The Galveston District celebrated Black History Month with a series of weekly panel discussions throughout the month of February 2022.
Pat Agee, administrative support specialist at the district's executive office, brainstormed the topics and coordinated the in-depth discussions in on-site in the Jadwin Building and via WebEx, in conjunction with the district Equal Employment Opportunity office.
“Sometimes, things happen—outside of work—that affect us in profound ways, but we don’t feel comfortable speaking about it with our colleagues,” Agee said regarding the idea to have open, honest discussions centered on the role race plays in our society. “So, I thought, ‘why not provide a venue where you could feel comfortable speaking about those uncomfortable issues?’”
“My hope was that the discussions would answer questions for some and lead to questions for others,” Agee said.
Dr. Ceá Tillis, a local medicine practitioner, and Ralph Chapman, a music professor at Prairie View A&M University, moderated the discussion panels consisting of several Galveston employees.
Throughout the month, the panels touched on key topics affecting not only the Black community, but broader society.
The first discussions centered around the questions “What is an American?“ and “What is America?”
Panel and audience members grappled with what that meant for them as individuals and as members of a demographic. Does being an American have only one meaning across the board? Do we give up our own unique culture to be part of America?
“Somewhere along the line, someone convinced us that we can’t have both,” Tillis said.
The questions sparked a lot of meaningful conversations based on different people’s perspectives of our American society, Agee said. “My goal was to give people the opportunity to talk about these things and listen to others that may not see America the way they see it.”
The following discussion touched on specific words that stir emotion. Tillis, Chapman, and panel members reviewed the words “discriminate”, “bias”, “prejudice”, and “integration” and shared personal reactions and thoughts on the terms.
That conversation continued into the final discussion where Tillis and Chapman examined the word “racist.” Audience members relayed their personal thoughts on the word and the weight it carries, especially in today’s social climate.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to shed that word in our country,” Tillis said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
Moderators, panel members, and the audience—both virtual and in attendance—discussed the variety of ways in which people have, and continue to, divide themselves: racism; colorism; and religious and ethnic discrimination.
“The need to distinguish oneself and further divide can be seen as a sign of one’s own insecurity,” Tillis said. “A lot of this need to divide is embedded in our culture.”
The panel also took on the topic of systemic, or institutional, racism. The term refers to a form of racism embedded in the laws and regulations of a society or organization. Often, it shows up in our criminal justice system, employment, health care, education, political representation, and housing.
“A lot of people in our country don’t want to recognize the harm done by that,” said Maj. Ian O’Sullivan, Galveston’s deputy district commander.
An example of the lasting impact of institutional racism in housing could be found in the case of Black American Soldiers returning from World War II, O’Sullivan said. Many Black Soldiers who applied for home loans after the war were denied while their white counterparts were approved and allowed to buy homes and build equity over time.
“It created a huge [disparity] between the races, especially over 50-60 years,” O’Sullivan said.
Chapman concluded the final discussion—“Are we alike or different?”—by stating an underlying theme.
“The most important agent in this is respect,” Chapman said. “Are we different? Yes, we are. But we can still have that respect for each other as human beings.”
Black History Month began as the idea of Dr. Carter G. Woodson to showcase the contributions of African-Americans that was largely left out of America’s history books. Woodson chose the second week of February because it fell between the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. What started out as “Negro History Week” in 1926, was extended to the entire month of February in 1976.
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