NEW ALBANY — Race is a topic that many prefer to avoid. But local leaders are hoping to create change within the community by facilitating honest dialogues about African-American history, as well as racial divisions that continue to exist today.
The Frazier History Museum presented a discussion Thursday at New Albany's Second Baptist Church to observe the 400th anniversary of the first documented slaves to land in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 and to kick off Simmons College of Kentucky's "40 Days of Prayer for the Liberation of American Descendants of Slavery," an interfaith initiative that started Friday. The event was part of the Frazier's series called "Let's Talk: Bridging the Divide," and it included a panel discussion by leaders from Louisville's Simmons College on issues of racial inequality.
The national 40 Days of Prayer, which runs until Aug. 20, is an initiative that is currently being observed by religious organizations across the country. It was started by Simmons College's Angela Project to recognize the history of slavery and racial injustice in America.
The 40 Days of Prayer includes daily readings from a prayer book published by the college, which includes prayers, reflections and information on the enslavement and oppression of African Americans throughout country's history. On Aug. 20, churches are invited to present commemoration ceremonies to observe the date when the first documented slaves landed in Jamestown.
Kevin Cosby, president of Simmons College and senior pastor at St. Stephen Baptist Church in Louisville, was one of the panelists at Thursday's discussion. During the conversation, he called for greater unity and equity, saying whether one's ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, "we're on the same ship."
He hopes that the 40 Days of Prayer will bring communities of various races and denominations together to make a difference.
"You see that blacks are in one community and whites are in another," Cosby said. "You see that blacks are in one church and whites are in another church. Blacks everywhere across the country are at the bottom of all things good and the top of all things bad ... we have to do something intentionally to fix it."
One of the main focuses of the conversation included racial disparities in wealth and opportunity. According to the Federal Reserve Board, the typical black family has only 1/10 of the wealth of the typical white family.
Cosby said it is important to open up dialogues about the issue of race, as well as moving beyond dialogue to form policies that address the issues.
"Because of our ignorance, we continue to have a racial problem and racial issues, and they will not be resolved until we can have a grown-up conversation about race," Cosby said. "The conversation has already been happening. People are like, 'why are are we talking about this, I thought we had fixed race?' If you are in your own little silo, maybe we've fixed race, because it does not affect you. But for those who are still trying to overcome centuries of oppression and the absence of equal opportunity, it is something that is with us every day."
The Rev. LeRoy Marshall, pastor at Second Baptist Church, said the New Albany church is one of the congregations participating in the 40 Days of Prayer, and he believes the reflections and conversations spurred by the initiative will help bring communities closer together.
"We made a little progress tonight," he said. "I think a little progress and a little progress and a little progress will get us where we need to be."
Second Baptist Church, also known as Town Clock Church, is known for its involvement with the Underground Railroad, and Thursday's event included a history of the church's role in helping freedom seekers who escaped from slavery. Marshall said he wants the church to be a meeting place or rallying place for discussions on issues of race.
Frank Smith Jr., executive vice president of Simmons College and founding senior pastor of Christ's Church for Our Community in Louisville, was also a speaker at Thursday's event. He said the 40 Days of Prayer initiative is a way for communities to reflect upon issues of racial injustice and divisions that African Americans have faced throughout American history and to understand how that history continues to affect African Americans today.
"We really believe this is a very important issue," he said. "This is not an issue that blacks created, but we are calling prayer to God to help us — help us as a people, help us as the nation we helped to build — to find equity."
Cheri Mills, church administrator at St. Stephen Baptist Church, is the author of the "40 Days of Prayer" book. She said the book focuses on the humanity of those who were enslaved and oppressed throughout American history, and it features stories on those who fled the atrocities of slavery through the Underground Railroad.
She hopes both the prayers and conversations inspired by the national initiative will make a difference within communities.
"It's going to be a way to bring forth racial reconciliation," she said. "Whites and blacks are participating in it, different denominations are participating in it, so it's already bringing us together. I think it would be a time for us all to be educated and to open our eyes."