MUG: Buzz Thomas

Everybody hurts. So much so that we sometimes have difficulty seeing the pain of others. Especially if we may have contributed to it. It’s just too ... well ... painful.

Several years ago, I received a phone call from one of the administrators at Maryville High School. A student from a highly respected African American family had been offered a scholarship at a prestigious university on the West Coast.

“What should we do?” the administrator asked me.

“What do you mean, what should you do?” I said, sounding a little exasperated. “The student should fly out there for a visit, and if she likes it, accept the scholarship.”

“Well, that’s just it,” the administrator replied. “The family can’t afford the plane ticket.”

I was speechless. First, because I had multiple relatives who could have bought me a plane ticket when I was 17. Second, because I had never fully realized the economic impact on even a prosperous black family of slavery, Jim Crow, segregated schools and the official policy of “whites only” that pervaded professions, universities and businesses in the South until the mid-1960s.

Just one generation ago, blacks in Tennessee were systematically denied access to the ordinary paths for acquiring wealth. Even white-owned businesses that hired blacks — like ALCOA — often relegated them to the most undesirable positions (e.g. working in the smelting plant). And even then, blacks were paid less than their white counterparts.

How could I have been so blind? So naïve? So dumb? The truth was there all along. But like most white people, I chose to remain blissfully ignorant. How does one face the fact that white society kidnapped Africans and, in the most inhumane manner, forcibly transported them to the United States? The conditions these men, women and children endured to get here were more horrific than our worst imaginings. So grotesquely cruel were the slave ships that, if the opportunity arose, many of the prisoners simply threw themselves into the sea. For those who survived the trip, their nightmares were only beginning. Families were ripped apart, men were beaten unmercifully, women raped and children sold away from their parents.

And even after the bloodiest war in our nation’s history was fought and the slaves were finally freed, states like Tennessee took away their right to vote, to serve on juries, to attend our schools and even to get decent jobs at equal pay. And while “official” discrimination might have ended in the ’60s, unofficial discrimination lingers on. How foolish I was not to realize that it will take multiple generations for black families to achieve equal financial footing with white families.

The question arises as to how we might speed that process along.

The Maryville City Schools Foundation might have found an answer. The William Bennett Scott Scholarship Fund, which is growing every year, accepts applications from qualified African American students who need help attending four-year colleges and universities.

Some kids don’t need it. They have academic or athletic scholarships that will get them the knowledge and skills they need to be as successful as their white counterparts. Other students might be better matched for the two-year degrees that are available to all Tennessee students through Tennessee Promise. But for the ordinary kid who has the aptitude and desire for a four-year degree but needs a little help, the Scott Scholarship is an option.

Make no mistake, Scott is a hand-up not a handout. Its namesake would have had it no other way. Maryvillian William Bennett Scott was Tennessee’s first black mayor. He was also the first African American in our state to become a newspaper publisher. But even that wasn’t enough for Mayor Scott, who was always thinking of others. So, he started the Freedman’s Institute that sat on the current MHS football field to teach former slaves how to read, write and become self-sufficient. You won’t be surprised, then, to learn that Scott Scholars must give back to their communities through regular volunteer work at charities and churches.

Though we are only three years into the program, I believe we are creating a model for other communities across the state. Even those who complain that they never held any slaves, never discriminated against blacks and bear no responsibility for the past must admit that most all-white Southerners benefited directly or indirectly from the institutional racism of the past.

But here’s the thing. The Scott Scholarship is not a new government program. It is a voluntary effort on the part of our community and relies on private donations to succeed. Nothing can ever atone for the rivers of blood and oceans of tears America’s past policies and practices caused our black neighbors, but this small scholarship program is an important start.

This Christmas, I hope that many of you will contact the Maryville City Schools Foundation and lend a hand. Our goal is to raise a million-dollar endowment so that any Maryville student who needs help, gets help. It will take several million more if we are to expand the program countywide. Isn’t it a beautiful thought that we just might be successful?

Buzz Thomas is a retired Baptist minister, attorney and a native Blount Countian. His columns frequently appear in The Daily Times.

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