Touching moments!

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First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one to speak out for me.” – The Rev. Martin Niemöller

My what a pair of remarkable 90 minute events separated by 785 miles, three states and seven years.

Although the number of attendees were vastly different – well over 100 in the first one in a large auditorium in Dallas in 2008, and five of us in a museum in Chattanooga last week – the parallel reactions to both were riveting. And both were “touching,” figuratively and literally, touching. 

Now since it’s freshest in my mind I’ll start with the one last week, on July 23rd.

Occasioned by a need to move from watching TV about the senseless tragedy where five of our military’s finest were gunned down at a military recruiting center there, our journey to Chattanooga was a strong desire to be there with the locals, to connect with them through our shared sorrow, our shared humanity, to participate in a healing community. So we made the two-hour drive into the largely unknown.

Once there, the images of what we saw are etched forever in our memories; the storefront windows now boarded up with plywood, the gaggle of black and white people, predictably somber folks, drenched in sweat as a result of a searing Tennessee heat and humidity. Keeping us and flashing cameras at bay was a string of yellow crime scene tape that’s become all too familiar in violent America these days.

Now except for an occasional one that appeared on the license plate of a vehicle passing by, the confederate flag was nowhere to be found among a sea of red, white and blue American flags, flowers of the same colors and tee shirts blaring out in large letters the words, “Chattanooga Strong.”

The entire scene had a certain feel to it, a Chattanooga “can’t put my finger on it” vibe like the NYC one I felt standing on that sidewalk a city block away from what was left of the Twin Towers the week after 9/11.

My hands were among the scores of other black, brown and white ones that reached over the rope surrounding the mosaic of flowers, red, white and blue flags, hand written notes, and touched pictures of the five young men – David Wyatt, Skip Wells, Thomas Sullivan, Randall Smith and Carson Holmquist, names worthy of mention here – who had their lives snuffed out by a vile madman whose name is unworthy of mention here.

Yes, I touched their pictures. I needed to touch those pictures of five young people I’ve never actually seen and now will never get a chance to see.

And we will never forget.

An hour later the five of us – my wife, youngest son, sister and brother in law – walked into the lobby of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center located in an area once dubbed as the city’s black enterprise zone of history and culture. The host, a lovely Ms. Jennings, greeted us there.

The center, affectionately referred to as “The Bessie,” is currently exhibiting a powerful display featuring the life of Roland Hayes, opera star and son of a slave who grew up in Chattanooga and rose to international stardom and performed at Carnegie Hall, the Boston Symphony and privately for King George of England. (I encourage you to see that exhibit or, short of that, at least Google Roland Hayes if you’ve never heard of him.)

We moved through the Hayes exhibit, proceeded down a corridor, turned the corner and immediately encountered an official “bill of sale” in the amount of $2500 for two male slaves. Imagine that folks, two human beings sold off …for $1250 apiece. It jarred my sensibilities and upset my stomach. I stared straight ahead not wanting the rest of my entourage to see the tears welling in my eyes. Unadulterated painful realities have a way of doing that to you.

Now that nauseating “bill of sale,” once white now yellowed by age around its perimeter is attached to a wall. Directly below it is a faded black leather slave harness with steel chains extending out from either side. And adjacent to that is a rusted steel ankle bracelet.

With my eyes glued to the “bill of sale,” I touched that cold steel ankle bracelet while imagining the reality of it rubbing up against – and scraping raw – black flesh sun-darkened by hours in hot cotton fields. We left the museum and, each of us lost in our thoughts, headed out to dinner and the trip back home.

And we will never forget.

Let’s rewind back to year 2008 to Dallas. As 1 p.m. neared, many headed to the exits of a jam packed auditorium having just experienced a powerful “Lessons from Holocaust Survivors” session thanks in large part to the Dallas Holocaust Museum featuring panelists William (now deceased) and Rosalie Schiff, two Jewish people from Poland who survived six different slave and concentration camps and somehow managed to survive an Auschwitz death camp.

It was clear by the way they stole smiling glances at each other on stage that the magic of their love for each other far superseded the pain, suffering and unimaginable physical brutality they endured. The graphic details of their stories, William’s in particular, were spellbinding. Across the auditorium you could hear the gasps, the whimpers, and see out of the corner of your eye Kleenex tissues dabbing away at moistened cheeks.

Those of us who remained were invited to the front of the auditorium to chat with the Schiffs and get a closer look at the black and white pictures of them many years earlier on the table below the stage.

And when Mr. Schiff peeled back his shirtsleeve and exposed the concentration camp brand seared into his bony forearm by the Nazis, several sobbed, others took a few steps back and some of us reached out and touched it for a few seconds that felt more like an eternity.

So to the victims of the Chattanooga massacre ….the slaves who bore that harness and steel chain…the Holocaust survivors… know that you touched us and know that you gave us a way to touch you…hence forth and forever more!.

And we will never, ever forget! 

© Terry Howard is a writer, trainer and storyteller with DiversityWealth and a contributing writer for the Chattanooga News Chronicle. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com

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