It’s easy to be pessimistic, given the pandemic, a gut-wrenching roll call of Black lives taken with impunity and scenes of Americans queuing for food.
But amid this despair, there are glimmers of hope: vaccines; the promise of an ambitious federal rescue package; and people, who, instead of giving into despair, galvanize to do good.
For Blacks, it’s been a particularly perilous time. Across the nation, though, events of recent years have motivated some in the white community to attempt to address the disparities that have so burdened Black citizens. These are “allies,” so categorized as part of a trending vocabulary of associated descriptors that include such words as “woke” and “allyship.”
Examples of allyship are evident right in our own backyard. I came upon a heart-warming example last year, when I interviewed retired psychologist and artist Jane Bunker. She established a scholarship program for Black college students at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.
Charnecia Cummings, a student at Santa Fe College in Gainsville, is a recipient of one of the Woodson Warriors scholarships. She is grateful and doesn’t miss the fact that the awards come at a time of intense racial tension.
“It gives us hope that not everybody in the world is bad. There are people who care. There are some people who don’t see color,” the sophomore, whose aspiration is to become a sports psychologist, observed.
She described Bunker as a fairy godmother dedicated to making sure the Woodson scholars make it through college: “She keeps in touch with us. She emails and calls.”
Demetrius Williams, majoring in business at the University of Miami, agrees. “Besides the money, it is the part that I really appreciate,” he said of the ongoing connection with Bunker and others involved with the program.
Bunker’s thinking when she first conceived the idea four years ago was to sell her artwork to raise the needed funds. Her luminous paintings of lilies have been auctioned or sold outright to raise money for the scholarships. The project has also drawn donations from individuals, foundations and organizations eager to support the cause.
As the Gulfport resident tells it, she grew up in a white community, went to white schools and realized as she grew older and moved away that she had been missing “a large part of my human family.” She learned that she had been ignorant – that’s her word — of the oppression suffered by African Americans.
“I’ve never been wounded because of the color of my eyes or the color of my skin,” she explained in a telephone call. “I’ve had every opportunity for the best education. It is the hope of our country.”
She emphasized her statement by quoting Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
As cries for racial justice reached a crescendo last year, philanthropists Kevin and Jeanne Milkey wondered how to help. They learned about the Woodson Warriors Scholarship program and made a $50,000 annual pledge over 10 years.
It’s the perfect avenue to address systemic racism, Milkey said of the scholarships. “We wanted to help African-American students attain their goals, become future leaders of this country, give them a seat at the table.”
The couple is aware of the financial and other difficulties that prevent some Black students from completing their education, which was the reason for their Milkey Family Foundation’s 10-year commitment. That pledge is likely to be extended.
And that will be good news. Black leaders view student debt as a racial justice issue. A recent NAACP report points to its “disproportionate impact” on Black student borrowers and their families.
As with everyone with whom I spoke, Jon Arterton and his husband, James Mack, emphasized that their efforts on behalf of the Black community are centered on a commitment to racial justice.
“We know about the history of this country and how shabbily nonwhites have been treated and I could say, as gay people, we understand a little bit about discrimination,” Arterton said. “But we can go out and pass, but a person of color can’t hide their color.”
Historic images of Black and white people walking arm-in-arm across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 convey “the message that we are all the same,” he added. “It behooves those who are privileged to lift up those who are less privileged.”
The couple moved to the area from Cape Cod, where they had been friends with Bunker and her husband. They loved St. Petersburg, but noticed “how segregated” it was.
“If you just drive around on the southside of town, you see how other people live and you read in the paper about the struggles and the poor schooling that happens a lot. And you just want to do what you can to make the world a better place,” Arterton said.
Bunker’s idea for college scholarships, Mack said, was a “wonderful way to make a difference in the lives of African-American youth.”
The couple, co-founders of the One City Chorus, brought their knowledge of promoting events, along with Mack’s expertise with technology and social media, to the project.
The scholarship program, begun in 2019, was able to award more than $40,000 in its first year and $43,000 last year, despite cancelation of the auction because of the pandemic. So far, 17 students have received awards of up to $5,000 a year. Friends of the museum Manitia Moultrie, Carol Motley and Dana Battle, who are African American, help to select recipients.
Larry Biddle, praised as a “fundraiser extraordinaire” by Bunker, is working to get sponsors for this year’s auction. “White allies don’t always know what to do to help,” he said, but the scholarships are “a grand way to do something significant and beneficial.”
Bunker, who is 75, and her husband, Mason Morfit, 78, a graphic designer and photographer, want the program to live on. “We want to eventually hire somebody to take it over,” she said.
Terri Lipsey-Scott, executive director of the Woodson Museum, is grateful to Bunker, whose friendship “blossomed to allyship” and who enlisted her husband and friends to help.
“Despite the horrid accounts of racism, there have always been white allies,” Lipsey-Scott said in an email. “There were those who fought against poll taxes; who provided refuge for runaway slaves; who funded historically Black colleges and universities and others who provided legal counsel to Blacks when wrongly accused.”
Those are just a few examples, she said.
The battle for racial justice seems never-ending, but along the way, allies could provide crucial reinforcements.
How to support the Woodson Warriors Scholarship Program
The second annual Woodson Warriors Scholarship Auction will take place virtually, 5 p.m., March 14. It will feature five major works by St. Petersburg artists Mark Aeling, Jane Bunker, Steven Kenny, Duncan McClellan, and Brenda McMahon. A silent auction will also be held. Bidding begins March 2 and closes on March 14. It will feature 20 additional paintings by Jane Bunker. Artwork for both the live and the silent auctions can be viewed at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum, 2240 Ninth Ave. S, by appointment, weekdays, 1 to 5 p.m., March 2 through 12. For appointments, email Jane Bunker at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (505) 577-8018. Go to BunkerScholarshipAuction.com for more information.