Why the James Howe House in Montclair is so important (Town Square)
By MO SCHLICK
Special to Montclair Local
As Americans we inherit and pass along to each generation a culture sharply divided along the lines of race and ideology. Regardless of where we stand politically, we tend to take this division as an immutable fact of American life – as if we don’t really expect it to change.
Racial inequality we shall have with us always. Even the fiercest warriors for social justice have been known to sigh: maybe not in my lifetime. … We’ll trust time to magically handle what we never seem to entrust to ourselves – citizen-to-citizen racial reconciliation.
But what if this generation of Americans could be the first to reimagine what racial reconciliation means today? What if racial reconciliation was not some imagined dream state, but a verb – an interactive process communities could experience together as a choice?
I believe we can paint a more realistic way forward with practical actions regular citizens can take together aimed at telling the entire truth of our collective American past.
Just as social justice activists over the past several years have protested to finally remove many racist monuments to the Confederacy, communities of citizens throughout the country can complete that work through restoring the histories and landmarks of enslaved and indigenous peoples.
Sound unrealistic? There are communities across the country that have independently begun this work. I belong to one such community in Montclair that galvanized around the purchase and preservation of a historic 18th-century home first owned by a formerly enslaved man, James Howe.
The Friends of the Howe House is a multiracial coalition of nonprofit civic and religious organizations and ordinary citizens that formed as a rapid response fundraising team to prevent the home’s sale to investors. Having successfully secured the home, our group continues to meet regularly to conduct research and fundraise for the physical restoration of the property.
We are driven by a common commitment to preventing the erasure of African American history in our community and beyond. Although the group was not formed for the express purpose of racial reconciliation, the project has evolved into a cross between an immersive learning project and a historic cold case that connects its diverse participants to a shared American past.
Working side by side to piece together historical records of the time, the group is educating itself while preparing to open the home and share its work with the larger community.
My efforts to support the Howe House are rooted in personal growth for myself and for my family. It shrinks the distance between knowing what's right and doing what's right. I cannot think of a more important value to reinforce with my own 11-year-old son. I am also proud that our small community has the opportunity to model this for the country.
So the question is, can the Friends of the Howe House template work in other communities? The answer is yes. Our group is only one of many groups around the country already engaged in similar work. Following these examples, communities can identify local projects and physically go about the work of rehumanizing enslaved and indigenous peoples by restoring their histories and the dignity that traditional Euro-centric narratives have denied them for too long.
In so doing, communities can contribute to racial reconciliation right where they live by resurrecting a more accurate and complete story that honors all Americans.
To some this may sound like cockeyed optimism. To that, I would say that racial pessimism – not optimism – has led us to this latest chapter of American peril. In fact, American optimism and collective action have been the quiet undercurrents at work throughout our history, bringing us back from the brink of destruction every time.
With a major resurgence of white supremacy in our political discourse and its renewed acceptance within our institutions, only pro-active and intentional action can counter it. Racial reconciliation redefined will be challenging, but with faith and resolve I believe it’s doable.
The first step is the courage to believe and the willingness of well-meaning people to do more than dream.
To learn more about friends of the James Howe House and support its efforts please visit friendsofthehowehouse.org.
Mo Schlick is a leadership development executive and serves on the Friends of the Howe House Steering Committee.