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Lamar Davis has spent most of his life in Central Arkansas, and he knows that, when it comes to the black community there, the line between isolation and immersion is very fine.
He grew up in North Little Rock, which during his youth was predominantly white. Most of his friends were white until college.
“Still, I was always conscious of race,” says Davis, who at 33 is an assistant attorney general specializing in consumer protection. “It came out when we played, with kids calling us names, using the n-word. At that age, it is very hurtful, because you don’t fully understand it.”
He recalls being pulled over by the North Little Rock police, when he and his brother were driving their parents’ new Volvo. At the time, the police said they fit the description of someone who supposedly stole the car, but the department later apologized for the incident. Davis also says he was routinely followed when shopping at Dillard’s department store. And until recently, his high school named two separate prom queens — one black, one white.
For that reason, by the time he was completing high school, Davis was hungry for the chance to be in a more supportive environment.
“I wanted to go to a black college,” says Davis, who, like his wife, Ramona, attended Dillard University in New Orleans. “I felt I was missing something. I wanted to see more African-Americans, interact with more African-Americans, coming from where I came from. It was important for me to see African-Americans in leadership positions. Doctors, professors, presidents of colleges, businessmen. New Orleans was 50 to 60 percent African-American. It had a black mayor. Seeing people in public positions was invaluable.”
Ramona, 38, agrees, and she attributes her becoming the first black ophthalmologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to the eye-opening experience she received at Dillard.
“It was at Dillard that I met the first black physician I ever met, and the first black pharmacist I ever met,” Ramona says. “It allows you to dream thoughts you may never have dreamed before. My mother had an 11th-grade education, and my father only finished fourth grade. They were not well-educated people.”
She was raised in Eunice, La., which was “very segregated” when she was growing up. Her high school was also predominantly white, and it had separate proms for blacks and whites until a few years ago. However, Ramona had nearly as many white friends as black friends, following the example of her mother, whom she observed “interacting with people based on character.”
Unlike Lamar, Ramona didn’t choose to attend Dillard because she wanted to be around more people of her own race. However, she realized a difference as soon as she arrived there.
“Throughout my childhood, I was always conscious of having large lips and a wide nose, as compared to my Caucasian friends,” Ramona remembers. “At Dillard, no one commented on that. It was very much a pleasant surprise.”
Both Lamar and Ramona also were exposed to new priorities and expectations.
“They stressed community, involvement, activism,” Ramona says. “You couldn’t be a student there without having those ideals placed before you. Once having experienced it, you feel strongly about a young African-American being in an environment where performance is not expected based on race. You are expected to achieve.”
Ramona made her way to Central Arkansas after holding pharmaceutical sales jobs in Charlotte, N.C., and Montgomery, Ala. Lamar worked in landscaping for a year after graduating from Dillard, but he hated it, so he applied to several law schools and decided to enroll at UALR in 1995, though not without some reservations.
“I didn’t see much change in the racial climate between the time I left high school and the time I entered law school,” Lamar says. “After Dillard, I was even more conscious of not seeing African-Americans in leadership positions. I recall being in law school, and contemplating employment opportunities in Little Rock. There were certain places that, as African-American students, we didn’t apply to. We didn’t see many African-American lawyers anywhere.”
Lamar clerked for Jack Lyon and Jones, an all-white firm, and says it was a “great experience.” Afterwards he worked for Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Wendell Griffen and Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey, both black men, before assuming his current position in the attorney general’s office.
“Race is still a factor,” Lamar says. “I am always conscious when in the courtroom, or dealing with the public, that I am an African-American lawyer. You’re conscious that people may perceive you differently. Sometimes, when I’m talking to people on the phone, because they can’t tell that I’m black from my voice, they make politically incorrect comments about black preachers or ebonics. You constantly get reminders that race is still a factor in society.”
When Ramona came to Arkansas in 1993 for a pharmaceutical sales job, she made her home in Maumelle, a fast-growing suburban city that is predominantly white. According to the 2000 census, blacks make up 32 percent of the total population in Pulaski County.
“One problem I had was finding people who looked like me to hang out with,” she recalls. “In the territory I covered, which was north and central Arkansas, all of the offices I called on were white. Plus I lived in a completely white community. So I really longed to see black people. In fact, one day I pulled out a map of Little Rock and tried to find a Martin Luther King street, because I figured that must have some black people!”
Her longing for more black interaction did not change when she entered medical school at UAMS. Out of 150 students in her class, only 17 were black, and only nine graduated with her in 2000. She says she experienced racism during that time, though she didn’t want to discuss specific incidents.
“It can be isolating,” she says of her time at UAMS. “Even within the medical school experience there were things that caused distress for me and my friends. We did well enough to get into more difficult specialties; there was never a question of academic performance. But on more than one occasion, there were unpleasant experiences.”
Even now, as Ramona practices ophthalmology on staff at UAMS and the Veterans Hospital, she encounters racial hostility.
“There are patients at the VA who are outspoken about their unwillingness to be seen by a black physician,” she says. “Once I went to do an exam, and the patient said I didn’t need to do it, because the technician had already performed it. I said I was the physician, but he didn’t change his mind, and we ended the visit without doing the examination. When that happens, I feel more sorry for them than for myself. Ignorance isolates them from opportunity.”
Since they were married, Lamar and Ramona have settled more comfortably into the Central Arkansas black community, and their church life contributes to their sense of belonging. They are members of First Baptist Highland Park in Little Rock, a black church. And while Lamar doesn’t recall the church having a significant influence during his childhood, he thinks it is more relevant today.
“When I was growing up, the church was reactive,” Lamar says. “When there was a social issue, like civil rights, the church would react. Now its role is more proactive, like sponsoring preventative programs addressing teen pregnancy, dropouts and AIDS. The church now has to step in because the government has stepped out.”
Neither Lamar nor Ramona think that racially segregated churches are a significant problem.
“People tend to feel comfortable with whom they closely identify,” Ramona says. “They embrace certain traditions because they look like each other. We still sometimes migrate to our corners. There have been efforts to interact more, but in terms of the integration of churches, we are decades away.”
“The styles are different,” Lamar interjects. “For African-Americans, church is therapeutic. There has been so much suffering. You can tell when you see 100-year-olds singing spirituals, they have a totally different perspective. For decades, the black church was the only place where black men had power. That’s a difficult thing to relinquish. Part of it is pride, because it’s the only place where everyone has a chance to stand up and talk.”
Both Lamar and Ramona understand that their success represents a huge step forward in generational terms for black people.
“I was the first in my family to go to college,” Ramona says. “I went beyond where my parents could go. We were also a poor family, and I felt a certain drive, like the pride of my family rests on my shoulders. My success defined who I was.”
“My most proud moment was when I took the oath at the Arkansas Supreme Court,” Lamar remembers. “My father was there, he was 78, and he was so proud, he came to tears. He was there before Central High, and now his son was being sworn in to uphold the law. I know I carry the expectations of prior generations when I go to work. They worked so hard to get you where you are.”
Nevertheless, their success often leads other black people to refer to them, not always charitably, as “Cosbys,” with the implication that they have abandoned their black roots.
“It’s frowned upon when two [black] professionals tend to change circles,” Ramona explains. “They might move to the suburbs, or send their kids to private schools. People will call them ‘Cosby-like,’ which they may say instead of ‘uppity.’ I don’t tell people what I do unless I’m asked, and then, if it is a direct inquiry, I’ll just say ‘I work at UAMS.’ I’m not ashamed, but people treat me differently if they know I’m a doctor. Like they start changing the way they speak, completing sentences.”
Lamar thinks things are finally starting to change for the better in Central Arkansas. He points to black people in visible leadership positions, like Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore, and Darrin Williams, who was among the first black partners at a major law firm. Furthermore, he sees the black community making an effort to work together more.
“For a city of its size, Little Rock is a place of vast opportunity for improvements in race relations,” he says. “I think the close community of Little Rock affords the opportunity to talk about these issues. Race is a prevalent issue, and we have the opportunity to talk about it and make things better.”
Ramona praises the University of Arkansas for launching a diversity initiative that provides mentoring and professional growth opportunities to boost retention of black students and faculty. Ramona also thinks it is notable that UAMS is led by a black dean, Albert Reece, and she is encouraged that there is another young black woman following in her footsteps in the ophthalmology program.
What needs to be improved? Lamar says there is still a need for more black people in leadership and administrative positions. He points to his UALR law school experience, when there were no black male professors, and only two black female professors. Now he is teaching there as an adjunct professor, and he says he is often greeted by black students who say “it is so good to see you here.”
Ramona says, “The focus needs to be improving the education of youth, especially in the public schools. We need to stress going beyond high school, because there is still a small percentage of African-Americans with college degrees, and they can’t compete in the world at large.”
Lamar adds, “When you look at the disparities between the races in areas like health care, education, and housing, it raises the issue of morality. It is morally wrong for one segment of society to be behind another segment. To begin improving things, we need to talk about it in moral terms, the disparity between the haves and have-nots.”