'I Saw White People as the Enemy, Then One Man Changed My Life'

Imagine that you're a slave in 1860s America. But on this particular day, June 19, 1865, a Union Army Major General Gordon forced your master to set you free! You and your master probably heard about the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, but that didn't free you.

Suddenly—you're free! Your emotions run the gamut. You and other former forced laborers are running around shouting and hugging everyone. But as your emotions subside, you begin asking yourself: "What does being free mean?

Think about what these former forced laborers experienced. They were freed, but had no job. They had been totally dependent on their slave master. Some immediately left their plantations hoping to find their families from whom they'd been separated. But most stayed exactly where they were.

In processing their newfound freedom, how would these former forced laborers and their families survive?

Former slave masters were also in a crisis. They couldn't maintain their plantations without these former slaves. Survival for former slaves and their masters created an interdependency for both. The business practice of sharecropping was birthed.

Sharecropping met a need for former slaves and slave masters due to the absence of cash or an independent credit system. It was not a fair system and some called it a new slavery.

Yet, in the midst of injustice, it seemed some former forced laborers became voluntary friends. Some astounding relationships have been discovered.

Before the Civil War ended, according to historian and abolitionist W.E.B. DuBois, there were some slaves willing to fight for the South to keep slavery. How could this possibly be? But it's true. Maybe some of these slaves were treated decently by their slave masters and were willing to fight for them. Others would have been forced to fight for the South.

Fredrick Douglass was a slave who became a voluntary friend to his former master, Thomas Auld. When they were reunited neither could stop themselves from crying. On his death bed, Auld told Douglass that he would have run away too. They recounted their lives, together and apart, according to an article by Erin Blakemore of History.com.

Their tears show they had some affection for each other, and I imagine this meeting was incredibly therapeutic for both. Before slavery ended, Douglass wrote that, after becoming a Christian: "I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever."

There is a spirit of forgiveness that Blacks seem to have, even for their oppressors. This spirit of forgiveness produces sanity, direction, strength, and emotional freedom.

Still, these friendships between people of different cultures or races seem so impossible. Yet, I'm reminded of meeting Gary Chapman, the New York Times Best Selling author of The Five Love Languages before he became famous.

It was in 1968 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The racial tension in this city with civil rights protests, the Ku Klux Klan, and Black Panthers brought out the National Guard. Segregation legally ended in 1964 but was still being practiced in Winston-Salem. This was similar to slavery being legally abolished in 1863 but still practiced in some parts of the United States until 1865.

So one evening as my best friend and I walked into a new gymnasium at a predominantly white church, we had concerns about our safety and how we would get home.

I didn't expect to make a friendship with a white man. Whites were our enemy that constantly seemed to discriminate against us. Yet, Gary's and my friendship now spans fifty-four years. The then-youth pastor Gary approached me on the basketball court that evening. He introduced himself and said he was glad that I was there. His simple acts of courtesy made me feel welcomed and safe.

He was white, but I didn't think of him as white. My mind couldn't process it because he didn't act like most whites. Gary was nice.

Clarence Shuler and Gary Chapman
Clarence Shuler and Gary Chapman have been friends for more than 50 years. Clarence Shuler

The first time Gary drove into my neighborhood to pick up my friend James and I was almost the last time. We were walking toward him as he got out of his car and shouted: "You boys ready to go?"

We stopped in our tracks. James replied: "I ain't no boy!"

Gary immediately apologized and asked if we could discuss this word "boy" after the youth meeting, which we three then did for a couple of hours.

"If you two had been white," Gary said, "I would have called you boys because of your age."

We listened to his perspective. Then, we shared how almost daily we saw white people call our adult dads boys. Our dads told us never to let white people call us boys.

The significance of that evening was that this white man wanted to hear us. He cared enough not to get defensive or quit. Instead, he embraced working through conflict. He treated us as equals with respect and dignity by listening and speaking to us.

After that meeting, he could have called us boys because he now understood us. But he never called us boys again.

At times, I worried for Gary's safety, like the first time he invited me to his home. Neighborhoods were still segregated and the look his neighbor gave him scared me. I worried what some whites might do to him or his family.

Years later, Gary shared that some whites didn't want me attending their church. One deacon asked: "Why is he coming to our church?" Gary answered: "For the same reason I hope you are: To learn about God and the Bible." Someone else asked who is that Black dude. Gary replied: "He's not a dude. He's Clarence."

My fondest memory to date is when my wife Brenda and I brought our twin baby girls to Winston-Salem for the first time. While waiting to be seated at a restaurant, Gary took my daughter Christina out of my arms and ran through the restaurant exclaiming to mostly white people: "Look at my grandbaby!" You should have seen the expressions of those white people looking at him. It was priceless.

Much like with those former forced laborers who befriended former slave masters, the extension of kindness had the power to change a worldview for people of different races in the midst of times of injustice.

Meeting Gary Chapman changed my worldview so I saw that not all white people are bad. This relationship opened a door to embrace different cultures and races, resulting in the global friendships I enjoy today.

My life is so much richer due to many different friendships that span so many different cultures. Every Monday, I participate in a global call with people from Asia, Netherlands, Venezuela, America, and Europe. We all learn from each other and our time together is so enlightening.

One benefit of cross-cultural friendships is understanding. Understanding leads to patience with difference. What is needed in our country right now amidst our race tension is understanding and patience. This is one reason that inspired Gary and me to write our new book, Life-Changing Cross-Cultural Friendships: How You Can Help Heal Racial Divides, One Relationship at a Time.

Many people want to do something to improve race relations in our country, but don't know what to do. Gary and I strongly believe one way to improve race relations in America is for all people to intentionally develop cross-cultural friendships.

So, as you celebrate Juneteenth this year, remember the spirit of the former forced laborers and how many of them became voluntary friends to others of a different culture or race.

Clarence Shuler is an author of 10 books, a speaker, diversity consultant, and the president and CEO of BLR: Building Lasting Relationships. He helps individuals, couples, and leaders begin and grow authentic friendships and long-lasting relationships across racial and ethnic barriers, so they can make a lasting difference for unity. You can download a free sample from Clarence's latest book at www.CrossCulturalFriendships.com

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.