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Mechanicsburg rally highlights need for historical reckoning with race
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Mechanicsburg rally highlights need for historical reckoning with race


A group of local activists, including many current or former Mechanicsburg high school students, held a rally in the borough Saturday night with a particular focus on the way black history is presented in schools.

The event, held in support of the wave of racial justice protests that have swept the nation in response to recent police killings of black citizens, fell on the day after Juneteenth, which commemorates the freedom of the last slaves in the United States shortly after the Civil War.

The rally also fell simultaneously with President Donald Trump’s campaign event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the infamous 1921 race massacre, at a time when Trump is under intense criticism for his handling of racial issues.

Many of the local student speakers at Saturday’s rally remarked that they were never taught about Juneteenth or the Tulsa killings in school, something that Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School student Nathaniel Babitts said required a re-thinking of the way black history was taught.

The current method, Babitts said, largely relegates the nation’s history with race to a separate set of lessons, taking black voices and “cramming them into a mini-unit” and failing to incorporate them with the rest of the historical narrative, which becomes almost exclusively white.

Further, the narrative is taken as a simple linear progression—from slavery, to the Civil Rights movement, to the present.

“We are taught to see black history as a series of white choices,” Babitts said.

“That legacy is still there,” Tulio Huggins, who graduated from MASHS last year, said of the 1921 Tulsa incident, in which white rioters destroyed most of the city’s prosperous black business district, resulting in dozens and possibly hundreds of deaths, by some historical accounts.

It can be seen, Huggins said, in the current economy, in which wages for black workers are chronically lower than those of whites, black unemployment higher, and black business ownership lower.

Black business ownership is also significantly more tenuous than white ownership, a fact highlighted during the ongoing COVID-19 economic downturn, which has shut down an estimated 41 percent of black-owned businesses, compared to only 17 percent of white-owned businesses, according to a recent University of California study.

While many of the young speakers, such as Babitts and Huggins, are black, most of Saturday’s crowd—which numbered roughly 100—was white. Mechanicsburg Borough is roughly 95 percent white, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates. Upper Allen Township, which is also part of the Mechanicsburg school district, is slightly more diverse at 88 percent white.

Speakers encouraged the group to actively embrace the Mechanicsburg area’s growing diversity, and reckon with its past.

The Rev. John Ward-Diorio, head of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, stressed the need for the area’s traditionally white, Christian culture to address the ways in which Scripture has been misinterpreted to justify inequality.

“We read it that way because it allowed us to rationalize the horrific treatment of other people,” Ward-Diorio said.

Ignoring this history has had, and will have, negative ramifications, and “folks of color, particularly those of African-American descent, have paid the price for that,” Ward-Diorio said.

Cole Goodman, a black Harrisburg-area activist who said he has been to many protests in recent weeks, emphasized that attendees at local rallies in predominantly white communities are just as critical as those in urban areas.

“You all are just as important as those who are protesting in the cities,” Goodman said. “You’re a soldier in this fight. We need you. This can’t just be a hashtag, this can’t just be a fad.”

“I don’t want to learn in two months that we’ve moved on,” Mechanicsburg Borough Council member Sara Agerton said. “We need to be upset about it all the time. Get out of your comfort zone and make a change.”

Agerton was not the only local public official to attend Saturday’s event. At least one Mechanicsburg school board member, Brian Sanker, was also in the audience, and was supportive of the points made by Babitts and Huggins.

“You look back on it and say ‘why didn’t I learn that in school?’” Sanker said. “I think that’s the direction we’re going in, is to break down some of those silos.”

Sanker also said part of that is making the school district more reflective of the local demographics.

“There’s a lack of black teachers. It’s a problem across the state,” Sanker said. “I’d love to empower more people of color to be teachers.”

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