In Chattanooga, the race relations debate goes from dinner party to center stage

In Chattanooga, the race relations debate goes from dinner party to center stage

November 1st, 2015 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

Contributed photo / A group of community members gather downtown to mourn the shooting victims in Charleston, S.C. The event, Chattanooga Speaks for Charleston, was hosted by Donna and Marty Lowe.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

An effort that started in a Southside living room is moving into the business community and spreading fast.

Two years ago, Donna and Marty Lowe were invited to a gathering of blacks and whites at Franklin McCallie's home off Main Street. They were struck by the need for a more open and communitywide discussion about the value of interracial friendships and business diversity.

McCallie, along with his wife, Tresa, and cousins, Eleanor and Mel Cooper, had been inviting a racially mixed group to his home on a regular basis for difficult and, at times, awkward conversations about why segregation remained a fixture of life in Chattanooga.

Years ago, McCallie, whose father and brother headed McCallie School and who was a well-respected educator in St. Louis before retiring to Chattanooga, was openly racist until a life-altering encounter with a black student while attending college.

Racial inclusion was a personal passion for the Lowes as well. Donna Lowe was an extroverted, no-nonsense redhead who grew up in suburbia and thought little about matters related to race until she fell in love with Marty Lowe, a polished and handsome black businessman, who had an entirely different perspective on the world.

Through marriage and parenthood and their corporate careers in human resources they collected experiences that made them both hopeful and worried about the future of race relations in Chattanooga. So when they connected with McCallie and began building relationships with like-minded people, they saw potential for a movement.

"My life was changed," said Donna Lowe. "I knew it was OK for me to do what I wanted to do — try to improve race relations in business. I thought, 'The people in this room actually get it.'"

Contributed photo / A group of community members gather downtown to mourn the shooting victims in Charleston, S.C. The event, Chattanooga Speaks for Charleston, was hosted by Donna and Marty Lowe.

Contributed photo / A group of community members...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

 

It was also appropriate timing. The nation's attention seemed fixed on the issue after several instances where unarmed African-Americans were killed by police during arrests, triggering riots, violence and unrest in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

"Seeing what's happening in other cities, the underlying issue is that a lot of these minority youth don't think they are a part," said Marty Lowe. "Why are they burning down their community? They were never a part of the fabric. They had no equity in their community. They were voiceless and faceless. We don't want something like that to happen in Chattanooga."

So the Lowes, with the support of McCallie and his group, Chattanooga Connected, embarked on a series of community events intended to bring the conversation to a larger stage.

Hundreds attended the first event, a party they called the Ebony and Ivory Gala.

The next step was Chattanooga Speaks, held in June at the Camp House, where city leaders and community members discussed race relations and what was preventing more blacks and whites from knowing each other.

"It is simple and profound," said Chattanooga Chief of Police Fred Fletcher, who has attended events hosted by the Lowes, along with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and several city councilmen and school board members. "Relationships are built individually and it takes a strong individual relationship to build a foundation for lasting community change. They are doing it one person at a time."

Shortly after, when a white gunman shot to death nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., the Lowes arranged a vigil they called Chattanooga Speaks for Charleston. Again, hundreds gathered to write cards to the church and the victims' families and to sing, hold hands and have a moment of silence.

The Lowes have held several other Chattanooga Speaks events, including a session during Start Up week recently that focused on how human resource professionals could improve their companies' policies related to diversity and inclusion.

At each Chattanooga Speaks event, minority business owners and operators set up booths to network and grow their exposure at no cost. In exchange, the Lowes ask the businesses to help promote the event 60 days in advance among their friends and colleagues to ensure attendance is diverse and representative.

In recent months they have begun talking with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Chattanooga State Community College about offering the same event and discussion.

Chattanooga police Capt. Nathan Vaughn, said Chattanooga Speaks "provides a neutral environment, on the foundation of respect, for open and honest conversations."

Local entrepreneur James Chapman said the community is ready to talk about diversity and the Lowes have become, in part, the facilitators of that discussion. The debates are lively and often punctuated by insight from the Lowes, who bring the unique viewpoint of a mixed-raced couple raising a mixed-race son, he said.

"I have always gotten the feeling that this is a very authentic conversation," said Chapman.

Contact Projects Editor Joan Garrett McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or call (423)757-6601.