I was watching the Great British Baking Show the other night and found myself wondering what it would be like to live in a country with so little racial prejudice.

Contestants in the weeks-long contest were from many ethnic backgrounds, but each appeared comfortable with and accepted by his peers, even in the early days of the competition. Is there a way that people in our country could become truly “color-blind,” that we would view others by characteristics other than the color of their skin?

The recent death of Congressman John Lewis, a major figure in the effort to obtain equal civil rights for all, made me continue thinking along this line. Like Rev. King, Lewis had a vision and, as the “conscience of the legislature,” worked to assure those rights throughout his life.

He, like many of us, was troubled by the injustice that spawned the “Black Lives Matter” movement. All lives matter, and they mattered to Lewis and, I hope, matter to the rest of us, too.

I don’t know enough about the history of race relations in Miami County to be thorough, but I do know a bit and want to share it with you. Back in the 1800s, the Rev. Benjamin Read held a school for Blacks in Osawatomie, across from the present site of the post office there. Rev. Read was a Baptist minister, best known because he escaped the slaughter of the Marais des Cygnes Massacre. No records exist to tell us when those Black students were first admitted to other schools here.

The migration of Black settlers, Exodusters, into Kansas in the 1870s and ‘80s, and the influx of minority workers, both Black and Hispanic, to work on the railroads here, meant that schooling was needed for their children.

An early 1920 panoramic photograph of school children in Osawatomie shows a group of Black students gathered together at one side. Schools in Oz were integrated. I understand that was not true throughout the county.

Churches were not integrated then and still are not, in my opinion. The long-closed Brown A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Chapel in Osawatomie tells the story of waning attendance and minority population. When it was organized in 1880, that church was proudly named “John Brown Chapel” and portraits of Brown could be found in members’ homes. After all, as the best-known abolitionist in our history, he was truly judged a hero by many who carried his banner of hope and promise.

In the late 1960s, a local group established a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People here. Representatives of that group met with school officials to negotiate improved and broader school experiences for their children. That helped, and gradually Blacks participated in all areas of school and related activities. Many of those earlier tensions disappeared.

That didn’t happen without effort. The struggle for civil rights that was so much in the news in the 1960s continues today. It is once again up to concerned citizens of all races and creeds to lead the effort for true equalization in all levels of our society. There is no way I want to return to the conflicted segregated days of my growing up.

The song from the musical South Pacific has it right, I think, we do “have to be carefully taught to hate and fear” those who appear to be different. We have the power to change that message and work to assure that we see individuals for their worth and not for the color of their skin.

Margaret Hays is a longtime Osawatomie resident who writes a weekly column for The Miami County Republic.

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