FINDLAY - Silas Larsen, a white man whose wife is black, recalled one of his first experiences in Findlay - a trip to the supermarket shortly after the couple moved here six years ago.
As he was pulling up to pick up his wife, a woman asked if he was her husband. When his wife replied yes, the woman said, "We don't believe in that around here," Mr. Larsen said.
He and dozens of other Findlay residents last night shared their experiences - good and bad - in this city that many people felt was unfairly maligned in a recent Washington Post article that focused on how some people have bought into inaccurate rumors about Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential hopeful.
Darnell Parker, president of Findlay's Black Heritage Library and Multicultural Center, said it wasn't the first such forum the library has sponsored, but it easily was the most well-attended. More than 100 people packed into City Council chambers to take part and to listen.
Mr. Larsen, for his part, said he was proud to be an American, but hoped his children and grandchildren would grow up in an America that was not degraded by prejudice.
"I want more, and if this conversation today only becomes just a conversation and you walk out of here and go back to the way you've been thinking for years, then shame on you," he said.
Nina Parker, who founded the Black Heritage Library in Findlay in 1982, said the Washington Post article and the reaction it provoked pointed up the need for last night's gathering.
"We have always been proactive in providing important and necessary services for the community thusly today, we the people will deal with the prevalent issue of all that talk stemming around the article in the Washington Post and the prevalent issue of race which indicated that Findlay, Ohio was a typical small town - small-minded, misinformed, a bigoted, racist community," she said.
"The numerous letters to the editor have shown expressions of anger, disbelief, surprise or not, shame, and disappointment. Some individuals expressed that the article was in most part correct, but others have said the article was totally inaccurate."
To launch the discussion, she posed the question: What are your personal perceptions and experiences about the Findlay community and your perceptions regarding the Washington Post article?
Leasha Dixson, a black woman who grew up in Chicago and has traveled the world with the U.S. Army, said she found the Post article offensive.
"I am happy to live in Findlay. I haven't encountered anything I can't deal with," she said. "That Washington Post article was insulting to me as a black person and insulting to me as an American."
Most there said they know racism in some form exists in all communities, though it's sometimes intensified in towns that are predominately white.
"If you don't know someone of another color or race, it's real easy to buy into the lies that are being told," said Elaine Eyre, an area resident for just a year.
Brian Russell, a lifelong resident, said healthy attitudes about racial diversity begin at home.
He encouraged those in attendance to not laugh at racial jokes, to not to pass on stereotypes and prejudice to their children.
Mrs. Parker thanked Mayor Pete Sehnert for sending an invitation to Mr. Obama to come to Findlay for a community meeting, but she said last night was not about the election.
"This isn't about politics. This is about people," she said. "This is about understanding."
Another town hall meeting on cultural diversity is scheduled for Aug. 30 at the University of Findlay.
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