Sunday, January 24, 1999

Her prejudices went away


'Such a waste,' so she changed

BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Jean Rodgers never would have guessed it. The way she used to be, why, this new life wouldn't have been possible.

        Back then, she didn't even look at African Americans, much less greet them every afternoon.

        Ms. Rodgers is 65. She has gray hair knotted into a bun, and she wears tennis shoes with long skirts. Her voice is soft, calming, as if each sentence were a lullaby.

        When children come into the snack bar at the Northern Kentucky Community Center, Ms. Rodgers sizes them up: how much money they have, how badly they want to buy a snack like the better-off kids. Then she finds a way to make it happen.

        Hard to believe she once smoked, cursed and held people's skin color against them.

        Back then, Ms. Rodgers thought of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — if she thought of him at all — as a black man always followed by trouble.

        Now she works in the heart of east Covington. She is one of four or five white people at the community center, and some days, every one of her customers is African-American.

        Ms. Rodgers' daughter, Michele Sparks, is working on a way to memorialize the Rev. Dr. King. Ms. Sparks and other citizens, including center director Rollins Davis, are gathering input about what sort of project to do: a park, a statue, a youth development fund, maybe a street name change. Ms. Rodgers is right there with them on the need for a memorial.

        She loves her job at the snack bar. When the position fell into her lap a year and a half ago, she figured God was giving her a test: You say you're not prejudiced anymore. Now prove it.

        Some people act publicly to express their openmindedness. They participate in “conversations on race”; they attend Martin Luther King celebrations once a year.

        Others change inside themselves. They start attending church or working with a person of another race for the first time, and they experience a personal conversion.

        That happened to Jean Rodgers.

        “I was raised in a very,

        very prejudiced family; and of course, my children were the same way,” she says.

        For 26 years, Ms. Rodgers was married to a man who made Archie Bunker look tolerant, she says. An African-American family lived a few doors away in Covington, and she never spoke to them, never even looked their way.

        She eventually got out of her marriage.

        Then her daughter, Ms. Sparks, fell in love with a black man and married him. Ms. Rodgers instantly despised this person; her ex-husband disowned their daughter.

        One day in the early '90s, she and Ms. Sparks wandered into the First United Pentecostal Church at 18th Street and Greenup.

        That's when Ms. Rodgers changed. She can't point to a specific scripture or sermon. Prejudice simply had no place in her anymore.

        “It's such a waste,” she says. “Life is too short to not like people because they're a different nationality or their skin color is different.

        “I think today the reason there are so many problems is because we don't know each other.”

        Ms. Rodgers is a history buff, and now she soaks up information about the community around her. Some of her customers share their knowledge of African Americans in Northern Kentucky.

        On the wall of the snack bar are photos from the old Lincoln Grant School, which served Covington's black community when schools were segregated.

        “I love all this,” she says, then peers at a class photo from 1910. “There's one lady here who reminds me of Whoopi Goldberg.”

        The community center has a place downstairs for senior citizens to eat. In the gym, children play basketball after school.

        “There are so many good things that go on in this building. The people outside don't know it,” Ms. Rodgers says.

        One of her friends is Sybil Walker Lane, an IRS employee who watches children at the center in the afternoon.

        “You don't find many people like that, that you can sit down with and open up to,” says Ms. Walker Lane, who is African-American.

        She considers her friend “like a great aunt or something.”

        The old Jean Rodgers would have been surprised.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or by e-mail at: ksamples@enquirer.com

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

SAMPLES ARCHIVE