2,000 join Baltimore summit on race relations in hopes of harmony

December 01, 1990|By Martin C. Evans

Joy Jones, a black businesswoman who lives in Ashburton, looked around the small meeting room in the upper reaches of the Baltimore Convention Center, gathered her courage and raised her hand to speak.

As two dozen pair of eyes looked her way, Ms. Jones told how she learned the Korean words for "How are you this morning" so she could greet the woman who runs a dry cleaning shop down the street from her.

"There is nothing to prevent anyone in this room from doing the same thing," said Ms. Jones, who told her story at a workshop at yesterday's Baltimore Summit on Race Relations. "It's got to be a two-way street."

More than 2,000 people gathered at the Convention Center to share their observations on the state of race relations in Baltimore, voice their frustrations, speak their anger and offer their hopes of making things better.

The daylong gathering was organized after two separate, racially motivated incidents last summer shocked members of Baltimore's black community. After incidents -- a man was killed in one -- the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance called on the mayor to organize the summit.

But even as the meeting to promote racial harmony began, a handful of men carrying Confederate flags and signs that advocated racial hatred walked in a straggly circle outside the Convention Center on Pratt Street.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke alluded to the demonstrators in his keynote address, saying that there were far more people seeking harmony than advocating separatism.

"This summit does, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, demonstrate the content of our character," Mr. Schmoke assured the crowd.

After the mayor's greeting, the gathering broke into smaller groups to discuss specific dimensions of race relations, such as race in education, cultural diversity and the relationship between blacks and Koreans and blacks and Jews.

The workshops reflected some of the hostility and distrust that simmers among the various ethnic groups in Baltimore.

For example, the workshop at which Joy Jones, the black businesswoman, spoke was devoted to exploring tensions between blacks and Koreans in the city's neighborhoods, where Korean merchants frequently are accused of being hostile to black customers.

One questioner, a black man, asked why Korean merchants who own stores in black neighborhoods often chose to live elsewhere. Another accused Korean merchants of refusing to even smile.

But some Korean participants in the workshop said their own experiences demonstrate how cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings.

Yoon Choi, who was born in Seoul and moved to Baltimore when she was 9, said Koreans are brought up not to smile at people with whom they are not close.

She also said she grew up making sacrifices so that her parents' grocery store, which was at the corner of North and Fulton avenues in West Baltimore, would succeed. When classes were done at Western High School, she would hurry to the store, where she would spend hours working.

She said Korean store owners often lived in the suburbs in Korea and prefer the suburbs here to life inthe crowded and often dangerous neighborhoods surrounding their stores.

"We struggled hard, we worked 16 hours a day, six days a week," she said. "After that, I don't want to live downtown with the hustle and bustle."

The participants in the summit were overwhelmingly black, but among the whites who attended was Michael Hudgins, an eight-grader at the Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden.

Both the school and the community have had their share of racial tension, and Michael said hate groups like the skinheads have been trying to recruit members at his school.

"It [racism] is getting worse," Michael said. "The skinheads have been at our school for the last several weeks. They're trying to keep blacks out."

Thus, Michael said, events like the mayor's race relations summit are important ways of bringing people together to counteract influence of groups like the skinheads.

"I think it's going to do a lot of good," the youngster said.

The observations of people participating in the summit will be studied by the Baltimore Community Relations Commission, which will make recommendations to the mayor.

Some people said that while they agreed with the summit's goal of addressing racial tension, many Baltimoreans who harbor racial animosity would not be reached.

"The people who know what the problems are are here, and the people who don't are out in the street," said Wayne L. Maddox, a young black man who works as a supermarket stock clerk. "We need to bring this out into the street."

But others, including Ms. Jones, said she thought that those who attended the summit's workshops spoke frankly of their concerns and learned from each other.

"I don't think people tiptoed around the problems," Ms. Jones said. "I think people raised real issues without being disagreeable."

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