Sharon Jones wrote to ask if I’d provide some publicity on a big free event Sunday, Sept. 8 at Bethel AME Church at 815 W. 16th Street. I’m happy to oblige, in part for repayment of past kindness

The church is going to celebrate its 150th anniversary in style with a free jazz festival on the grounds from 2 to 8 p.m. Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum is the featured performer. There will also be food, kids activities and more. It’s free and the public is invited. For $20, you can get one of a limited number of VIP seats.

Bethel AME is a granddaddy of local churches. The tombstone of Nathan “Uncle Nase” Warren tells some of the story. He was born into slavery in 1812. He came to Arkansas with Robert Crittenden in 1819. He obtained his freedom in 1835 and then worked to win freedom of family members. He died in 1888. He was a confectioner and preacher who founded Bethel AME in 1863 after returning to Little Rock from Washington following emancipation.

Bethel played a small role in racial awareness in my life.

Much has been written this week about progress — or the lack — in race relations in the U.S. since the march on Washington 50 years ago.

I’d guess public opinion polling on the amount of that progress would differ along racial lines. Progress there has been, though it embarrasses me to recall how little I thought of the differences that existed in my own experience. In my childhood, water fountains and restrooms in my hometown still bore “white” and “colored” labels. When I graduated from high school in Lake Charles, La., in 1968, black people still took, by custom if not enforced law, the back seats on city buses. My high school class was the first to include black graduates. My college freshman classmates included the university’s first black underclassmen.

I lived in a world of white privilege. The black people I knew were domestic and yard workers, waiters, bartenders, cooks and laborers at businesses where I toiled in summer (me for pocket money; they for family livelihoods). The first black person I ever knew of professional stature was the one black teacher, a librarian, assigned to my high school when it desegregated. If there were black doctors and lawyers in my hometown, I didn’t know them.

Which brings me to Bethel AME. In 1973, I went to work as a general assignment reporter at the Arkansas Gazette. My schedule included work on Sunday, a day customarily given to newcomers, but a gift, really, to the lazy. Little happened that required coverage. But it was a time when national civil rights leaders would occasionally appear in the pulpits of black churches and NAACP meetings also were held there after church. I can’t remember the speaker now, but I recall being sent to Bethel in the first months of my career and feeling slightly uneasy as the only white face in the sanctuary. I’m not proud to admit that, but it’s true. I don’t think I gave a thought that day to how someone with dark pigment might have felt in a reverse situation and how, in 1973, they might have had legitimate cause for nervousness. Of course I was warmly received by the very proper and finely dressed people of Bethel.

I would come to know several members of Bethel over the years. I got plenty of schooling in Bethel church politics and history from a young member I once hired. Its long-time pastor, Rufus K. Young Sr., was a lion of the civil rights movement. Its members included Melba Pattillo Beals, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier and Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine; NAACP leader Daisy Bates; pioneer attorney Chris Mercer, and former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. 

Pretty good neighborhood for me to break my own personal color line.