Black History Month?

African-Americans remain invisible in Central New York.

Editor’s note: Voices is a weekly column that provides a platform for Central New Yorkers to comment about the issues of the day. If you’d like to submit a column, email Larry Dietrich at [email protected]

It’s Black History Month, and among the proclamations and public displays of African-American awareness there’s a crisis in the black community of Syracuse. We have more African-Americans in elective office than ever, and yet our most precious institutions have died or are on life support.

Dunbar Center, the original “settlement house,” was host to generations of inner-city residents providing community-based programming, advocacy for minority adoption and safe recreation for a neighborhood full of children. As African-American families migrated to Syracuse, the first stop was Dunbar Center. As a settlement house, Dunbar should have been on the front lines welcoming African immigrants to Syracuse, just as the organization opened its doors welcoming the influx of blacks coming to Syracuse drawn here by plentiful factory jobs.

There are very few African-Americans over 40 who don’t have a Dunbar experience. Now its doors have been abruptly shut, perhaps closed forever. Leaders of other organizations have talked about “taking over” Dunbar’s facility, but no one has talked about our local community and support for Dunbar’s core mission and how to keep the organization viable.

There are those who wax nostalgically about the former president, Merriette Pollard, and how she was able to bring in money and support unmatched since her departure. Now, there’s whining about needing someone from “another place” to come in and run the now-closed facility.

For those living within the South Side’s “food desert,” it came as a shock when the much ballyhooed Southside Food Coop shuttered its doors without notice. The board of directors apparently failed in their stewardship of the needed store, offering inner-city residents fresh fruit and vegetables, among other products. We’ve heard their cries for help.

How is it that as a community we can’t operate a simple store in the heart of the black community? How is it that a family can come here from another country, open a store with a Coca-Cola cooler, a lottery machine and a steady supply of blunts and individually sold cigarettes called “loosies”? Somebody’s making money in the most challenged real estate in Syracuse. I’ve heard muttered excuses such as, “They give foreigners free money, and they don’t have to pay taxes.”

What the what?

There’s no excuse for the fact that our most respected institutions are “black history” because they don’t exist any longer. The Syracuse/Onondaga County Urban League created an urban network connecting opportunities to the jobless by meeting with local manufacturers, large multinational corporations anyone who could provide employment opportunities for African-Americans and urbanized citizens. Businesses sent their employment listings directly to the Urban League. You could go to there and get connected to those who were looking for diversity in their workforces.

The NAACP is the only civil rights organization left to speak up if anything happens that impacts those without voice or recognized stature. (Crickets chirping.)

As a cost-cutting measure, Onondaga County killed the county Human Rights Commission that was empowered to investigate cases of bias. There is no governmental agency to look out for bias that occurs today. It’s not just African-Americans; it’s human rights for the Onondaga Nation and their dismissed land claim, it’s the growing Hispanic community, the new American who hasn’t mastered the English language. There was a place to go to file a complaint; you were guaranteed at least a hearing.

In our local media, as African-Americans become a larger percentage of the Syracuse population, you wouldn’t know it if you saw who brings you the news. We, the African-Americans, are invisible in Syracuse, written about, viewed, seen but not touched, represented by more elected black leaders than ever. Beyond a group photo of the Common Council and the Syracuse University basketball team, you’d think this were a small town in Maine.

Happy Black History Month: You’re black, and you’re history.

Ken Jackson is an award-winning columnist based in Syracuse. You can read his blog HERE 


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