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Learning about each other

The question was innocent enough: How would you like me to fix your coffee?

With a broad smile, 78-year-old Robert Hamilton looked at his friend and replied: "Just like my race _ black."

They both laughed for a moment and moved on, but it reminded Hamilton of an incident 20 years ago, when a white waitress at Denny's asked him the same question and failed to see the humor in that response.

"I guess you have to be aware of what you say, because when you talk one-on-one with your own race and your own family, you can let your hair down," Hamilton said. "When it comes to the public, you have to be very particular what you say."

While that is usually the case, Hamilton and about 40 people from all races took part in a forum in which they bared their souls to total strangers and spoke their minds freely about one of the most personal and pervasive topics of our day _ race.

The discussion was part of a symposium on race relations held Thursday at St. Mark's Episcopal Church. It is one of a series of seminars hosted by the Hillsborough Tampa Urban League.

Congregation members at St. Mark's completed the five study group sessions in the series but opted to continue the discussions. Thursday's meeting included members of St. James House of Prayer as well as residents of Carrollwood and other areas.

"I moved here 15 years ago and this community was lily white," said John Miley, a Carrollwood Village resident. "You never saw a black person. Today, it's not unusual to see black people walking the sidewalk, jogging or walking their dogs.

"I don't know about when you all were 18, but when I was 18 this forum would not be happening. There has been a lot of movement," Miley said.

The discussion was jump-started by a National Public Radio segment on the Ku Klux Klan. But in time, the dialogue moved from broader racial issues to personal revelations about deep-rooted feelings on race.

"As I was growing up I didn't like Spanish people in Tampa," said a teacher known only as Yvonne. "I didn't like the Spanish language. I didn't like Spanish music, and it had to be because of little things I'd heard as a child."

As an adult, Yvonne got a chance to learn more about Spanish culture by associating with Spanish people, and those relationships helped change a lifetime of ill will toward Hispanics.

Funded by Hillsborough County, the race dialogues are named for former Hillsborough County Commissioner Sylvia Rodriguez Kimbell, who initiated the symposium in 1993.

Walter Niles, race relations director for the Urban League, said the money received from the county funds staff workers, guest speakers and literature for the seminars.

"Hopefully, we recognize success when everyone in attendance becomes an active member of an ongoing race-relations study circle," Niles said.

Among those attending were staff members from Wharton High School, including principal Mitch Muley. Some said they would take the lessons they learned Thursday back to classrooms at Wharton, which serves largely white New Tampa but also draws minority students from a satellite zone in the University of South Florida area.

George Milburn wanted to be a part of the discussion so much he and his wife came here from Apollo Beach.

"We don't live together as races very much, so we have to take all the opportunities we can to understand one another," Milburn said. "We grew up not knowing anything about each other. Now, as adults, we have to do that."

_ If you have a story about Carrollwood, call Tim Grant at 226-3471.