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I was leaving a members-only meeting at From the Heart Church Ministries in Suitland, Maryland last Wednesday night when I noticed that my mother, Mrs. Martha Brownlee, had called me from Augusta, Georgia while my cell phone was turned off.
When I returned her call en route home, she asked had I heard from Mary Linebarger, my first-cousin who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama I casually replied that I had spoken to Mary and her husband, Ronnie, a few weeks ago and Mama interrupted, "You haven't heard, have you?" I replied, "Heard what, Mama?" She hastily said, "A tornado has hit Tuscaloosa and a lot of people are dead. George, our city is gone."
I quickly promised to place a call to Mary on her cell phone and get back to Mama. When I dialed Mary, a shaken voice came on the phone. My cousin lives less than a half-mile from MacFarland Mall, which was leveled by the tornado. A nearby CVS store was destroyed. Krispy Kreme? Gone. So were Steak-out, Big Lots, and Full Moon Barbecue.
"I've never been so scared in my life," she told me. "It sounded like a train was coming through. It knocked out our windows, put holes in the roof and broke the glass out of my car and Ronnie's new truck in the yard. But we are safe." She assured me that other cousins on my father's side were also accounted for. Most of the relatives on my mother's side had long ago migrated to Johnson City, Tennessee. But, some children of three of my deceased uncle--Frank, Albert, and Percy Harris--still live in Tuscaloosa.
Initially, I was under the impression that all of my relatives were safe. That only lasted until the next day, when Mama called to tell me that two distant cousins had been killed by the tornado. I called my cousin, Dosha, in Johnson City, and she and her sister, Alberta, placed me on speakerphone to let me know that two great-grandchildren of their sister, Carolyn, had died.
When I slowly and reluctantly read the list of 39 victims on The Tuscaloosa News Website on Sunday, I had read 28 names before coming to the name of Cedria Harris, 8 years old. Her body was found behind Fire Station #4. Next on the list and also recovered from behind the fire station was her brother, Michael Bowers, age 3.
I knew that as the counting continued that there would be someone that I knew on that list of victims. But, I had no idea it would be two of my relatives who lived in Rosedale Court on the city's East Side. Growing up under segregation, Greensboro Avenue, near downtown, was the residential marker that separated most Blacks from Whites. There were pockets of African-Americans east of Greensboro Avenue, mostly in the South Side area or Alberta City. But, for the most part, Blacks lived on the West Side.
To prevent Whites and Blacks from living together, there were two housing projects--McKenzie Court, for Blacks, on the West side of town and Rosedale Court, for Whites, on the East end of town, not far from the University of Alabama. Each was constructed from identical building plans. Similarly, Druid High School, my alma mater, enjoyed the same layout as the all-White Tuscaloosa High School, on the other side of town.
Once the "White" and "Colored" signs came down in Tuscaloosa, Blacks began moving to any section of town they wanted to live, including formerly all-White Rosedale Court, where my two young cousins met their tragic death.
The erosion of racial barriers is evidenced by the known deaths, most of which took place on the east side of town. ,Of the 39 identified as dead--the number will certainly grow over the next few weeks--19 of the victims were African-Americans. The tornado was an equal opportunity killer.
Another cousin lost a home and yet another one, who worked at KFC, was walking to her car when co-workers called her back into the store because of the tornado warning. The employees huddled in a cooler as most of the store and my cousin's car were swept away.
Unlike the case with Hurricane Katrina, the federal government has moved quickly to assist those who escaped with only the clothing on their backs. A list of agencies, such as the United Way of West Alabama and the American Red Cross, have established special accounts to accept donations from the public. A guestbook has been created to leave words of comfort for the survivors.
After seeing the footage of the tornado damage, I called former Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele, Jr., a childhood friend from Tuscaloosa, who now lives in Atlanta, to brainstorm about what we could do to help our hometown.
When I suggested raising money, Charles quickly reminded me of the pitfalls associated with raising and distributing money, even for a good cause. Especially for a good cause. Charles recounted the controversy we witnessed up close after money had been collected for the Jena 6 defendants in Louisiana. The last thing we want is to become involved in a controversy over money that should being going to the victims' families.
Instead of appealing for money, we are in the process of requesting donations of food and clothes from individuals and major corporations. We are also placing calls to radio personalities we know to enlist their support. Once we work out the details, I will place updates on my Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as in my weekly newsletter, The Curry Report.
It was difficult to watch from a distance the natural disasters in Haiti and Japan. It is even tougher to watch familiar buildings and homes in my hometown reduced to rubble. Add two young cousins to the mix and this becomes really personal.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him atwww.twitter.com/currygeorge.