Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

In Memphis riven by race, `Bridge Builder’ teens get a chance to start over and get it right

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August 20, 1992

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Buried somewhere in America’s ancient agony over race is this aching to start over, to keep it simple and to get it right. To be innocent. To be open. To be friends.

For seven days this summer, some Memphis teenagers got that chance.

In a city as defined and divided by race as any in America, 38 high school students, black and white, lived together, ate together, worked, played and learned together as part of an unusual program called Bridge Builders. They made it look easy. They made it seem ordinary. And when it was over, they didn’t want to say goodbye.

“Used to be every time I’d see a white person I’d say `hello,’ they’d say `hello’ and we’d just keep on walking,” says Markell Newson, whose high school, Whitehaven, has 10 whites and 1,056 blacks. The way Newson figures it, whites didn’t want to talk to him and he saw no reason to talk to them.

But those days, he says, are over now. “I’m going to change,” he promises. “I’m going to start communicating.”

Which is precisely the point of Bridge Builders.

Founded in 1988 by Youth Service, an Episcopal social-service agency in Memphis, Bridge Builders brings together high-school

students from the city’s mostly black public and mostly white private schools for two years of leadership and human-relations training that begins with a week together the summer between their sophomore and junior years.


There are other summer camps across the country devoted to bringing together people of different backgrounds. Most notably, the National Council of Christians and Jews has for 35 years run “Anytown” camps that teach teenagers about cultural pluralism. There are now 40 across the country.

But Bridge Builders is unusual in its ongoing efforts to develop the relationships kindled that first summer. For two years, the kids meet monthly, work on community-service projects and reconvene for another camp their second summer.

While its long-term impact on participants is still to be seen, its sponsors believe they are onto something and hope it can serve as a national model. “We think we have something to share,” says John Krosnes, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who is Youth Service’s director of development.

The program was the brainchild of one of the leading women of Memphis, Rebecca Webb Wilson, whose father-in-law founded the Holiday Inn chain.

In early 1988 Wilson saw a piece of Memphis many whites never do. It was the wretched shack poverty of black northern Memphis, and it worried her. She worried for her city and she worried for her children, who were going to come of age and prominence in a community, their home, where they really had no meaningful contact with the blacks who are a majority of its inhabitants.

“I wanted my own children to have a chance to change their thinking and to come to it on their own. You can’t preach it. They just have to experience it,” says Wilson, whose two daughters went through the program. Now, she says, they have a sensitivity to race their older brother does not.

When she first broached the idea, Krosnes says, he was among those who warned her that Memphis wasn’t ready for black and white, male and female, all living together for a week under one roof.

“Miscegenation,” says Shelby State Community College President Lawrence M. Cox, articulating the timeless white Southern bugaboo that he says would have doomed a Bridge Builder program when he was young. “It would have been ridiculous,” says Cox, a black member of the Youth Service board. “The only question would have been which tree to string us up from.”


To this day in Memphis, one person after another will tell you, things almost always come down to black and white.

“Memphis is a city sitting on a spark, just waiting to explode all the time,” says Jo Ann Hunter, a black school aide whose son, Chris, entered Bridge Builders last summer.

Mary Taylor, a black secretary whose son Al is a Bridge Builder, says that despite the growth of a black middle class, Memphis is a place where whites are “so used to blacks saying `yes ma’am’ and `no ma’am’ ” that they have difficulty dealing with them as peers or powers.

Last year Willie Herenton was elected the city’s first black mayor by 172 votes in an election that amounted to little more than a racial census.

“The day after the election I remember at (St. Mary’s Episcopal) school: `My daddy says this,’ `My daddy says that,’ `My daddy wants to move out of town,’ ” says Anna Scott, who began with Bridge Builders last summer.

Memphis is 54 percent black and the racial divide is reinforced by a huge black-white economic gap. Nearly half the blacks in Memphis live in poverty. Seventy percent of black children are born out of wedlock. The city’s infant mortality rate is the highest in the country.

Since the end of slavery, this has been a Mecca for blacks from dirt-poor rural Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. But with the rusting away of most of its manufacturing base in recent decades, it has become a place of empty promise.

“They come to Memphis to rescue themselves from poverty but just can’t find the opportunity here anymore,” says Krosnes, who is white.

Memphis is also the most obvious example of a city where whites deserted the public schools rather than integrate. While some whites have returned in recent years, the public schools remain 80 percent black.

The result is a city in which blacks and whites see each other but don’t know each other. “Most of the entering Bridge Builders never have had a relationship with someone of the opposite race,” says Krosnes.

Bridge Builders doesn’t seek to convert bigots. The 19 participating schools are asked to select good kids with leadership potential. The goal is to develop a rapport among young blacks and whites who in a generation will be running Memphis.

They are the cream, and most do not think they arrive with any racial baggage.

“I think they go into it with the idea they are not prejudiced;

they think, `I really like black people, I don’t know any but I’m sure if I did I’d like them,’ ” Wilson says.

“I don’t think I have a fear of blacks,” says Ashley Abrahams on the Monday of her week at Bridge Builders this summer. But Abrahams, who is wearing a “Love God” T-shirt and goes to Briarcrest Christian High School, acknowledges race is not a big factor in her life. “I’m not faced with it that much in school or in church or in my neighborhood.”

By contrast, a black Bridge Builder, Wande Okunoren, has a very different perspective. Okunoren is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. Her father is a doctor and her mother a nutritionist.

She lives in the mostly white suburb of Germantown, goes to a mostly white church and for most of her education went to mostly white schools.


However, afraid that she had, in essence, grown up white, Okunoren transferred to overwhelmingly black East High School in Memphis. The adjustment, she says, was not easy at first.

“I was scared to death of black people,” she recalls. “When my mother first took me down to East I said, `Hold onto your purse, Mom.’ ”

Because of her unusual background, Okunoren throughout the week offers some of the bluntest talk about race, even as she is working through her own developing feelings. She says she was once ashamed to be black, but now she is proud, and wears her hair in braids with gold ringlets at the tips.

But, after the Bridge Builders’ first general discussion about Memphis’ problems, she complains about how many of the blacks seem less informed than the whites. “Whites watch the news, blacks don’t,” she observes tartly.

At a later session, when one black complains about whites keeping blacks in the dark, she snaps back, “Read the paper, turn on CNN.”

One of the purposes of Bridge Builders is to make these kids comfortable talking about race, about stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. They read, talk and role-play: You’re the black mayor of Memphis. You need to annex a white suburb to build the tax base and get the money you need to fulfill your promises to help the poor. But annexation will put enough whites on the voter rolls to cost you the next election. What do you do? (The rough consensus in one group was win a second term, then annex.)

The week is a pastiche of human-relations training and leadership training. Each Bridge Builder prepares a speech to deliver at week’s end. They also get Outward Bound-style adventure education, featuring games that build team spirit and stress everyone’s interdependence. For example, blindfolded and listening for sound signals, they must lead each other past obstacles to safety.

One of the first and most memorable exercises is the “trust fall,” in which each of the Bridge Builders climbs up a 6-foot

ladder and falls backward into the collective waiting arms of the other members of their group, whom they have known less than a day.

Next summer, at their senior camp, they will go rock climbing and put their safety in each other’s hands.

The first camp is held at Memphis State University, where they stay in the dorms. Roommates are paired to mix public with private school, black with white.

Three of the seven afternoons are devoted to community service – sorting cans for the food bank, stuffing envelopes for the Heart Association, whacking weeds at a senior center, painting a fence for an old woman and cleaning a garage for an old man with a lifetime’s accumulation of odd but beloved junk.

There is never any obvious friction, but the blending together is a gradual, almost imperceptible process, a delicate accumulation of small moments.

There’s Laura Baldree, who goes to almost all-white St. Agnes, calling her grandmother to tell her that a black girl had “called me sister.”

There’s Joan Self, a white St. Mary’s student, and Wande Okunoren reaching out to find one another in their blindfolds.

“This Wande?”


“Hiya, babe.”

And then for a few moments there are Joan and Wande standing together, holding hands and swaying.

Bit by bit the meals become integrated. By week’s end the solid blocs of black and white have given way to a mottled pattern of friendship.

At graduation practice Friday night, Markell Newson, the young man who had previously had little to do with whites, takes advantage of the moment when the Bridge Builders are supposed to congratulate one another to step over behind a girl named Garland Humphrey, the blondest of the blondes from Hutchison, the whitest, most socially elite prep school in Memphis. Carefully, Newson, who is 6-foot-6, reaches down, gently scoops up Humphrey’s long golden hair and holds it aloft for a long moment.

It is consistent with what is apparently an obsessive curiosity whites and blacks have about each other’s hair – all week these kids are asking each other permission to touch, rub and caress each other’s hair. But it is a stunning image, one that in old Memphis might have ended badly. But no one particularly notices or cares.

The obvious question is how lasting an impact Bridge Builders has.

Vicki Newman, a child psychologist who helps run the camp, has just begun trying to develop some means to measure the long-term impact of the program on its graduates.

Michael Kerns, an educational consultant whose daughter Tirzah began with Bridge Builders last summer, says he suspects the benefits of a program that lasts only a week in the summer and once a month thereafter almost have to be “thin.”

But, he figures, it can’t hurt. “If it brings black and white students together to talk to each other and listen to each other and smell each other, it’s got to do something for you.


Written by jonathantilove

August 29, 2012 at 3:28 am

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