The Okaloosa County NAACP branch held a town hall meeting in Baker on Tuesday night to address perceived ongoing "racial tensions" in the community.
BAKER — Some of the community members in attendance at Tuesday night’s NAACP town hall bristled at the idea that implied "racial tensions" in the town merited such a meeting in the first place.
Ironically, it was some of their own stories that seemed to underline the NAACP’s concerns.
The back-and-forth picked up early after Okaloosa County NAACP President Lewis Jennings finished his opening remarks. Jennings referenced two incidents in the Baker community over the past few years as part of the reason for the NAACP asking for the town hall at Lebanon Missionary Baptist Church.
First, he referenced a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Okaloosa County School District settled in June 2018 by Tyronne and Lakisha Adams for $500,000. A ruling by the Chief District Judge M. Casey Rodgers said the couple’s two sons, an eighth grader and 10th grader at Baker School, did not receive the proper help from the district to combat their fears of going to school in a "racially hostile environment."
Jennings also referred to a formal complaint filed with the OCSD by a parent of a football player at Meigs Middle School who alleged her son was subject to multiple racial taunts by players from the Baker School on Sept. 19.
"We don’t think it just starts with those incidents," Jennings said. "We’d like to know what precipitated that, what the community climate was like then and what it’s like now … we want to understand what’s going on with the (incidents) and see if it can be addressed at a local level."
Several community members, including Pastor Marcell Young, a 2004 Baker School grad, took exception with the initial press release the Okaloosa County NAACP branch sent out to announce the town hall.
"I do take exception (to the release) and the wording, because I don’t think (the NAACP) fully understands what’s going on here," Young said. "I don’t want people to think that Baker is some bastion of racism."
The release, written by Okaloosa County NAACP Third Vice President Sabu Williams, was titled "NAACP To Address Racial Tensions in Baker Florida" and was sent out to several media outlets.
Young defended the Baker School, saying it was a "better place than it was 20 years, 10 years, even five years ago," and that social media had played a big role in how the two incidents Jennings’ referenced were perceived.
Young also indicated that in high school he, too, had experienced an incident of racial harassment at Baker School when a noose was left in his locker.
One of the incidents listed in the lawsuit filed against the OCSD on behalf of Tyronne and Lakisha Adams’ sons was that a noose had been left in their locker. That would have been in 2015 – over a decade after Young’s locker incident.
Another community member and Baker School graduate said he’d heard similar racial taunts when he played football – "from both sides" – in the early 1980s.
"I don’t think racism is something you can get rid of, totally," said Young’s mother, Marilyn Parks, who saw all five of her children graduate from Baker School and go on to obtain college degrees. "But I do believe if you can let children know when they’re young that (racism) is wrong, it makes a bigger impact. Let them know diversity is a good thing in our community and that around here we look out for each other."
For all of the tension throughout, both sides ended on amicable terms and Lebanon Baptist Pastor Nathaniel Sledge said the conversation and proposals, including reaching out to the OCSD, were sound enough that he would bring the group back in the next week to formulate a course of action.
"I think we have a similar relationship with the school that a lot of communities our size do," Young said. "In that way that the town and school, to us, are looked at as the same thing. And if you say there’s a problem in the school, that means there’s also a problem in the town."