Mending Walls and Jumping Fences

Washington,DC’s race relations can get a bad rap from those who don’t live here, and sometimes from those who do.   However, in one interracial neighborhood in a nearby DC suburb, a group of neighbors exemplify the strength of community that can blur the dividing lines of race.

79-year old James Musser, his wife Donna and their adult son cried out for help when a fire raged out of control in an upstairs bedroom where Musser, who uses a wheel chair, was trapped.   Next door, Gene Ward and his daughter heard the frantic shouts of their neighbors and rushed into action, along with a handful of other residents of this modest working-class street in Temple Hills, Maryland, to rescue the Mussers who have lived in their home fifty years.

Gene Ward is black.  James Musser is white.

The Washington,DC region is one of the most racially polarized areas in the nation.  Fear, economic disparity and tradition have erected strong geographic and social barriers between different races in the region.   But, on the block where Musser and Ward live, neighbors haven’t let their differences become obstacles to knowing each other.

In the television news reports that followed the fire and rescue, Ward called James Musser his friend and mentor.  So when fire broke out on a rainy, Sunday evening last week and Ward heard his friend’s screams he didn’t hesitate.  In fact, he leaped over a fence and kicked down the door of Musser’s house.  

Musser’s wife called 911 and his son suffered lacerations and smoke inhalation trying to save his father but Musser, unable to manage the stairs leading to the first floor of his home, couldn’t escape.   So Gene Ward climbed the stairs, groping the wall to steady himself, and then holding onto Musser’s legs slid him down the staircase step-by-step to safety.   Ward was assisted by another neighbor who also rushed into the burning house.   Outside, more neighbors covered Mrs. Musser and her son in blankets, sheltered them from the rain and administered first aid.

 Robert Frost’s poem Mending Walls notes some of us believe ‘good fences make good neighbors.’  Yet, there are many who believe that building stronger communities and positive race relations requires sometimes jumping over the fence, kicking in the door and pulling down the barriers that separate us.

 As Frost’s poem suggests: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”