"On race and friendship" by Tim Anderson

I consider myself fortunate to have met Erin Goseer Mitchell 20 years ago. Erin grew up in Fitzgerald. Her parents, Stanley and Mable Goseer, were respected educators in the community. Mr. Goseer was the principal of Monitor Elementary and High School for many years. I didn’t know him, but I met Mable Goseer soon after coming to work here at the newspaper, and she was a gracious southern lady.

Erin and I have had a somewhat unlikely friendship. She has lived in Chicago for more than 40 years, but until her mother died a few years ago, she came home to Fitzgerald, particularly for Grand Homecoming. Erin is a lovely 81-year-old African American woman. She grew up in the segregated South, as I did. I had the advantage of dealing with integration in my final years of school. She did not. She graduated from Spelman College, arguably the finest black women’s college in the country. She too was an educator for nearly 40 years.

Erin has written two autobiographical books. The first one was written about ten years ago — “Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday.” Erin is a storyteller of the first order. Her writing is poignant and personal, sometimes even painful. She uses her short stories to tell her life’s story. In her more recent book, “Colored to Black; A Bittersweet Journey” she tells of an experience a few years ago of doing a book reading at the Fitzgerald Ben Hill County Library. Because of her race, Erin had not been allowed into the old Carnegie Library as a child. In her “separate but equal” world, she says she read all of the books that interested her in the Monitor school library. All were second-hand books from the white schools in Fitzgerald. After a few book readings, Librarian Sandy Hester issued Erin her first Fitzgerald library card — 60 years late.

I had written an editorial following our Centennial Celebration in 1996. Erin saw the editorial and called to find out who TCA (my initials) was. She wrote a response to the editorial and called to “meet” me over the phone from Chicago. We had a pleasant chat and I invited her to stop by the office the next time she was in town. She did and a rich friendship was born. It was my privilege to publish some of Erin’s early stories in our newspaper.

Last week, Erin was in town to close out the sale of her mother’s house. Sherri Butler, Librarian Martha Powers Jones and Cam Jordan arranged for her to do a book signing for her new book, “From Colored to Black: A Bittersweet Journey,” at the Grand Conference Center. More than 100 attended. Becky and I sat behind a row of Brenda Whitley’s FHS English students. They were spellbound, listening to Erin’s accounts of things about which they could have no knowledge. It was a special evening for all of us, including Erin.

Back in the early days of our friendship, we talked about the Fitzgerald of her childhood. She asked me if I had always lived in Fitzgerald. I told her about moving here in 1967 for my last year of high school. About the early days of school integration here. I told her my father had been pastor at Central United Methodist Church. She said that in the summers of her childhood, her father was a painter, and that he had painted my church. “But he never let me go inside,” she said. I asked her if she’d like to visit the church, and when she said she would, we drove down to tour the church. I told her she would be welcome to come any Sunday to worship. She never took me up on that, but last week she came to Wednesday Night Supper with Cam and Anne Jordan. And she was welcomed. That made me happy.

Readers may be wondering what the point of all this is. I’m not sure myself, but maybe it’s this. Everywhere in the world race is an issue. Sometimes it’s a violent issue. Sometimes it creeps into our lives and makes a home in spite of ourselves. We all have prejudices. On occasion I hear a comment from someone about the state of race relations in Fitzgerald. Usually the comments revolve around what people of another race are not doing that they should do, or are doing that they shouldn’t. I’ve never found that sort of comment remotely helpful. I didn’t have black friends growing up. Not because I didn’t want any, but just that the segregated society made it more difficult. My friends were the kids with whom I went to church or school. White kids. Until I was in the 10th grade at Savannah High School, which had integrated. Even then, there was no rush by blacks or whites to make friends with kids from other races.

So 50 years later, I can see progress. I don’t know much, but I’ve learned a few things in my life. One is that the Golden Rule, which is basically to treat people the way you want to be treated, is still the best way to live, as is Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Knowing that is one thing. The actual doing it takes lots of effort by everyone. Maybe more effort on all of our parts could erase the lingering race issues we point to from time to time. I think that’s why Erin’s friendship is so special to me. It exists because we both made the effort to have one. Erin would be the first to admit that she came to the friendship with baggage of her own, as did I. But there is a dignity about Erin that is all too rare. In a lesser person it would appear to be pride, but not in her. She is a product of a proud, nurturing black middle class, that loved and adored its children as their great treasure. Of parents who raised her right, as we used to say.

It moves me immensely that Erin mentions our friendship in her second book. She talks about the fact that when she first met me, I was a rather typical white man to her. Not someone around whom she would let down her guard. I’ve never been more pleased by anything said about me than Erin’s words: “This was the beginning of what grew into a friendship of acceptance and respect. . .” That has been a good thing for both of us, and it has been my honor to get to know a person of Erin’s impeccable character. For a real treat, pick up Erin’s new book at the Blue and Gray Museum.

Tim Anderson
The Herald-Leader
August 31, 2016


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