Other Voices

To honor Atatiana Jefferson, Fort Worth must tackle its long history of segregation

Most of us will know Atatiana Jefferson only by secondary means. Her family and friends speak eloquently of her love of life and family and her hopes for the future. But they should not be alone in ensuring her life will hold as much significance as her death. This is a task facing all of us.

Her death is a monumental failure of the whole community. No amount of arrests, prosecution, sentencing and sorrow will bring Atatiana Jefferson back, but her life can have great meaning to this city, if all Fort Worth residents seize the opportunity to make her life and memory count.

I grew up in Fort Worth. While I had a vague sense of segregation in our city as a child, once I got my driver’s license, I understood the full social, economic, and career impact of segregation. I wanted no part of it. I knew by age 16 that I would leave.

My family lives and works in Fort Worth. I visit often. Moving away was not a matter of not liking the city. It was the certain knowledge that if I lived here, I would live a compartmentalized life, without the life-giving interweaving of race, gender, nationality, and sexual orientation that to me seemed to be the way God created the world and my life.

Moving back 30 years later was unexpected. I was delighted to return to my family and to serve at Trinity Episcopal Church. I had high hopes that three decades had changed how segregated lives are in Fort Worth, but I was quickly disappointed to see that segregation clings so heavily to every part of life in my hometown.

Segregation is not just wrong, it is dangerous. Living, working and being with only our own kind of people leaves us disconnected from the lives of others. That disconnect has allowed the growth in hate groups and hate crimes across the country. It keeps us from hearing the concerns of those whose fear of police has grown intensely since 2016. And it allows some to think there is no problem because they do not have to worry about personal safety.

For close to three years now, Forth Worth’s African-American community has, with great energy and intensity and increasing urgency, expressed concern about the growing levels of dangerous policing.

The majority of the city has chosen not to listen. Those who want to think of Fort Worth as a small town rather than a city of close to 1 million chose not to listen. Those who thought the problems could be ignored or prayed away chose not to listen. Those who are tired of talking about race chose not to listen.

Elected officials can be held accountable, but they cannot be the sole listeners for the whole community. If the people of Fort Worth desire a safe life for each person in the city, elected officials will act accordingly. Ultimately the people of Fort Worth hold the power to change the factors that contributed to this tragedy.

My colleagues and friends Scott Mayer, bishop the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, and Dede Duncan-Probe, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, share my hometown with me. We all hold this city daily in our hearts and prayers. But we also urge every citizen of Fort Worth to let go of resistance to listening to what is hard to hear.

We urge every citizen to work to shape Fort Worth into a city where people live, work, study and socialize routinely across all the boundaries that separate the city now. We challenge us all to imagine a Fort Worth where everyone is safe driving to school or work, shopping, or playing video games at home.

To be clear, this is not solely a racial issue. This is an issue of the shared humanity of our whole community. It will take all of us, working across lines of race, class, and ethnicity, to make sure this city is safe for everyone.

It will be hard work, but it could lead to a historic, memorable, and fitting tribute to Atatiana Jefferson’s short life. Let us begin today.

Carlye Hughes is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, the first woman and the first African-American to be bishop of that diocese. She grew up in Fort Worth and is the daughter of Basketball Hall of Fame member Coach Robert Hughes and the late Jacquelyne Sue Hughes.