In early March, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down schools statewide, Chief Terry Caldwell of the Mebane Police Department spoke to a group of three fifth grade classrooms at Pleasant Grove Elementary in recognition of Black History Month.
The event had to be rescheduled multiple times in February due to the weather, but finally on the afternoon of March 3 Chief Caldwell - the first African American Police Chief for the Mebane Police Department and only the second ever in Alamance County - spoke to the group.
Chief Caldwell, a native of Chapel Hill, is nearing his 16th anniversary as Mebane’s Police Chief. He recalled a couple of incidents in his childhood in which he dealt with overt racism, along with a powerful lesson his father taught him that has carried with him through the decades.
“I want to share with you my journey as it relates to Black History. Each and every year, this time of year, each of you at different grade levels cover Black History. Black History gives me an opportunity to look back on the strides that this country has made over hundreds of years, and to recognize those that came before us. Those in the mid-1950s and 1960s. Those in the early 1900s. Those in the 1800s. To recognize those who did so much for our country, to get us where we are today,” the Chief said in his introduction.
Caldwell informed the kids that they were fortunate to be sitting together within an integrated classroom - something that wasn’t commonplace in the United States until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. In many parts of the South, including North Carolina, it wasn’t until the 1970s that public schools were fully integrated.
“It really has not been that long where you never would have seen the mixture of kids sitting in the Media Center today (at Pleasant Grove Elementary),” Chief Caldwell explained to the children. “I want to be very real with you, guys and ladies. Some years ago, back in the 60s, and in some places, even in the 70s, all the black kids would have had to have gone to one part of the school. All of the Hispanic kids would have gone to one part of the school. All of the white kids would have gone to another part of the school.”
“And you know something else? Back then, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to speak to such a wide range of boys and schools, and be able to tell you a little bit about Black History, recognizing it, not forgetting what it’s all about, and what it means to me. Sometimes we get confused and we get twisted. Sometimes we think Black History is about black people only. And that’s not the message that this country is trying to send. Black History is about what everyone did - black people, white people, Hispanic people, Asian people, men and women of all races, creeds, and colors. What they did to be able to make the environment the way it is today. We can all learn together. We can all leave school and go play together. And we can all live in the same communities if we chose to.”
Caldwell told a pair of stories in which he dealt with hatred from people because of the color of his skin - one in a soda shop in downtown Chapel Hill, and another in the eastern part of the state.
“Back when I grew up, in Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, certainly then, was considered one of the most diverse cities in the Southeastern United States. I’m talking about including Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and Charlotte. Chapel Hill, where I grew up, was one of the most diverse populations. So very early on, we were going to school with kids of all races, creeds, and colors. But that doesn’t mean it was perfect. My journey started back when I was about in the fourth or fifth grade - right about the age you are at right now. Even growing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina - growing up in a University environment, where my house was about two or three blocks from UNC’s campus - I experience racism. I experienced discrimination.”
“I’ll never forget going to this soda shop on Franklin Street - me and my buddies. We were different. We were already mixing and hanging out. And I’ll never forget going into that soda shop as a fourth or fifth grader. Me and my three or four buddies. I’ll never forget the man behind the counter asking me what I was doing in his store.”
“Understand - this was my first exposure to not being liked, or not being welcomed, because of my skin color,” Chief Caldwell continued. “Me and my friends - some of them white - we were all puzzled as to what that man was asking me. They hadn’t experienced it either. We stood there for a minute thinking this man was confused. But then somebody in the group recognized what was going on. One of my buddies said, ‘Hey, he don’t want you in this store.’”
This was Chief Caldwell’s very first exposure to racism - and one he never forgot.
“My parents didn’t raise me to see color. My parents didn’t raise me to see and identify separation. That was my first exposure to it,” Caldwell told the students. “It was at that point that I had to make a decision, early on in life. And the decision was not to stay in the store. We were your age. Our parents didn’t have to chaperone us everywhere that we went, unlike the way the world is now. We ran the street, and went where it was safe.”
“I went home and told my father about my experience. And I will tell you this - I know that my father went back to that soda shop. He didn’t take me with him, so I can’t tell you what happened when my dad went to that soda shop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I know that he came back and he told me, ‘Son, do not go back to that store. You’re not welcome.’”
As he sat on his family’s couch, tears filled the future Police Chief’s eyes.
“You mean I can’t go buy a 25-cent soda, just like other people?” he asked his father.
“Not in that store,” Caldwell’s father responded.
“My father told me, ‘Son, you’ve got to make a decision. You can sit there and cry. And I can feel sorry for you. Your mom can feel sorry for you. Your uncles and your friends can feel sorry for you. But that’s how life works. That’s how things happen. You’ve got to make a choice.’
The lesson that Chief Caldwell’s father taught his young son was in relation to the hierarchy of birds, and how they find ways to survive. His message to the Pleasant Grove students was the same that his father gave him those many years ago.
“My dad said, ‘Son, you can be one of three things. You can be that chicken that roams around on the ground. Way down low,” the Chief said. “Has anybody ever seen a chicken fly really high? Chickens generally run around on the ground. You can be a chicken, and you can run around all your life staying low. You can hide from challenges. You can hide when things get difficult and hard. You can stay down low, and maybe you won’t have to deal with it. We can be a chicken that runs low and stays low. Doesn’t have to worry about getting into troubles. Doesn’t have to worry about battles.”
“Your second choice is you can be a buzzard. Does anybody know what a buzzard is? A buzzard eats dead stuff off the ground. The buzzard eats dead things. Buzzards are birds of opportunity. Animals, in the cycle of life, they are taught to hunt and kill for their food. That’s how they survive. Buzzards, they do it a little different. They’re sneaky. They go up in the tree and they watch somebody else kill something. Or they fly around until they find something dead on the side of the road.”
“The buzzard searches for dead things to eat - meaning the buzzards, they don’t really want to try that hard. They can survive through life. And they don’t have to be on the ground. But they hunt for things on the ground. And they never go too far away from something dead. A buzzard will circle around something all day long until it gets its chance. Even another dead bird.”
“Going back, chickens run low and stay low on the ground, right? Buzzards, they’re up higher,” Caldwell continued. “But their expectations, their goals, their aspirations, are really not that much greater. Because they’re looking for something that’s dead. They’re looking for something that has already been done for them.”
“Then there’s that third bird. I usually use Eagles, but since I’m at the home of the Pleasant Grove Elementary Owls, I think we can replace the Eagle with the Owl. Owls are hunters. Owls are smart. They take their time. They think about things. They prepare. They know how they are going to survive, and make it way ahead of the timeframe that other birds do. What my dad was saying, guys and ladies, was you can be a chicken, and let an experience like that knock you down. But if you let that happen, you’ll never be successful in life. Chickens are always going to be considered on the bottom of the bird totem pole.”
“Secondly, he said you can settle for being a buzzard, because they survive. But do you want to go around expecting someone to do something for you all of your life? At some point in time, we’ve got to grow up. We’ve got to take care of ourselves. Your parents won’t always be there. My dad said,’Or son, you can be the Owl.’ You choose when you eat. You choose what you want to eat. And you choose how you’re going to get it. You don’t have to wait around for anybody. The Owl doesn’t have to have anybody feel sorry for him. The Owl chooses his or her own path in life. The chicken can’t do it - the chicken is too low. The buzzard can’t do it, because all he or she wants is something that somebody else has gone over already anyway. Lastly, you can be the Owl. And you choose your path in life.”
“Some two, three, years later, my middle school class takes a science trip to the Outer Banks,” Caldwell continued, recalling a second childhood story of racism. “I’ll never forget that we stopped in Goldsboro, North Carolina. You’ve got to remember - this is a group from Chapel Hill. We looked very much like this group looks like on that bus. And we got off our bus at this McDonald’s in Goldsboro. We get our food and we’re sitting down.”
And there’s this gentleman. I speak of him every time I speak, whether it’s to a group of third, fourth, or fifth graders, or adults. This guy is in the back of the McDonald’s, and he’s saying, ‘Oh Rah, where you come from? Oh rah, where you come from?” At first, my fellow students and I thought this guy was funny, because we honestly thought it was just an old drunk in the back of a restaurant. But this man was very much sober. Not drunk. This man was very strong about what he was saying. And he was not saying, ‘Oh Rah.’ That’s what it sounded like. What he was saying was, ‘Oreo - what are you doing?’”
“To educate you all, back in the day, people used to use many derogatory words to describe different groups of people,” Caldwell said, informing the children about the racial connotations of the “Oreo” phrase. “What this guy was doing was describing us. He was calling us “Oreos,” because we were either white and black, or black and white. That was a discriminatory word back in the day. And what he was saying was, you all don’t belong together. He was saying that you all shouldn’t be able to sit down at McDonald’s, or Cookout, or Arby’s or Chick-fil-A.”
“So it happened again. It upset me again. But I’m a few years older. I’m starting to understand a few things about life. And I thought back to what my dad said - everything that comes at you ain’t going to be easy. And it’s how you choose to deal with it. I didn’t have my dad with me on that trip. We had a Science teacher that had to be responsible for about 25 of us. He was not in a position to deal with that guy. So we packed our little Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools bus up, and we came on back home.”
Caldwell summed up these childhood experiences - and his rise to the top of the Mebane Police Department’s ranks - with his father’s lesson about the Chicken, the Buzzard, and the Owl. He also recalled legendary African-American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, expressing how proud he would have been to have seen the integrated students at Pleasant Grove Elementary taking in his words.
“Life experiences are going to come at you in different ways. You can be the chicken. You can be the buzzard. Or you can be the owl,” he said. “I am so thankful for the men and women who died - black and white - who stood up for equal rights. I am forever grateful to Dr. Martin Luther King. Who had arguably the best speech ever given in these United States.”
“If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, and he stood up here with me, he would look at each and every one of you, and I am sure he would shed a tear of happiness for each and every one of you,” Caldwell continued. “Because what you all are today is a dream come true. You are a dream come true. Because so many people fought and died so that we can grow together. So we can get educated together. So we can be best friends. If I want to be your best friend, let not the color of your skin, or my skin, affect us. Dr. Martin Luther King would probably have another speech. And that speech would probably say something like we’ve come a long way in understanding Black History, and what it means to everybody. The value of it. We’ve come a long way. But we’ve got a long way to go.”
Chief Caldwell concluded his speech by reminding the students and teachers that racism still very much exists - as indicated in a story from his early days at Mebane Police Chief in the early 2000s.
“The truth of the matter is the things that I’ve talked about, they still exist,” Caldwell explained. “There are still people out there that don’t like the idea that you all are sitting together. There are people out there that still don’t feel like it’s better for the country as a whole that you all sit together and grow up together. I can tell you how true it is. In my first week as Chief of Police, I’m going to get out and go interact with the troops. We get a complaint about trespassing.”
“I say, ‘I’m the new Chief of Police in Mebane. This is an easy call. I’m going to go hang out with my troops, and we’re going to take care of this little trespassing call and go about our business.”
Caldwell happened to be the first officer who got to the house.
“So I get out of my patrol car, and the property owners meet me in their driveway."
“Excuse me Sir - we want to talk to the person that is in charge,” the property owners say to newly-minted Chief Caldwell.
“Guys and ladies - I had to take a step back,” the Chief remembered. “I had a brand new shiny badge. Big eagles on my collar. Chief of Police Caldwell. And they asked me to speak to the person who was in charge? I said, ‘Sir, I am the supervisor in Charge. I am the Chief of Police.'"
“Oh, I didn’t know that. We’ll be selling our house tomorrow,” the property owner retorted.
“Guys and ladies, I rode by a couple of days later, and there was a For Sale sign in the yard,” Caldwell recalled. “This stuff still exists. So I’m here today to tell you guys and ladies, at some point in time, you’re going to have to deal with it. We’ve come a long way. But we’ve got a long way to go. I’ll go ahead and tell you that with the group of Police Officers I have today, had they been with me - had they heard those words - I would have had to have pulled those officers off somebody. While it’s not a world that we operate in, and it’s not a world that we want to live in, there’s still a divide. There’s still many people not happy with the way things are now. There’s still many people who want things the way they were hundreds of years ago."
“My challenge to you, Pleasant Grove Elementary - when that time comes, when you’re faced with a challenging situation, are you going to be a chicken, are you going to be a buzzard, or are you going to be an owl?” Caldwell said in conclusion.
“You will learn more about history as you grow in the classroom. You will learn more as you educate yourself and start growing up. What I want to leave with you today is this - be ready for the challenge. Equip yourself with education. Choose good friends. Listen to reasonable adults. The key word is reasonable, because I’ve got to tell you - not all adults are reasonable."
“I appreciate you for the opportunity for speak. And I would just say in closing, whenever things get tough - whenever things get hard - ask yourself that simple question. Are you gonna be the chicken. Are you gonna be the buzzard? Or are you gonna be the owl?”