Thursday, June 25, 2015

Best Advice

By the time I arrived in Durham, North Carolina to lead my fifth startup, the first that would be totally from scratch, I relied on some advice I was given when I first became a chief executive.

Don’t meet with the first 100 people who seek you out.”

This, it was explained, is because for the most part they will have an agenda.  The advice was also to wait to have introductions with the usual suspects until after I had time to seek out individuals whose roots or connections here preceded the community’s.

In Durham, that fortuitously turned out to be George Watts Hill, a banker whose grandfather and great grandfather were close associates with the city’s founders.

Another was Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a philanthropist and civil rights activist who was the great granddaughter of Washington Duke whose roots in what came to be called Durham stretched back to before the Revolutionary War.

The third was John Hope Franklin with whom I learned I had become familiar during a college course at BYU entitled The History of the South.  Its syllabus included Franklin’s book entitled, From Slavery to Freedom.

I didn’t make the connection until I saw a copy in a small stack of books on the corner of his desk as I entered Dr. Franklin's office at Duke.

He chuckled as I silently mouthed, “You’re that John Hope Franklin.”

“That had to be the third edition that you studied,” he explained, after asking about my background.  He noted that the one on the corner of his desk was a sixth edition.

But he was more interested in making sure I knew how important from the outset it was to correct the way airlines and other tenants truncated the name of the airport Durham jointly owned.

All three are gone now.  Mr. Hill died a little more than 36 months after we met.  Mary, now also gone, became a friend whom I would run into in restaurants we both favored long after I retired.

But it is John Hope who stayed in contact the most, calling or stopping me at events to fill in details that were relevant to my job of marketing Durham right up to his passing a few months before I retired.

I miss him and I still regularly reread or consult From Slavery to Freedom, which reads as fresh, objective and insightful today as when it was written nearly seven decades ago.

Of course, it has been updated with each new edition, now in its eighth.

I recommend it far more than any book written since then, including those that scholars have recommended in the wake of nine African Americans including a pastor and state legislature gunned down last week by a white supremacist in South Carolina.

Although he had been the target of discrimination, a form of racism, and the Supreme Court had relied, in part, on his research to strike down segregation, Dr. Franklin always made it extremely easy to ask questions and talk about race.

The importance of seeking out individuals such as these this when starting or assuming direction of a community’s destination marketing organization is that they can give you insight into a community’s most temporal values and traits including insights into its sense of place.

They also guided me to useful studies and reports conducted over time in addition to pointing out the flaws or oversights common in politicized histories of various developments.

These insights prepared me to better decipher the agendas of those who would be lining up at my door.

John Hope Franklin, shown in his 20s in the image with this essay, had first come here in 1943 when he was 28.

In 1947, he had been granted time to research and write From Slavery to Freedom by Dr. James E. Shepard, the founder in 1910 of what is now North Carolina Central University.

Shepard had migrated to Durham first as a pharmacist and was prominent in establishing Hayti, an African-American commercial area here during a period when segregation had been legalized by the Supreme Court.

To grasp the values that truly began to differentiate Durham is to understand the period from the end of the Civil War through this period in particular.

In From Slavery to Freedom, Franklin traces the earliest roots of slavery.  It wasn’t racists, per se, who imported the practice to America.  The earliest Americans sort of backed into it, first as indentured servitude.

This was a way people of all backgrounds with little means could secure transit to America in return for working out the terms of a contract while earning a stake of their own.

Some slaves were dropped off in Virginia who had been on a ship that had been intercepted and it was greed that first motivated those who seized on this as way to make land productive and profitable.

By the eve of the Civil War in 1860, there were 31.4 million Americans including 8 million white Southerners.

By then, 1% of the population still owned slaves.  Telling is that slave holding states were growing at a fraction of the pace in states and territories where it was banned.

About 200,000 slave owners in 1860 were small farmers with five or less slaves each and 88% of slave owners had fewer than 20.  Economic historians estimate that it took around 40-60 slaves for it to be profitable.

So the practice was in steep decline by 1860 but the South and the U.S. Congress had been held hostage for decades by what was less than 9,700 slave owners whose hubris then propelled the nation into a war that cost the lives of 620,000 Americans.

At the Battle of Gettysburg alone, five times the number of Americans were killed compared to the slave holders perpetuating the war.

When I read or hear someone today claim the issue was States’ Rights, I agree.  But make no mistake: in the words of Southern officials at the time, it was a State’s right to condone slavery.

Was everyone who fought for the South a racist?  No.  Duped?  Probably many or who were at the very least conflicted.  Just as many who fought for the North were probably somewhat conflicted when it came to race.

It had been the source of a moral struggle about what it meant to be American since before Independence.

In fact, according to experts, it was the proponents of slavery who transformed the Constitutional “right to bear arms” from what was intended as a collective right, to an individual one in order to defend against slave revolts.

Even more tragic than the Civil War was the 90 year struggle after the war to perpetuate white supremacy in the South.

Triangulating responses to various Gallup surveys, I estimated yesterday that the number of overt racists now is probably around 7% of the population.

But judging by the actions of several state legislatures, there may be several times that proportion of enablers. 

The percentage of racists and enablers in America was probably around 50% by the time segregation was banned, down from as many as 6-in-10 Americans in the 1930s.

Racism is a learned behavior.  Some of us are obviously still unlearning it.

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