Man gives black perspective to history of Gettysburg
The most important thing that Ronald Bailey has is a story.
"This story has to be told from the black perspective," Bailey said at this month's meeting of the Gettysburg NAACP. "Nobody can define me but me."
From his pile of weighty books and 60 years of his own life experiences, Bailey has helped to gather the history of the black community in Gettysburg and has guarded it as his prized possession, eager to share, but careful to protect it.
In an effort to share these stories with as many people as possible, Bailey has headed a movement to create the Gettysburg Black History Museum, starting with a series of educational walking tours last spring.
"The history of this country needs a strong rewrite," Bailey said. "And now that we have a voice we can speak out about these things that happened before we had a voice."
Bailey dreams of the museum as more than just a brick-and-mortar building, but as an educational center where visitors can learn of the prosperous black community that once lived in Gettysburg and feel free to hold open conversations about race relations, discrimination and history. At the NAACP meeting, Bailey initiated one of those conversations, inviting residents to share their own stories and thoughts on the subject. They spoke of dirty looks, rude comments, excessive searches in the airport and abuse by law-enforcement officers.
"It feels like being sexually violated," Bailey said. "It's humiliating."
And while the group acknowledged that times are changing and that many of the most egregious discriminatory practices have ended, the pain still exists and influences modern society.
"We need to have seminars, real conversations," said Mary Alice Nutter, who attended the meeting. "We've got to sit down and look into each other's eyes and feel and cry."
That is the only way to truly understand all sides of the story, suggested Nutter.
Bailey is also a big supporter of this kind of open communication. He first recognized its effectiveness while living in South Africa, a country that, like the United States, operated under a system of legally imposed racial inequality for decades.
Under a system of apartheid that lasted throughout the second half of the 20th century, blacks in South Africa were stripped of their citizenship, forced into segregation and required to carry identification passes whenever they traveled. When protests against the system broke out in the 1980s, thousands of people were imprisoned without trial or were given with life sentences. And yet, said Bailey, after all of that, Nelson Mandela, the hero of the anti-apartheid movement and eventual president of South Africa, forgave his aggressors.
"But the South Africans acknowledged that they were wrong," Bailey said. "That is what laid the groundwork for them to heal."
America never did that, Bailey said, pointing to those that still say that slavery and the Civil War were not about racism.
"People still tell me that they heard slavery wasn't so bad, well their opinion is not worth my reality," said Bailey, who said he can recall former slaves among his oldest relatives as a boy.
For Bailey, the important thing is just to tell the truth, because without it America cannot correct its mistakes and move on.
"I know people say that slavery is old and over with and that I should stop talking about it," he said. "But there is still a legacy alive because of it. Our poverty patterns still date back to the horrors of slavery."
In telling his own stories, and those of other blacks who lived in Gettysburg from the 19th century onward, Bailey hopes to expose others to the realities of the black experience in a way that they have never seen before.
"If it doesn't happen to you, you don't think that it happens to anybody," Bailey said.
This idea first dawned on Bailey while he was living in South Africa and was asked to deliver a speech in Zambia, an almost entirely black nation.
He decided to bring a white South African friend along with him for the trip, and by the end was shocked to discover that his friend was having a miserable time.
"He told me that they were discriminating against him," Bailey said. "And I said, 'I don't see it.'"
Bailey's friend then told him that he had been excessively searched at the airport and had been treated poorly ever since they first arrived in Zambia.
"Well I had never experienced that," Bailey said. "It had always been the other way around."
Bailey now uses that story to better understand his own experiences with racism in America and to recognize that most people do not understand that something is a problem until it happens to them.
"People just have to listen," Bailey said.
To join the Gettysburg NAACP, email president Sara Gondwe at firstname.lastname@example.org.