“Slave quarters and the wine cellar are in the basement.” His statement was a fact. He said it so nonchalantly, looking right into my eyes. I’m not sure he thought anything about what he had just told me, but for me, as a black woman living in the United States, his statement sat so heavy, like oppression right on my shoulders.
Fifteen minutes later, my two-year old son and I finished our self-tour of the beautiful Belair Mansion, a landmark right in my neighborhood in Bowie, Maryland. I was happy to be back outside. It was such a beautiful, sunny, unseasonably warm winter Sunday. My heart slowly returned to a normal pace, and my mood lifted just a bit as I my son and I headed towards the mansion’s lawn.
He ran, tumbled, flipped and giggled all across the grass. That is all I want for him–to have that unabashed joy of simply being alive. He’s my dream realized. I beamed with pride thinking of all the opportunity he will have in life, much unlike the enslaved children who were on this grass years before.
My thoughts went dark for a minute, which they sometimes do when something doesn’t quite feel right in my world, and the experience at Belair didn’t feel quite right. He’s only two, so while I have time to have conversations with him about what it means to grow up as a black man in America, I still have to have those hard conversations. When I found out I was having a boy, I thought: I’m bringing another black man into this world. It was a very scary thought, as it is for most black women because black men are still preyed upon. How do I raise him to understand that no matter how good of a person he is, some people will never accept him?
Racism still exists. Even so many years after the civil rights movement, and all of Dr. Martin Luther King’s tireless work, we’re still here. Our systems and our policies are still racist. They are not just. Same song different decade. How do I raise my son to effectively address systems of oppression?
If Dr. King taught me anything, it was to be a better human and treat everyone as equals. I believe it’s a blessing to serve others. Surely what is so core to my being will be easy for me to instill in my son.
I looked away from my smiling, playful son and down at my feet, where they were firmly planted on the ground. I knew that the very lawn I was standing on was a system of slavery, as the mansion once served as a plantation. I understood that my home, located in this neighborhood, was actually built on a former plantation–this plantation. I shook my head humbly and with gratitude.
I’m standing here having this experience because of my ancestors and their work to cultivate the land on which I am living; this was experienced on the heels of my learning that my husband and I were the second owners and first black couple to own our 1960s home. In 1963, there was a deed in place that made it illegal to sell homes in my neighborhood to black people.
Today, my neighborhood is diverse, so perhaps we’ve come farther than I thought, even though it seems impossible at times. I, April Wallace–wife, mom, advocate, and homeowner–am my ancestors wildest dreams.
When will my roller coaster of emotions end? I’m not sure that it ever will, but nor will my drive to help build a fair and just world. I will always ask the important question: How can I help change a system that was created to never accept black people? How can others?
I’m a curious person. My inquisitive mind led me to research the Belair Mansion before I visited. It led me to learn about the history of home ownership of my house. I believe that’s one important step in creating the equal America that Dr. King envisioned–to get curious. Look for the historians in your community and research historical landmarks you visit or see. Understand why things are the way they are. See what piques your interest, and then become involved in your community to work towards equity if your interest leads you to understand there is a system or policy in place that is inequitable.
It’s 2020, and we still are not (treated as) equal. We’ll get there. I’m certain. Dr. King literally took his last breath fighting for civil rights. We must continue. We can never stop moving in the direction of equity.
April Wallace is the health equity partnership manager for Voices for Healthy Kids. As a public health professional and passionate advocate, her work is dedicated to understanding the root causes of inequities and working to ensure the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities are represented and resourced across the initiative. A native Detroiter, proud graduate of Howard University, and current resident of Bowie, she is passionate about engaging communities to build collective power and improve health outcomes. One way April advocates in her own community is by serving on Prince George’s County Food Equity Council, which addresses food access gaps.