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White flight into Putnam County

BUFFALO — Because he’s black, people make the assumption that he’s a good athlete.

“I guess I’m good at basketball,” David Robinson said with a shrug.

The 6-foot guard is one of the leading scorers on Buffalo High School’s basketball team.

“But they think I’ll be good at any sport,” he said, prompting a laugh from classmate Ravi Parker. Parker is Indian, but has white adopted parents.

“Yeah, just like how the baseball team’s always trying to get you to play,” Parker said.

Such stereotypes are something the two say they encounter living in the tiny communities of Buffalo and Eleanor. On top of that, they go to Putnam County’s smallest high school — about 300 students.

And they live in a county and state not exactly known for its racial diversity.

Robinson says it was weird moving from Dunbar Middle School in Kanawha County to George Washington Middle in Eleanor.

“It seemed like there were more blacks than whites at Dunbar,” he said. “And here, I’m the only black guy. But I’m used to it now.”

Although minority populations have been on the rise with the economic and population booms Putnam has seen in the past 20 years, Census numbers show that blacks and other minorities still make up a tiny percentage of the total population.

U.S. Census figures from 2000 show that of the 51,589 people in Putnam County, 50,820 were white.

In 1990, of 42,835 people in the county, 42,442 were white. Numbers from 1980 show that of a total of 38,181 people, 38,051 were white.

What makes the Census numbers interesting is the fact that Putnam is sandwiched between two counties that have some of the highest black populations in the state, said Dr. Richard Garnett, Marshall University professor of sociology.

To the east, in Kanawha County, blacks made up 7.6 percent or 15,133 people in 2000, according to Census figures. To the west in Cabell County, blacks made up 4.7 percent or 4,593 people.

“Yes, Putnam County is the bedroom community for Charleston and Huntington,” Garnett said. “And yes, a majority of the population is white. It’s correct to call it white flight, but I find that difficult to attribute to racist sentiments. It’s more of an economic issue.”

On average, whites have better-paying jobs and higher incomes, so it makes sense that they can afford to live in communities that aren’t in the downtown, Garnett said.

He added that it is a known fact that most people simply prefer to live with others that are similar to them.

“Birds of a feather flock together,” he said. “If people have an option to choose where they’re going to live, over time, they’ve proven that they’re going to live by people similar to them in terms of income, race, etc.”

Garnett pointed out the hodge-podge of subdivisions that have sprouted up throughout Putnam County over the past 20 years. These homes, many worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, often have yards and more space than in Charleston or Huntington, he said.

“In these places, there are few minorities living there, just like there aren’t a lot of poorer white people living there,” Garnett said. “I couldn’t afford to live in one of those houses.”

James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia Conference of the NAACP, attributed Putnam’s low black population to jobs and the “way it is.”

Historically, Huntington and Charleston have had high black populations because of the jobs and the type of industries available, he said.

“If you look at the whole state, there are a lot of areas that don’t have minorities in them,” Tolbert said. “Historically, these counties haven’t had any blacks in them for a number of years. A lot of it is because they are unable to get jobs. There’s no industry there.”

Over the years, mostly doctors, lawyers and other upper-middle-class families have moved into the area to set up offices or move into new homes, said Bob Hull, federal programs director for Putnam County schools. Although economic development seems to have followed them, it’s not the kind that gives a real representation of a truly blended society.

“Economics is what segregates our county,” Hull said. “It divides the haves and have-nots, and that causes more problems than anything racial.”

While there’s a large section of children who come from a more affluent part of the population, there’s an equally large number of students who receive free and reduced-cost meals, he said.

“There’s nothing in the middle,” he said. “I think spending one hour at Disney World will teach you more [about diversity] than going to school for 12 years here. I don’t mean to sound disparaging, but it’s not a real blend.”

Because there are so few minority students in Putnam schools, Buffalo High Principal Joyce Swanson said there comes times when teachers have to discipline some students who act in unacceptable ways.

“We have some who have been raised in an atmosphere of prejudice, and I’m sure a lack of [racial] content makes that worse,” she said. “But we let these kids know that, if there’s an issue that comes to us. When we observe things that aren’t acceptable, we require compliance and get it.”

When asked about his encounters in school and in the Putnam community, Robinson said he gets the occasional looks and has dealt with situations that arose because of the color of his skin.

“But there’s always racist people everywhere you go,” he said.

To contact staff writer Chandra Broadwater, use e-mail or call 348-5194.


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