Akron man believes learning to live together will improve race relations
Published Tuesday, December 2, 1997,
in the Akron Beacon Journal
· Father teaches family about racial tolerance by moving to inner city
By Kymberli Hagelberg
Beacon Journal staff writer
The current state of race relations came home to Duane Crabbs in a report from his 11-year-old son a few months ago.
“Joshua came in one day from playing outside. He looked really upset. He said, `Daddy, Kennard called me a honky.’ ”
For Crabbs, it was a chance to give his son another lesson in race relations — something he and his wife do daily — but not always in such dramatic form. The Akron firefighter-paramedic and his wife, Lisa, have made a 20-year pact to live in an integrated neighborhood. The goal is to raise their young family — Joshua, 11, Bethany, 9, Hannah, 5, and Jonathan, 3 — in an environment in which race is not an issue.
Crabbs’ family is striving for their goal amid the backdrop of Clinton’s town meeting on race tomorrow. Clinton chose Akron as the first of four sites — in part because of the Coming Together Project, a community effort to improve race relations.
“In a lot of ways, President Clinton and Coming Together have focused attention here, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Crabbs said.
Last year, the Crabbs left their safe haven in West Akron and chose a new home on West South Street, again with racially mixed neighbors, but this time in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the inner city.
And things changed.
“Our yard became a gathering place again,” Crabbs said. “But one of the things we found out early was when the kids were left without supervision, a fight would inevitably break out.”
In every fight, the group would split along racial lines, which left Crabbs in the embarrassing position of having to explain a racial slur to his son — a foreign concept for the boy.
“I didn’t know what to say,” the father admitted with a smile. “So I asked him what he told his friend.
“After stating emphatically that he wasn’t a honky, Joshua looked at me with this puzzled face and said, `Daddy, am I one?’
“Finally, I had to explain that word was his friend’s way of putting him down because of the color of his skin.”
The conflict is a perfect example of how difficulties are addressed between blacks and whites of any age, Duane Crabbs said. “Once something hits, it’s like this curtain pulls back and for just a second you can see that there really is this great racial divide. Like the yard, there are a lot of places where it looks like everyone is getting along until there’s a problem.”
One of the neighbors told Lisa Crabbs that the kids would not ever get along. “I don’t know what planet you’ve been living on, but that doesn’t happen here,” the man said.
But more often than not, these days it does happen there.
The kids still gather in the yard, usually without incident, and the family’s black-and-white cat has been dubbed Oreo — as a joke, not an insult. “I think the kids were just trying to claim us and see what we would do,” Lisa Crabbs said. “They didn’t know us yet.”
Duane Crabbs, 37, was a member of the Cuyahoga Falls Fire Department when the first black member was hired in 1989. “I began to hear a lot of dialogue about what it meant for a black guy to come onto the department, and I took some teasing because of my convictions. One time I brought kids from the church youth group to the fire station. They were almost all black. Of course, the first thing that happened after they were gone is that one fireman came down and said, `Duane, my wallet is gone.’
“It’s firehouse humor,” he said and shrugged. “He was trying to play me, but he was also poking a little fun at himself. He understood the stereotype.
“Cuyahoga Falls gets the name Caucasian Falls, but these are not bad guys. They’re good-hearted people,” he added. “It’s just the lack of one-on-one contact and genuine interaction that makes it awkward.”
Crabbs decided to end the uneasiness, beginning with his own family.
Friends call him a true believer. In 1992, while working as a Falls firefighter, he founded the local chapter of Love Inc., a California-based clearinghouse that pairs Christians with skills to those in need. He also has been instrumental in arranging a variety of Christian outreach events including prayer vigils and ride-alongs between local clergy and police. His new organization, CitiVision, is a Christian leadership foundation that has chapters in 25 states.
“Duane gave up a lot to make this move,” said Dave Baker, owner of Stow Glen Retirement Village. The friend and philanthropist bought the Crabbs family home on West South Street and coordinated a staff of 40 volunteers who helped with remodeling.
“(Duane) took a $5,000 pay cut when he changed jobs and lost seniority to live his mission,” Baker said. The large, renovated, four-bedroom home overlooking Interstate 77 doubles as South Street Ministries. Bible-study classes are held there on Thursdays. Sunday school is in the planning stages.
“I’m fascinated by why Duane and Lisa chose to do this,” Baker said. “There are people who are called to be like Jesus in the city. Those are the people that I want to assist.”
There have been other sacrifices. Because the transient population is so large, the Crabbs children have less freedom in their new environment. Last week, a stranger walked into the home through an unlocked back door. He was in the living room before Lisa could wake Duane from his nap.
“Really, what it comes back to is can we balance our sense of mission to be caring neighbors with our desire to protect our children? The guy really did just walk right in like he lived here. It was crazy,” Duane Crabbs said. “He was really a little confused. We’ll never know his intention.”
Both Duane and Lisa say they moved to the neighborhood not to save it, but because it is where they feel they belong. “It would be false for us to say we are not here to make a change,” Duane Crabbs said. “We are, but it’s also to be respectful. There’s an Aboriginal quote that I really like. `If you’ve come here to save me, don’t bother. But if you’ve come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, let us work together.’
“The Crabbs are ready to work,” he said. “The whole world is coming to this country. The kids who are going to be underprivileged are the ones out in white suburbia who have very little cross-cultural experience. We feel very fortunate. Our kids will be able to cross those barriers, not because we preached it, but because we lived it.”