Optimism held for race relations

When Virginia Day, who is black, was growing up on Washington Avenue decades ago, she had a white neighbor, Mr. Wahl, who owned a grocery store nearby.

For the birthday they shared in November, Mr. Wahl would make up a box of candy for Virginia, while Virginia’s mother would bake a loaf of bread or cinnamon rolls for Mr. Wahl.

The congenial connection between the races that this exchange epitomized was normal then in Altoona, and can be normal again, according to Day, who spoke with a Mirror reporter Saturday at the 20th annual African-American Heritage Festival at Penn State Altoona.

But for blacks who are new to this area – especially those who come from neighborhoods in big cities where they were in the overwhelming majority – it might require a little patience prior to acceptance, she said.

“You have to come with a positive attitude, and not be offended about things that just don’t happen right away,” Day said. “If you’re persistent and steady and keep focused,” acceptance will come, she said.

In the old days here, families of different races got to know each other naturally, and it wasn’t a problem, she said.

It’s just different when people are new, she said.

She didn’t answer directly when asked whether it’s wrong for whites here to withhold their acceptance until they get to know blacks better.

Instead she spoke disapprovingly of “this instant society” and the impatience that results.

But ultimately, she’s optimistic about race relations here, she said.

The presence of many whites at the festival, including many who mingled with blacks, seems to bear out her optimism.

Dave Kimmel, a white employee of Penn State Altoona who grew up in the Knickerbocker neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s, recalls a peaceful dynamic between the races similar to the one Day observed in Fifth Ward.

It’s something people from big cities may take a while to understand when they come here, he said.

But it’s something that is being replicated at Penn State Altoona, he believes.

“I just love seeing the atmosphere here,” he said.

There’s occasional friction, but there are “tremendous relationships” – especially within organizations and clubs, he said.

He first experienced those kinds of connections as an undergraduate at Penn State University Park in 1962, when a fellow student invited him to join the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity.

He made the visit as a courtesy, being indisposed to join any fraternity, he said.

But when he entered the fraternity house and saw a mix of races and ethnicities, it disarmed and charmed him, and he joined.

He liked it so much that he started a chapter at Penn State Altoona, after becoming an employee there.

Pastor Gary Jones of New Creation in Christ Ministry in Altoona, who was helping sell fish dinners at the festival as a fundraiser, agreed with Day that it can be difficult for blacks coming here from big cities.

But that may be more because they feel the need to be on the defensive rather than because they’re made to feel unwelcome, according to Jones.

He came here five years ago from rural Seaford, Del., where he experienced plenty of racism, he said.

But neither he nor his children have experienced it here, he said.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

It was likewise “wonderful” to see blacks and whites getting along at the festival, he said.

The festival – a brainchild of Pastor Paul Johnson, now of 18th Street Community Church – began at Garfield Park two decades ago with half a dozen vendors, according to Day and her nephew, the only chairman the event has ever had, Will Lightner.

They held it on the bare dirt of the baseball field, Lightner said.

“We had to start somewhere,” Day said.