At an early age, I was shocked to learn just how prejudiced people are toward American blacks simply because of the color of our skin. As a child, I had a deep concern how I was perceived as a black American. I always wondered who I was and how I measured up to others. There used to be a lot of eye rolling, under-the-breath insults and general nastiness that I noticed was directed at me as a child. I was told point-blank, "You're not like us," and, "You're all animals." It was an eye opener as a child. It still irks me even today: Why would anyone ever want to determine how they interact with someone because of their race or the color of their skin? I think we all know that American blacks generally are a diligent, valuable, hardworking and well-educated group of people.
American blacks represent an ethnic identity and are now the second largest minority in the United States. This designation also refers to a group of people who have been in this country for as long as it has existed. However, through the persecution of slavery, the rigors of segregation and continuing, latent prejudice, American blacks are still searching for our true identity.
Just as children who were adopted tend to long for a true identity most of their lives, so is the plight of the American blacks. Stolen from our homeland and forced into enslavement in a new country, we were basically victims of identity theft. Although much progress has been made in the way of an American identity for us, the African-American values and culture are much different from those of westernized American blacks.
Other races and cultures seem ready to accept any other race or culture before they accept and embrace American blacks. I can't begin to tell you of the many times I have observed the hypocrisy of America when it comes to American blacks. This is really sad, because we all bleed the same color.
Despite all that, I can definitely say that the newer generation seems to be more accepting of what's going on today regarding race relations than my generation.
There are so many examples of racial discrimination that I experienced growing up in Atlantic City during the 1950s that I could cite. But instead, I choose to discuss the experiences I had with my support groups. Support groups helped to insulate me from feeling inferior. I was inspired by adults who excelled and were highly revered in our community. Because of these relationships, I never felt inferior or second-rate, because I never allowed myself to be anything less than who they were.
We have a history of 13 to 15 generations of black Americans living in America. That's approximately 400 years. In 1865, slaves were emancipated. In 1965, the Civil Rights Act was passed. So out of those 400 years, for only 46 of those years, American blacks by law were guaranteed their civil rights.
Growing up as a black child in Atlantic City during the 1950s was such a surreal experience for me, and this reality made me who I am today.
At some point in my life, I decided these experiences were either going to destroy me or make me stronger. My life - like any other young black boy growing up in a segregated America - became a struggle for survival. Of course, my decision was clear on what direction I should take. My brothers and I were always involved in sports, particularly baseball. We were always surrounded by prominent American blacks from our segregated community.
For example, I had the distinct honor of being around honorable men who didn't drink, curse or gamble. Those were the great Negro Baseball League All-Star John Henry "Pop" Lloyd and Art Dorrington, the first black American National Hockey League player. Juanita High, my high school English teacher, who was one of the best, if not the best, teacher I ever experienced. She taught me pride and dignity as a human being, not as a black person. Little League coach Randall Washington had a tremendous impact on me in my earlier years, too. My Babe Ruth coach, George Weekes Sr., owned a fleet of cabs, was the cofounder of Mutual Cabs and owned several gas stations. He taught me how to play baseball.
While attending Indiana Avenue Elementary School, James Usry was my principal. Usry became Atlantic City's first black mayor. Usry had a tremendous impact on me by the way he displayed his honor and integrity and how he carried himself. He was extremely proud to be a black American.
These people took the time to work with kids who were involved in sports to help develop their skills. They taught kids not to let color barriers impede their aspirations. These were some of my mentors.
Growing up during the 1950s in Atlantic City, segregation was accepted. Being mistreated because of the color of your skin was the norm. We constantly had to remind ourselves of this premise. We developed strategies to prove people wrong without appearing to be "uppity." You had to remain in your place; this was a constant reminder to you as a black American during the 1950s in Atlantic City. However, my parents always gave me a sense of dignity, freedom and hope.
I can't imagine what life would have been like during those times without my parents and my brothers. We needed each other in order to survive. Even though there was racial discrimination outside my home, in the everyday life in my home, race didn't matter. My family was like any other family. My family and home was my refuge.
If you are a black American, you have experienced some form of racism and racial discrimination in America. Atlantic City was no different back then, and I surmise that hints of racial discrimination still exist in the city I grew up in.
The city of Pleasantville's flag, "Pride in Diversity," is an example of us embracing race relations and the importance of recognizing all races. By being mayor of Pleasantville, I have the responsibility to take a leadership role in working to eliminate racism in my city and develop a community that values racial, religious and cultural differences among all residents. I intend to do this by implementing a process of healing race relations by utilizing dialogue to foster reconciliation through honest conversation, understanding and action.
Where do we go from here? As mayor of Pleasantville, I have an obligation to continue the legacies and the work my mentors and support group provided me, and give what I have learned to the next generation. They deserve the same support I was given.
Jesse L. Tweedle Sr., 63, was born in Atlantic City and moved to Pleasantville in 1971. He was elected to Pleasantville City Council in 2003 and became mayor in 2008. He is vice chairman of New Jersey's Urban Enterprise Zone Mayors Commission, a member of the state League of Municipalities' Education Foundation and is on the executive board of the African American Heritage Museum.