There is something really old-fashioned about Ernest Peterson's response to the flood damage in North Carolina, sort of a reminder of how neighbors used to behave in times of need.
"When I saw all of that destruction along the Black Belt in eastern North Carolina, I said to myself, 'If they are waiting on the government for help, it's going to be a long time,' " Peterson said. "We have to pool our resources and do what our fathers would have done in a similar situation."
Just to contemplate what our fathers and mothers might have done would shame many of us. In days gone by, it is difficult to imagine that a place like, say, Princeville, N.C., the first black town in America (founded by freed slaves in 1865), could be destroyed by flood waters and people just sit back and wring their hands.
"I can see busloads of black carpenters, bricklayers and electricians going there to rebuild the town," Peterson said. But that would have been before integration changed the way many African Americans felt about their black community.
"You just know that if Jewish people had been affected like this, there would be planes in the air loaded with supplies" donated by fellow Jews, Peterson said.
As president and CEO of Re-Pete Courier Services Inc., which is based in the District's Shaw neighborhood, Peterson has a small fleet of bicycles and vans. No planes. But he took it upon himself to rent seven 20-plus-foot-long trucks and comb the neighborhood for donations.
Yesterday, with all the trucks loaded with water, bleach, paper products and clothes, Peterson led a convoy from Washington to Rocky Mount, Tarboro and other North Carolina towns that were hard hit by Hurricane Floyd.
While there have been several efforts locally to help the flood relief effort, given the significant connection between North Carolina and the Washington area, there should have been dozens more trucks going that way. Regardless of where you may be from, all black communities on the eastern seaboard of the United States should be regarded in a special way. They are all rich in history and, for many of us, they are the only "motherland" we'll ever know.
In the District, the vast majority of black residents have southern roots, with tens of thousands hailing from North Carolina alone. Peterson was born in Durham; his partner, Ernest Sharp, is from Greenville.
This gives our region a distinct flavor, culture and style. True, there is a rural quality that can hamper government efficiency. But there is also a deep and abiding spirituality emanating from that southern black experience and a profound connectedness that many people have to one another, to say nothing of the soil.
That the Washington area is now home to the largest, most affluent black middle-class community in America is a direct result of the home training that many received in southern black towns and hamlets similar to the ones that were flooded in North Carolina.
Places like Princeville simply cannot be allowed to disappear without a trace, for once we let the past get washed away, there can be no path to the future.
Consider Peterson's story, at once extraordinary and all too familiar.
He grew up with nine siblings, a family of 11 living in a three-room house in Durham. Because they were poor, social service agencies wanted to split the family up in exchange for government assistance. But Peterson's mother said no and went to work at three different jobs rather than see her family torn apart.
"We relied on family and friends to make ends meet," Peterson recalled. "I know what it's like to receive help from the community. That's why this thing has touched me so. It's my time to give something back."
Not just his time. We all know what it's like to receive help from "the community." For we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.
"My mother would tell us that no matter what you do in life, get an education and then go out and help somebody," Peterson said. "She would point out that as bad as things might seem for us, there were always others in worse shape, so there was always something we could do to help."
Peterson, 53, was the second member of his family to graduate from high school. He then joined the Army and did a tour of duty in Vietnam. He went to college on the GI bill, returned to Washington and started his own business.
An older sister, Anita Hinton, also graduated from high school and went on to start her own consulting company in Baltimore. When her brother called to say he wanted to do something for flood victims in their home state, she told him to get the trucks and she'd help fill them.
St. Elizabeth's School in Baltimore made substantial contributions. In Washington, the law firm of Rogers and Wells donated plenty, as did the Coalition of Black Gospel Artists. Giant Food and members of Springfield Baptist Church, Scriptural Cathedral and Calvary Christian Church also responded generously to Peterson's appeal.
"This was a situation that somehow made people step outside themselves," Peterson said. "It was humbling to see all that mighty water take all you thought was important and wash it away in minutes. It let you know who was really in charge."
And through Peterson's caring spirit, it also let people know that they were not alone.
CAPTION: Ernest Peterson is leading a convoy packed with supplies.