At the State of the Black Community forum Saturday, much of the opening talk focused on a need to bring economic empowerment to a community where so few businesses are black-owned that they don't even show up as a percentage in census reports, in a town where more than half of residents have household incomes below the poverty level.
Poverty, and education as a pathway out, served as the ground for discussion of other concerns, from a desire for more black teachers and professors to the "school to prison pipeline." At peak attendance, about 110 people, most African-Americans, but including about 20 whites, were in the pews at the Agape Worship Center on West Grady Street. Sponsored by the Bulloch County Branch of the NAACP and the VillageBuilders, the forum lasted from 11 a.m. until after 2 p.m.
"The reason we are here today is because there is a fire in the community that is being ignited and that we cannot ignore," said Georgia Southern University student Sophia Sharpe in opening remarks. "The reason we are here is because 50 percent of Statesboro's residents live at poverty or below. We are here today because 39 percent of black males in the Statesboro community alone are unemployed."
Sharpe is founder and president of a community outreach group called RAW, for Real Always Wins, involved in motivational speaking. As a GSU student, she said, she is also concerned because 26 percent of the university's students, but only 6 percent of its professors, are African-American, and that a similar disparity exists in the area's public school systems.
'This is a catalyst'
The forum's moderator, Dr. Stacy W. Smallwood, an assistant professor in the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern, reminded participants that the forum would not provide all of the answers, or even pose all of the questions.
"While we are going to have a robust conversation today, this is just a start, this is a catalyst," Smallwood said. "There's no way that in one forum we'll be able to address all the issues that we need to, but rather let's use this as a jumping-off point so that we can have more conversations, and hopefully that will lead to more solutions."
Smallwood invoked the names of several African-Americans who were killed by police or vigilantes or died while custody around the country, such as Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. This national concern has spurred local discussion about the state of the black community, he said.
But his first questions to the eight-member panel had to do with the economy. He repeated some of the Statesboro-specific statistics Sharpe cited, and added another.
"The number of African-American businesses within the city of Statesboro is so low that there are no statistics even recorded on it," Smallwood said.
He asked the panelists how things got this way and what can be done about it.
One of the more impassioned replies came from panelist Wayne Williams, pastor of New Beginnings Christian Outreach Ministry, who directed some of his remarks to churches.
"We've prayed enough," Williams said. "Since the community is where we are now, with the lack of employment and poverty and all of that, if the word is true that faith without works is dead, then I would make my case that the black community is overchurched and underworked."
He called for churches and other faith-based organizations to provide counseling and employment-related training for adults and children.
'A state of crisis'
Jonathan McCollar, president of VillageBuilders, a volunteer group founded less than a year ago that now has about 50 members, said Statesboro's black community is in economic crisis.
"We are in a state of crisis, and if we're in a state of crisis, that means that the city of Statesboro is in a state of crisis," McCollar said. "The lowest number that I've seen for the number of people that live in poverty in the city of Statesboro is 52.3 percent. Where was our leadership? They are mute on this issue. ... This is a major problem, and poverty does not see any race, color, creed, religion."
He called for African-Americans to practice "group economics," which he said is already practiced by other ethnic groups, such as Asians and Jews, by spending with businesses that invest in the black community.
"Let's just be real about the city of Statesboro," McCollar said. "The leadership that this community has had over the past 213 years has not been pro-black. It has not been. It has been so detached from the issues within our community that it has left us way behind."
Right now, the city government is part of efforts to redevelop an area along South Main Street and to either side of it. Called the Blue Mile plan, it is Statesboro's entry in the America's Best Communities competition, where Statesboro is one of 15 national semifinalists contending for prizes of up to $3 million to fund their projects.
"We want to fix up the Blue Mile, and that is a phenomenal initiative, and I believe that, yes, we should fix it up, but for African-Americans it's gentrification because we don't have the opportunities or the resources available to take advantage of all of the benefits that are going to come from that initiative," McCollar said.
Joining Williams' plea to churches, McCollar said, "Do not build another church," and suggested that churches instead build a shopping center and put a black-owned grocery store in it.
Another panelist, James "Major" Woodall, the Georgia Southern senior who is state president of the Georgia NAACP Youth and College Division, also called for faith-based organizations to organize businesses.
"I'll even take it a step further than what Mr. McCollar said," Woodall said. "We have to have our pastors create a black bank, because we have a list of how many black banks we have in the state of Georgia, and none are in this city, none are in this county, and that's a problem."
Asked her source for the statistic that 39 percent of African-American men in Statesboro are unemployed, Sharpe said Monday that Georgia NAACP President Dr. Francys Johnson, a Statesboro attorney, had cited it at this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast.
The Statesboro Herald is seeking this statistic's context, from a survey or report, for inclusion in a future story.
The idea that the percentage of black-owned businesses in Statesboro is too low to be included in a census report comes from 2007 survey data still included under the current report at http://quickfacts.census.gov. The "S" there means "suppressed, does not meet publication standards."
That more than 50 percent of all Statesboro residents are in households with incomes below the federal poverty rate for their family size has shown up for several years in U.S. Census Bureau reports, particularly from the American Community Survey. The most recent rate, from 2014, was 53.4 percent, while Georgia's poverty rate was 18.5 percent.
However, the rates are lower for Statesboro families, 31.8 percent for all families and 43.6 percent for those with children under 18 years old, than for all Statesboro residents 18 to 64 years old. Of Statesboro residents in this category, which includes adults living alone as well as those with families, 57.9 percent were counted as impoverished.
"The student population is a part of that, but how much it skews is kind of hard to tell," McCollar acknowledged in an interview.
"Either way you cut it, it's 50 percent, so it's still entirely too high," he said. "We can do better than that."
The Statesboro Herald will report further on other issues raised at the forum, particularly the "school-to-prison pipeline" and community-law enforcement relations.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.