Terrified, we watched them set fires

Sarah Martinez-Helfman,
Philadelphia, PA

Every key decision I made in my life seems to go back to that defining moment, when I walked away from a racist joke. That triggered years of violence from my neighbors. Marybeth beat me with the stick of a rake and chipped my tailbone of which I’m reminded every time I sit for too long. Eric shot bb’s at me through my bedroom window. Several of my classmates pressed me up against the school lockers as they shouted, “It’s the kike’s birthday” down the halls. I lost my friends and my sense of safety. But it was the fires that stand-out in memory. Each night, my brother and I would sit in the dark at my parent’s bedroom window with a view of the driveway and front yard. There we would wait in silence for our neighbors to set fires or to paint swastickas on the garage door just below us. I would later come to learn that the kindling for these fires was stoked by my Mom’s organizing during the McGovern Presidential campaign. African Americans would regularly come to our home in the all-White Pittsburgh suburbs, where most of our neighbors were Irish Catholic. When neighbors called a meeting to ask my Mom whether she would ever sell her house to an African American family, (she said, “yes”), the embers got hotter and sparks flew. I was attacked for what made me different – being Jewish – but it was really born of racism. It was a couple of years later, after I ran away from that joke, that the fires visited us regularly. The first one, on the night of that joke, burned our yard sign for county commissioner into the shape of a cross. It got worse from there.

Now I carry that fire — for racial justice — within me. I have dedicated my life to race equity and inclusion, a life full of purpose that I wouldn’t trade it with anyone.

(I tried to upload a photo from when I was in 5th grade, age 11yrs., wearing a McGovern pin. It is a 77KB JPG format but would not upload)


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