In a Dec. 25 article on race relations in the town of Franklin, Va., the Rev. Carl DeSouza's ethnicity was stated incorrectly. DeSouza is originally from Goa, India. (Published 01/14/2000) A Dec. 25 article about race relations in the town of Franklin, Va., incorrectly reported which governmental body voted not to renew the contract of the school superintendent. The vote was taken by the school board, not the city council. The story also incorrectly said that two council members suggested a woman to fill a council vacancy. Their nominee was a man. (Published 01/15/2000)
When the flood brought on by Hurricane Floyd surged through Franklin, Va., in September, it did not discriminate. The water knocked down virtually every wall in its path until all that was left of downtown were shells of buildings and the strewn debris of more than 150 years of local history.
The water also knocked over the tallest and most entrenched wall of all in the small, southern town: the one between blacks and whites.
Few in the town expected the flood to wash the racial division away permanently, but many did take the catastrophe as a sign--from God or elsewhere--that it was time to reconsider their positions. People expressed hope that the flood would teach that the wall of racial hate was the one man-made edifice that did not need to be rebuilt.
But as Franklin puts itself back together physically, community leaders and residents of both races say it is separating again racially. Once the initial panic abated, suspicion, resentment and bickering between the races began anew.
"I thought the flood would be a spark for people to get together," said the Rev. Carl DeSouza, a black Catholic priest from Tanzania whose parish is predominantly white. "But now we're back to square one. Everyone is back, I think, to their different camps, and the boundaries are drawn."
Franklin was settled in the mid-1800s as a home for ship and rail workers at the point where the Blackwater River meets the train tracks. Today the town has about 8,000 residents, slightly more than half of whom are black. Life revolves around the International Paper mill, which employs about 2,200 and is the main reason that the adjacent downtown business district has not succumbed to the strip malls out by the highway.
The train tracks running through town aren't all that divide the white and black communities. In Franklin, general queries about community relations often draw responses that reflect attitudes about the other race.
"It's not that we don't like to live next to the blacks, it's just that people don't like to see the junk in the yards," said Jim Councill, a middle-aged white man who has been Franklin's mayor for three years, addressing what he considers to be one reason for the town's separate spheres. The mayor also cited economics and personal choice.
In the days before the flood, race relations were particularly strained. In August, the City Council voted 4 to 3 along racial lines not to extend the contract of the school superintendent, a black man nearing the end of his first four-year term. For the most part, community leaders say, the superintendent's defenders and opponents were divided by race.
While those supporters still were seething over the decision, Hurricane Floyd crept up the eastern seaboard. On the night of Sept. 16, Floyd dumped inch upon inch of rain on the area, causing the Blackwater to overflow. Five days and 20 inches of rain later, the water had engulfed much of the town, causing oil drums, insecticides and raw sewage to spill through the streets. With the downtown submerged in a pool of filth, stories of Franklin's plight dominated the news media for days.
As a result, outsiders saw a Franklin that few residents would have recognized earlier.
Alvin Harris, a black physician, made his way downtown on the first day of the flooding to find blacks and whites, many of whom had never before spoken, consoling one another.
"Out of that shock, all of us became human," said Harris, who lost three office buildings in the flood. "For a brief minute, everybody forgot black and white--it just didn't matter."
Blacks and whites stood side by side at the emergency relief centers, where they fed and clothed those who had lost everything; they banded together to clear city streets, where asphalt had disappeared in a river of wreckage, and they joined forces emotionally, finding common ground in the grief.
"We had a wonderful coming together of the entire community," Councill said.
DeSouza and many others provided food and comfort to the newly homeless, who had taken up residence at a local school. And at his church, which wasn't affected by the flood, DeSouza comforted both blacks and whites, most of whom were strangers to him.
As relief workers descended on the town, several black and white women took it upon themselves to serve three meals a day to the visitors, a gesture that lasted for a month.
But as quickly and unexpectedly as the racial harmony emerged, it began to unravel. Politically active black residents questioned why Franklin's flood-relief fund board consisted of six whites and just one black; they charged that they were being left out of the decision-making process.
Many complained that financial aid was funneled primarily to the 182 damaged businesses, almost exclusively white-owned, rather than to the 150 or so washed-out homeowners, most of whom are black.
Some whites who led the cleanup effort said blacks could have done more to help in their own neighborhoods.
"An interesting thing came about," said Councill, the mayor. "There was an outpouring of generosity of the white community to clean up and help repair homes in the black community. But there was disappointment with the little amount of participation within the black community. Some of that is economic, but the real help is in labor, and there was a noticeable absence of that."
The Rev. Willis Freeman, a black minister, is among those who bristled at such assertions: "A lot of politicians feel that blacks didn't come down and help in the cleanup. Blacks did volunteer to work with whites, but they were ignored."
The rift grew especially tense at the temporary shelter, which had shifted to the YMCA. Initially, both blacks and whites needed shelter, but after a week or so only about 75 blacks remained. They became increasingly put off by the rules of the YMCA, which among other things required them to come and go through the back door.
Tom Pearson, a white man who is director of the Franklin YMCA, said the rule was instituted so that regular members could still use the facility. Whether necessary or not, the requirement played into preconceptions among blacks of being made subservient to whites and caused them to resent taking orders, Harris and others said.
"The fact is the flood has probably done more to separate us," Harris said. "The black team and the white team tend to be less trusting of each other."
Said the Rev. Jim Lambeth, a white minister: "There's been some criticism both ways. I really couldn't say that we are" continuing to come together.
In late October, another dispute on the City Council developed a racial context after a black member sided with his white colleagues in a dispute over replacing a white ward representative, Billy Hawkins.
About 300 people in the ward petitioned for a white man whom they wanted to replace Hawkins. Two black council members attempted to nominate a black woman instead. The third black council member, Kent Pope, sided with his white colleagues, saying the ward's residents should be allowed to choose the person they want.
A letter circulated through the black community calling Pope a "Judas" and referring to him as "Massa."
"It was a very vicious attack," said DeSouza, adding that the incident underscored what he sees as Franklin's problem: that neither side can see beyond color. No one ever asks who is the best person, he said; they ask whether someone is black or white.
"We live in a world of fiction here," Harris said, "where emotion between black and white is more important than fact. It goes back to the Civil War; we still ain't finished."
Still, about 200 blacks and whites attended a church service on Thanksgiving to show continued support for one another.
But many in Franklin wonder why the flood catastrophe could not puncture the tensions between black and white, and what that says about their town, and them.
"There is an uneasiness if not suspicion that one is not accepted by the other," DeSouza said, "that despite the helping hand, there was that dividing line: the we and the they."
CAPTION: "Everyone is back, I think, to their different camps, and the boundaries are drawn," says a Franklin, Va., priest.
CAPTION: "We had a wonderful coming together of the entire community," says Mayor Jim Councill.