Forty people met yesterday at St. Mark's Episcopal Church to begin the healing of wounds opened when a committee recommended that Collingwood Boulevard be renamed in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The racial harmony workshop, sponsored by the city's board of community relations, the Old West End Association, First Church of God, and St. Mark's, was designed to signal a new effort for African-Americans and whites to talk about racial unity.
When Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's Martin Luther King street renaming committee suggested three months ago that Collingwood should be renamed, the resulting controversy pitted neighbor against neighbor in the Old West End near where the street is.
The debate often took on racial overtones as African-Americans accused white opponents of insensitivity, and whites contended their historical claims were being viewed unjustly as racist.
“In monitoring the [public hearings], I noticed there was a division that caused me a lot of concern,” said Juanita Greene, executive director of the community relations board.
“During one of the hearings, a citizen asked for the board to help bring the community together. This is a part of accepting that responsibility and accepting our role.”
Little was mentioned yesterday about controversy, which took a backseat this month when the mayor's committee advocated that Toledo Express Airport be named for Dr. King.
Stephen McDonald and Crystal Harris, of the Team Building Institute of Toledo, tried to open up a dialogue at the workshop about race.
In one session, Ms. Harris asked the attendees to talk about names that were harmful to African-Americans. Blacks and whites ran through a series of racial epithets that at times left the conference room icily quiet for a couple of seconds.
The exercise surprised Elaine Mitchell, a third-grade teacher at Fulton Elementary School.
“I was amazed that the workshop was so open,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Usually in a workshop like this, you're really not in an honest environment. People did speak out and were made aware of the prejudices still here in Toledo.”
Jimmy Gaines, a member of the board of community relations as well as the street renaming committee, said when people felt they could speak openly, the dialogue proved useful.
“People were able to talk freely and not feel like they would be ridiculed for what they were saying,” Mr. Gaines said. “What's pleasing is that none of these people had to be here. No one made them come, but they cared enough about this issue to be here.”
Other attendees said the workshop should not be limited to the Old West End area.
“I think it's an excellent way for the people of all ethnic groups to come together and I think it should be done all over the city,” said Armiya Muhammed. “When people of different ethnic groups come together, we can start to come together for unity and understanding.”
Mary Clare Rietz, of St. Mark's, said the racial harmony workshop needs to continue in some form to help attendees building relationships with one another.
“When we build relationships, attitudes and actions change. We hope what we do here will have a ripple effect through the community,” she said.