ve all built some lifelong friendships with other students from our time at Dixon.

Back to Riverview

I order my lemon meringue pie (try spelling that without spell check). If you have ever been with me to a restaurant, you know I always order dessert, all homemade here. I enjoy the expressions on my niece’s face when the kids look at her when deciding what they want.  As they are making their selections, I’m pondering, should they be deprived of learning their history? There is a robust and organized effort to teach a “rainbows and unicorns” version of US History in public schools. Is that our 56-year record from my time in school? Did we really figure it out, or did we simply tolerate each other? My colleague at TeamHealth, Andrea Stewart-Crutch, said it best in her Black History Month blog, “U.S. history and African American History are one-in-the-same. Black History Month is a necessary time to educate and remind ourselves collectively about the real experiences, roles and impact of the African American community on this country’s history.”

Celebrating Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Last year I wrote a TeamHealth Blog on my first experience with Juneteenth. The blog was published over the weekend. I received many favorable responses to the blog. One, in particular, was a note from Leif Murphy, TeamHealth Chief Executive Officer, who is also the executive sponsor for our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee and supports its initiatives. He is unapologetic about addressing health inequity in our country. Although his note about the blog was about being impactful, he made a statement, “I read it to my whole family Saturday morning.” I found that to be most impactful. He’s figured it out.

The comfort of the home. The “what” questions about Black History are really not difficult questions to answer. The facts are undeniable, and they have been documented by people since 1619.  The “whys”  are the challenge. A line in William S. Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch, captures it well, “the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Chris Barsanti comments,It’s that second in time when the scales fall off, and you see the world — or, more often, a particular corner of it — in a completely new way, as though for the first time.”

A Challenge to Ask the “Whys”

Our lunch at Riverview that day was a place to answer the “whys,” sitting around the table, in your comfort zone with folks who know you, love you and respect you. Taking the time to answer the “whys” gave those kids new lenses to view their history.  Sitting at that table, in that restaurant gave us all a tangible reminder of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.  When is the last time you asked a “why”?  I challenge you. Answering the “why” challenges your core values, religious beliefs and ethics. Scary? Maybe. Risky? Possibly. Worth it? You bet your clam chowder it is!