Tryon Mayor Jim Wright, Sidney Graham, the husband of Major Iona Fox Graham, and Kathy Wright talk following the program held Saturday, Feb. 22 at Roseland Community Center. (photo by Leah Justice)
Tryon Mayor Jim Wright, Sidney Graham, the husband of Major Iona Fox Graham, and Kathy Wright talk following the program held Saturday, Feb. 22 at Roseland Community Center. (photo by Leah Justice)

Call for action made at black history program

Published 7:13pm Thursday, February 27, 2014

President Barack Obama in his recent State of the Union address said, “let’s make this a year of action.”

A group of about 50 people gathered Saturday, Feb. 22 to talk about that call to action and how to overcome struggles many still face today.

The program was called  “Native Sons and Daughters” where successful natives of the Eastside community in Tryon were keynote speakers.

Major Iona Fox Graham (retired U.S. Air Force), Dr. Warren Carson (USC Upstate, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs and chief diversity officer) and Dr. Joseph Fox (A-B Tech business administration department chair) spoke of times growing up in Tryon and their paths to success.

Michelle Miller moderated the program, which included lunch and was sponsored by the Thermal Belt Friendship Council and the Roseland Community Center.

Graham said it was a pleasure to be back in her neighborhood as she worked with recreation programs at the Roseland Community Center for a number of years. She said Roseland was a focal point with a swimming pool and lots of activities.

“It was all about the neighborhood and all about the community,” she said. “We didn’t know we weren’t the richest people.”

Speakers talked about their time at the Edmund Embury School, which was the African American school prior to the integration of Tryon High School.

Graham graduated from Tryon High School in 1973, attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and joined the Air Force in 1983.

She said when she spent time in other countries with the Air Force she saw how Americans take things for granted.

“It made me really appreciate growing up in Tryon,” Graham said, “and appreciate our country and what we’re fighting for and striving for as a nation.”

She spoke of the large population of enlisted African Americans in the Air Force but the few who went on to become officers.

She said minorities were a small group but there were also not many women officers.

Carson said he was born in the old St. Luke’s Hospital and that none of the institutions he received his education still stand today. He said spoke of his time at the Good Shepherd Community Kindergarten when Lewis W. Thompson Jr. was a teacher there.

Thompson was an albino, Carson said, but had a marvelous sense of humor and intellect. Suffering from constant laryngitis, Thomas had an attack one day and turned the class over to Carson. Carson said he guesses that’s where he got started on his teaching route. Carson spoke of the Embury School that sat atop Markham Road that he said looked terribly large as a child.

“It was an interesting building, an interesting place to be,” Carson said. “I remember all the sites, I remember all the sounds; every chipped place, those still reside with me.”

Carson said education then was reinforced at home, in the community, at Roseland and at churches.

“Many people looking back on segregated schools may have concluded that education was inferior,” Carson said. “I beg to differ.”

He said if you look at inferiority only from the outside, yes, sometimes the steps were broken and it was really hot in the summer and cold in the winter. He said the inside was where education was going on.

“Every one of us was special,” Carson said. “They sought to find out what you could do,” Carson said. “You may not have been able to add, but may have had beautiful handwriting. The quality was on the inside. I never felt inferior. I never felt I couldn’t stand toe to toe with whatever I was going to face.”

Students at Embury were also taught to not be selfish people, Carson said. Carson spent many years in Avery County with his maternal grandmother and great grandmother. After the schools were integrated he came back to Tryon High School but spent one year at Landrum where he was one of nine students who integrated into Landrum.

“I’m not really sure what integrated was or what it was supposed to do or what it was supposed to accomplish,” Carson said. “When we went there it was almost as if we left our whole previous school experience behind us. I know folks struggled with questions of identity and worth. Some didn’t make it.”

Carson said students had teachers and others who supported them and named Jean Pettigrew, who was present at Saturday’s meeting.

Carson said he has taught at just about every level from high school to adult education to junior college, college and afterschool programs for the youth. He said at all age levels a lack of skills is a challenge.

“I didn’t just jump out of Tryon and earn a PhD,” Carson said. “There’s dues you have to pay.”

Fox said a strong sense of community got the native sons and daughters where they are today. Fox said he was looking forward to going to an all black school right at the time of integration. He said teachers didn’t know how to work with them as the black students were labeled as loud and rambunctious.

He said he remembered coming home the first few years and his mother trying to help him with his homework and her saying if he didn’t know how to do it, find someone to help you. That’s where tutoring with Dr. Carson came in, Fox said.

“My mother said ‘I don’t want you to whine about being the only black in Algebra or French,’” said Fox. “’That’s what you need to do to succeed.”

He said he grew up being told you will do it, you can do it and there’s always somebody worse off then you are.

“Once you get your education nobody can take that from you,” Fox said. “We worked. I knew my family couldn’t afford to send me (to school). I worked every summer, after school. By high school, I was already buying my own clothes.”

Fox said he remembered working for Mr. Wayman (Eunice Wayman, later Nina Simone’s father). Mr. Wayman would find odd jobs for the kids. Fox said he was once paid $1.25 an hour at Wayman’s country store when he was not tall enough to punch the cash register.

Fox started the entrepreneurship program at A-B Tech and said he gets tickled when reading about economic development.

“We have said for years economic development has to have home grown entrepreneurship,” Fox said. “We grew up in Tryon with entrepreneurs,” naming Wayman, James Bryant, James Payne and neighborhood beauty salons.

He said there used to be more black-owned Tryon businesses.

“We need to take that back and be job creators,” Fox said.

Fox said there are more than 400,000 people in Asheville and of that, less than two percent are black-owned businesses. He also said out of 35-40 department chairs at A-B Tech he’s the only African American.

“I’ll bring up an idea and it will fall on deaf ears,” Fox said. “Someone later will bring up the same idea and they will think it’s a great idea.”

He also talked about not getting a dean’s job he applied for with a man  from a smaller college getting the job.

“We tend to say that racism is dead, it’s not,” said Fox. “It’s not as overt as it used to be.”

He said it’s the little things like getting skipped over for a job, a bank loan or a raise that show racism is still alive.

Following the speakers, Miller said she was personally inspired.

“We are resilient people despite the diversity,” said Miller. “I know my parents instilled in me you have to get an education, you have to work, you have to move forward.

Carson said he, Miller and Fox serve on the Eastside Citizens Advisory Committee, which tries to put citizens together with town staff in service delivery on the east side of Tryon. He said he thinks the committee has given opportunity to look more closely at some of the problems.

Carson also said if you look at Tryon, Columbus, Saluda, service organizations, government offices and other employment venues in this area, you will see very few African American and other minority employees.

He said people ask why people leave this community and the answer is they leave because they’ve got to find a job.

“Places will advertise but will not hire people who are not of a particular persuasion,” Carson said. “It’s possible for a child to go all the way through school without ever encountering an African American teacher.”

Miller said  all of what the group talked about Saturday was about action and moving forward.

“Obama has called for this to be a year of action,” said Miller. “I think this discussion has raised some eyebrows. Unless we reach out and share this information and do something about it we will find ourselves having these same discussions 20 years from now. We have got to do something. We know it’s not over. We have paved the way. We have people who have paved the way for us. We have a responsibility to continue this.”

Fox said he will soon announce entrepreneur workshops to be offered through Full Proof Ministry and St. Luke CME church.

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