Diversity Matters: A community dialogue about the Charleston 9 and the Confederate flag

Diversity Matters: A community dialogue about the Charleston 9 and the Confederate flag
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Last night Carolinas HealthCare System’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted a moderated conversation at the McColl Center as part of its First Responder Series, which explores issues “that threaten to disrupt or adversely impact trust and the emotional health of our community.” Last night’s topic was Diversity Matters: The Charleston 9 – Confederate Battle Flag.

Diversity Matters

Moderated by CHS Chief Diversity Officer Dr. James Taylor, the conversation featured distinguished speakers followed by segments of open forum with the audience. Speakers included:

  • Susan Harbage Page, a visual artist whose work explores immigration, race, gender and nation
  • Debbie Dills and Todd Frady, the florist from Shelby who spotted Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, and her boss who was on the phone with her as she raced 80mph behind Roof to capture his tag number for police, which led to his arrest
  • Senator Malcolm Graham, District 40 representative in the North Carolina Senate whose sister Cynthia Hurd was murdered by Dylann Roof at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston
  • Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South and revered as “the keeper of Charlotte’s past

Diversity Matters First Responders

The following are summaries and talking points pulled from different segments of the night.

Susan Harbage Page

Susan is white. It’s important to point this out because she opened her talk with the story of her friend Milton (who is black) who invited her to the prom in 1977. Her mother forbade her to go for fear of what others would think. She shared photos of her lifelong exploration of race through art, including white supremacist clansman capes she created out of modern materials like Walmart bags and seersucker.

“In 1977 I didn’t stand up. I didn’t go to the prom and I was wrong.”

“Nothing will change until white people learn to talk about race.”

“We need to develop the language to have a conversation. We need to stop being politically correct because then we say nothing.”

Dr. James Taylor

Moderator Dr. Taylor opened the floor by giving context of the conversation and laying ground rules for the night: (1) listen to each others’ experiences, (2) challenge ourselves and our own assumptions, (3) demonstrate openness and respect.

“Issues of diversity are inescapable.”

“What binds us tonight is a collective affinity to our community.”

Dr. James Taylor CHS

Debbie Dills

Debbie described how she spotted Dylann Roof, chased him down in her car and ultimately led to his arrest with the help of her friend and boss Todd Frady who remained on the phone with her.

“I’m just a girl from south Gastonia. I’m not educated or none of that. I’m not a hero. I have no CSI training. Look at me!”

“I was scared. I told Todd if something happens to me here you tell my friends and my family I’m ready to go. And 15-20 minutes later he [Roof] was arrested.”

“Just do the right thing. When I saw that car I had no choice but to do the right thing.”

“We can’t forget. We need to remember these families.”

“I’m glad that God used me for this.”

Debbie Dills

Senator Malcolm Graham

Senator Graham discussed his sister’s full life and how subtle racism imbedded in our public policy perpetuates the hate that led to her death.

“She did not die a victim. I see her dying as a hero.”

“What happened that night was pretty simple: 9 individuals lost their lives in a house of worship. They were murdered because they were black. There is no getting around that. Hate still exists.”

“Is what happened a month ago a moment in time or a movement in time?”

“Discussions like these have to lead to action or these 9 heroes will have died in vain.”

“I stand here today to stand up for my sister, to give voice to my sister.”

On the topic of racism showing up without us evening noticing, Senator Graham pointed out that yesterday’s Charlotte Observer featured a photo of Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick smiling with his family alongside a photo of Jonathan Ferrell posing with a gold watch. Kerrick (white police officer) is on trial for shooting Ferrell (unarmed black man) to death on September 14, 2013. In response to this choice of photos for the story, Senator Graham replied, “Subtle.”

Senator Malcolm Graham

Tom Hanchett

“The flag was intended to be divisive. It’s a battleflag.”

“Look at who we are as Southerners. We are people from all over the world who are now Southerners. We’re from everywhere.”

“We don’t need something that tells us we have to be divided. This is a time to come together.”

Tom Hanchett

Audience comments

“If heritage is a perpetuation of hate, we need to do something about it.”

“If I saw a person with the [Confederate] flag, I know where they stood. I’m almost more afraid now without it.”

“They [South Carolina] flew it as if it represented something I pay taxes for. And that’s not fair. Just don’t fly it on public property.”

“The flag should be preserved to remind us where we came from.”

“We’re going to have to come to terms with what we were taught. It was a heritage of hate and we have to own that.”

“The flag is not the problem. The people are the problem.”

“I love white people but sometimes I don’t like you.”

I spoke with Armando Bellmas, Director of Marketing + Communications at the McColl Center and we both agreed these conversations need to happen at least once a month. Connect with the McColl Center and CHS to encourage more (and bigger!) events if you’d like to participate in something like this. For me, it was an honor to sit in the room.

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