Festival looks to blacks' past and future Tubman is symbol of Cambridge event

September 03, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE -- The schoolhouse in which Woody Pinder Jr. learned to read here is gone. The whole Pine Street block where it stood was burned to the ground in 1967 in riots that followed a speech by black militant H. Rap Brown.

At the site yesterday, blacks held a festival -- the town's first annual Community Day -- to celebrate their heritage and plan a better future. The whole block is now a park named for Cambridge native daughter Harriet Ross Tubman, one of the courageous conductors of the Underground Railroad.

"The main purpose of this is to bring people together and let them feel good about themselves," said Mr. Pinder, the 35-year-old organizer of the event, who recently returned to his hometown to give something back after years of world traveling.

"We've had a lot of help from local white businesses -- putting this together -- but not many whites have come out today," he said. "This area is still very segregated in its social relations. I don't think the white community feels comfortable coming to this part of town."

If there is one historical figure the black community thinks should be a catalyst for unity, it is Tubman. Born about 1820 on a plantation in Bucktown 10 miles outside of Cambridge, she risked her hard-earned freedom and her life over and over before and during the Civil War, returning to the South to bring slaves north. She was a scout, a spy and a nurse for the Union Army.

"She was not satisfied with her own freedom alone and reached out to help her brothers and sisters and friends," said Mr. Pinder. "She did not feel free while others were still in slavery."

But he said yesterday that he could not remember ever being taught anything about Tubman while passing through the Dorchester County public school system.

Mr. Pinder, wearing one of the gray Community Day T-shirts featuring a stern, no-nonsense portrait of Tubman and the word "kujichagulia," which means "self-determination" in Swahili, said that he was dismayed upon returning to Cambridge from New York City earlier in the summer to find that his hometown had acquired many of the problems of America's inner cities.

"It has deteriorated with crime and drugs," he said. "I never believed I'd come back to my little community and find crack and prostitution."

Greg Meekins, a Cambridge native and Dorchester County Board of Education employee, said that building self-esteem among the young people who were the chief reason for the festival is the only way to attack all of the black community's problems at once.

"We work hard but there is still benign neglect from the larger system," he said. "Racism is still alive and well but it's a little more covert today, a little more subtle. That's why the theme today is self-determination.

"We have to do for ourselves. Collectively, we are full of dollars. And using them for education is one of the keys to building esteem. And [we should] direct that education toward realistic role models, like black carpenters and black electricians, not always the superstars of sports and entertainment."

The recent census detected a slow reverse migration of blacks back to the small towns of their slave ancestors and away from the decay and failed promises of the big cities.

Christopher J. Adams was raised in the slums of Chicago, spent many adult years in Washington and now, because of a job transfer in the Veterans Administration, finds himself raising a family in Cambridge.

He said he likes it, but, because jobs are scarce, he doesn't think it is possible for any significant number of blacks to follow in his footsteps.

"I wish the inner cities could get back to some of the small-town basics like they have here," he said, sitting in Tubman Park in the bright Labor Day sunshine and listening to music. "It's a slower pace but people work harder, and when some kid gets in trouble everyone knows his family" -- and can help.

"But if I didn't have the job I do, I couldn't afford to come back, but I think if the blacks who would come could find a way to work together they'd see a lot of opportunity. There's land here to do it."

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