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Karen Sue SmithApril 02, 2007
Months ago a friend sent me an article from The Atlanta Constitution (10/22/06) about a man whose family I knew well when we all lived together at Koinonia Farm in Americus, Ga. Today Koinonia is known as the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity, but a generation ago it suffered the bitter distinction of being ahead of its time on racial harmony. The story begins in West Virginia as Greg Wittkamperage 59, married with three childrenopens his mail. (I’m condensing Jim Auchmutey’s front-page article here.) Wittkamper finds an invitation to a 40th reunion at Americus High School (planned a year late) and a letter from a classmate, David Morgan. If you remember me at all, it will likely be for unpleasant reasons, Morgan wrote. Throughout the last 40 years I have occasionally thought of you and those dark days that you endured at our hands. As I matured, I became more and more ashamed, and wished that I had taken a different stand back then.

Back then was in 1961. What Greg had endured started his first day at Americus High School. Greg, who is white, had driven onto campus with four black students, the first to desegregate the school. A hailstorm of rocks and bricks shook their car. Greg told the reporter that over the next four years students spat on him, jeered at him, urinated in his locker, tore up his books, picked fights and, once, mashed a Sloppy Joe into his face at lunch. Worst of all, though, the teenager was shunned by his peersall of them.

The next day, on fetching his mail, the adult Wittkamper was surprised to see three more letters from classmates. I will never again say, How could the Holocaust have happenedhow could all those Christian people in Poland and Germany have stood by and allowed it to happen?’ wrote Deanie Dudley Fricks, I was present with you over a long period of time, and I never once did one thing to comfort you or reach out to you. It was cruelty.

From the age of six Greg had grown up at Koinonia Farm, a rural Christian community where blacks and whites have lived and worked together amicably since 1942 (and still do). An experiment in radical discipleship, the farm started when two Protestant families began to live in common, like the Christians described in the Book of Acts. They attracted others. As pressure for civil rights mounted in the 1950’s and 1960’s, however, Koinonia residents were derided as n lovers and Communists. A few locals bombed the roadside fruit stand; many boycotted the farm’s produce, hurting the farm financially. Dorothy Day reported the gunshots fired into a wall near her as she slept there one night. She had come to visit Will Wittkamper, Greg’s father. Wittkamper senior, a pacifist minister influenced by the Quakers, had declared himself a conscientious objector in World War I, a hugely unpopular stance.

Americus High School refused to admit Koinonia children until a few parents sued, and the courts ordered the enrollment. Greg’s older brother, among the first farm youngsters to attend, transferred after a year. Greg, the lone Koinonia kid on campus at the time, stuck it out. He understood that teenagers reflect what they are taught. If we had been switched in our cribs, we’d be playing opposite roles, he told the Atlanta Constitution reporter.

For Greg, the badgering didn’t stop. At graduation, the crowd booed him. Afterward, though, one other graduate shook his hand. I don’t see how you made it through, said David Morgan.

Morgan, now a banker in Perry, Ga., organized the 40th class reunion, encouraged by an elderly English teacher. And Morgan urged the committee to reconcile with Greg. After receiving letters from 11 classmates, Wittkamper telephoned several before deciding to drive, with his wife, to Americus. Face to facewith tears, prayers, handshakes and humorthe classmates reconciled with Wittkamper four decades after commencement.

What happened to those four black teens who had started high school with Wittkamper? Only Robertiena Freeman Fletcher, Greg learned, had graduated from the school. Wittkamper found Fletcher, who now directs a pharmacy in Warner Robins, Ga., and told her about the reunion. She had a similar story to tell. Her sister had become principal of Americus High School, and for black history month one year invited Fletcher to speak. On that occasion a white teacher volunteered that she had been in Fletcher’s class, publicly apologized for her behavior at that time, and welcomed her.

The class has come a long way, but still has steps more to go. When Wittkamper asked Fletcher if she had ever attended a class reunion, she said: No. I’ve never been invited.

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