Baltimore youths meet across Jewish-black gap

December 05, 1990|By Kathy Lally

Nea Wiggins and Miriam Stewart are 10-year-old pen pals, trying to use the power of letters to cross the vast divides of religion and race. Yesterday, they met in person for the first time, and it was clear they already had traveled an enormous distance.

Nea is black; Miriam is Jewish. It turns out they live only a few blocks apart, but the color of their skins and differing religions had made them invisible to each other.

In a Baltimore of distinct and firmly divided neighborhoods where two blocks can be worlds away, Nea and Miriam discovered that they were growing up in the same neighborhood, swinging on the same playground and taking no notice of each other whatsoever. It took a foundation grant and a mouthful of a program to get them together.

"I live on Steele, near Taney Road," Miriam told Nea. "I live right around the corner from Taney," Nea exclaimed. "I live on Clover."

"Sometimes we walk there," Miriam said.

The Jewish-African American Cultural Exchange at Cross Country Elementary School and Solomon Schechter Day School -- with money from the Children of Harvey and Lyn Meyerhoff Philanthropic Fund -- introduced them yesterday.

Nea is a fifth-grader at Cross Country, a public school that is 93 percent black in a largely white and Jewish neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. Miriam is a fifth-grader at Solomon Schechter, a private Jewish school about 3 miles away at Stevenson Road and the Baltimore Beltway.

"I am 10 years old," Miriam wrote in her first letter, "but I can't wait to be 12."

"I was nervous," Nea said yesterday, "because I never met them before."

Within minutes, the 27 Solomon Schechter kids who visited 34 of their counterparts in the library at Cross Country were getting along famously.

"I found my pen pal is really fun and weird," Jazmine Rich said happily, after meeting Joshua Vogelstein. "Perfect!" Miriam said of this assessment.

"I'm glad I have her for a friend," Karen Johnson, a Cross Country pupil, said after meeting Miriam. "I didn't know she'd be like this. She's nice, and she's kind."

"I thought he'd be a nice little guy," Adam Roffman said of his pen pal. "But I was surprised we had the same interests."

The morning began with a slide show and talk by Rachel Kurzweil, a Jewish girl who is a senior at the Friends School, and Anike Edmonds, a black girl who is a senior at the Bryn Mawr School.

The two were among 12 black and Jewish students who visited Israel, Senegal and the Gambia for four weeks last summer as part of Operation Understanding, sponsored by two of Maryland's congressmen, Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, and Kweisi Mfume, D-7th.

"The average income in Senegal is $300 a year," Rachel told the fifth-graders. "That's two Nintendos," Anike said.

TC "Some people forget the Jews were once slaves," Rachel said.

After the talk, the youngsters got together in groups with their pen pals and chatted, about best friends and baseball, favorite teachers and least favorite teachers and Nintendo.

They also talked about fear and violence -- seared into the memory for the Jewish youngsters and a part of the everyday for the black youngsters.

"My brother went to Auschwitz last summer," said Adam Roffman. "There were so many terrible things you couldn't get over it."

"My grandfather's first wife and two children were shot in the pit," Miriam said.

"Don't you know the skinheads?" Nea said. "I would never want to run into them."

The black kids talked about how some of their friends made fun of them if they played with white kids. Sheemia Stewart, a Cross Country pupil, said she was teased because her father is black and her mother white. "They call you a zebra," she said.

Nea lamented that blacks and whites seemed to fight about stupid things. "I won't have any offense from them," she said of her new friends, "because now I know they're just like me."

Miriam talked about seeing groups of blacks and groups of whites downtown, looking at each other uneasily. "I hate that," she said. "It's so like making an assumption. It's prejudice."

She knows people who are frightened at the sight of young black men with towering hair.

"Oh," said Sheemia, "that's a high top fade."

"My brother has one," said LaKeasha Brookins, "and he's not violent. He's only 15."

"I'm scared of black people sometimes, too," said Nea.

"I would never be in a drug war," she said earnestly.

"If you walk up and down the street just to look at the nice houses," Sheemia said, "the police will arrest you because they think you're going to break in."

"We all really like the same things," Miriam said, "whether we're black or white."

While the children were finding out about each other, so were the teachers.

Margie Hoffman, director of the Solomon Schechter middle school, and Marguerite Brown, a fifth-grade teacher at Cross Country, discovered they both had graduated from Forest Park High School in 1965. Of course, they didn't know each other.

Mrs. Brown watched the chatter around her with satisfaction.

"I think it's really an indication that if parents left children alone," she said, "the children would find their way to each other."

Yesterday's small gathering was part of several exchanges between the two schools, part of a project that has a $1,000 grant for buses and juice-box refreshments. The schools hope they can turn the relationship into a permanent one.

"They're more alike than different," said Barbara Lee, the Cross Country principal.

"This is the perfect age. They're old enough to understand what's happening in the world but young enough to learn."

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