Blount tried gracefully to bridge racial divide

April 20, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

CLARENCE Blount went to his grave yesterday but leaves behind an aura of grace where others would have carried bitterness. Along the dusty road he traveled across 81 years, he had multiple reasons to be furious but understood that anger gets us nowhere. He pushed it aside. That is his legacy as much as his politics.

He chose to be a healer instead of a divider. He made himself comfortable in the inner circles of state power but defined his life, and his mission, by childhood memories etched along the American racial divide. He worked the North Carolina tobacco fields without shoes to put on his feet. His mother died when he was 5. He never entered a schoolroom until his family reached Baltimore, and finally graduated from Frederick Douglass High School at 21.

When he walked the State House corridors in Annapolis, he understood how far black people had come but lamented how far there was yet to go. One afternoon not long ago, he drove along West Baltimore's Edmondson Avenue and saw neglected houses falling down and trash clotting the streets. He already knew he was dying and worried about what would be left behind.

"I don't want to go out of here," he said sadly, "with a sense that we've lost everything that we worked for."

He understood context. In a world in which white people held most of the political power, and most of the money and influence, it made no sense to believe in separation. Power came from making alliances and working at common purpose.

Three years ago, in the aftermath of political racism at War Memorial Plaza directed against Martin O'Malley's fledging campaign for mayor, Blount endorsed Carl Stokes but took the moment to make a larger point.

"We must have unity," he said. "Racial groups, different neighborhoods, black and white and every other color."

He'd seen too much evidence of the cruelty of separation. He'd served in a segregated U.S. Army where German prisoners of war had rights denied African-American servicemen. He'd graduated from all-black, underfunded Morgan State College, and become principal at the all-black Dunbar High.

But what good was it when these kids were treated like municipal afterthoughts? At Dunbar, the crowding was so bad, Blount had to schedule classes on stairways and in the auditorium. Kids spilled out of classrooms and into the halls.

He became part of that post-civil rights generation trying to change the old divisions. He goes to his grave two days after Zoe Piendak, who was Clarence Du Burns' administrative aide when Burns became Baltimore's first African-American mayor.

At Piendak's funeral last week, Mayor O'Malley talked about a memory that could have applied to Clarence Blount. O'Malley recalled a trip to Ireland a few years ago. Piendak and her husband, George, were there. O'Malley told them some stories about his ancestors' hard times and the journey to America.

It was a son of Ireland talking to a daughter of Greece. And, O'Malley recalled, there were tears rolling down Piendak's cheeks at the telling.

It is because we all share variations of the same story, somewhere along the line. America makes everybody pay a price for full membership, and when we finally get to enter the club, we're left with a choice: Carry the anger for the rest of our lives, or understand that all of us have family histories that break the heart.

We do not deny those stories, or forget them, but use them to understand each other and reach a common humanity and then build on it. This is what Clarence Blount did.

A few years ago, when blacks in South Carolina protested the Confederate flag flying over state buildings, some people in Annapolis wondered about the statue of Roger B. Taney outside the Maryland State House. It was Taney, the former Carroll County resident (and slave owner) who, as chief justice of the United States, championed the Dred Scott decision declaring black people were not citizens and were no different from a mule or a horse as pieces of property.

The decision divided the country and helped turn words into civil war. Now, when some suggested removing Taney's statue here, it was Blount who calmed the waters. When a couple of reporters approached him, imagining he'd express some easy outrage, Blount said:

"I dislike the Dred Scott decision, of course. But Taney was articulating the temper of those times into law. We have to bury the Civil War. We're the only nation on earth that keeps fighting it. Other nations have had civil wars, but they don't go back and fight them. We do."

His words, and his manner, could not have been more gentle. He hated what racism had done to America, but he loved the country -- and the idea of America -- so much that he chose grace instead of bitterness. That is his legacy, which should echo across the racial divide.

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