Harvey Edwards looked to a classroom window at the former West Snyder High School and recognized right away the message written in soap.
It’d been misspelled but the intent was clear that somebody meant to call him the n-word.
“They called me a river. They called me a country,” Edwards recalled about the racial slur lacking a second letter “g.” “I’ve got to stay here at least until they can spell correctly.”
The incident occurred at the start of a 33-year career in public education that began in 1983 in Beaver Springs and continued five years later at Selinsgrove Area High School.
Edwards grew fond of the Central Susquehanna Valley after being recruited to the area from Brooklyn, New York to play basketball at Bucknell University. After briefly relocating with his future bride, Patty, to the West Coast upon graduating, they returned and settled for good.
As a Black man in a predominantly white area, Edwards figured his presence would challenge racial prejudice. Bigoted behavior was met head-on in the classroom, Edwards said, opting to avoid alerting administrators unless he felt it necessary.
“My classroom, what I’m constantly trying to get students to do, is to think and to question and to peel back the layers of what they perceive reality to be,” said Edwards, who now teaches at Susquehanna University as a member of the English and Creative Writing Department.
“I think the students at first were shocked because I don’t think many of them had come in contact with a person of color; the faculty as well,” he said of the start of his career.
The award-winning educator created a student acting group at Selinsgrove named the Tolerance Troupe. It continued for more than 20 years, pushing students to think about the roots and consequences of social issues like racism, bigotry and domestic violence. The group traveled throughout Pennsylvania and Edwards said students often seemed ready to identify social issues in their schools even if their teachers weren’t.
“There were countless times where I would say, ‘have you heard the word n——r or f——t’ in their school and the students would raise their hands to the chagrin of their teachers. It always surprised me that the teachers were startled by this because we know it’s everywhere,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he’s formed good relationships with local police. Growing up in Brooklyn, he was wary of police officers, a sense of avoidance reinforced by twice having policemen draw their weapons on him as a teen — once while unknowingly walking in an area being surveilled for auto thefts and again when simply listening to a boom box in a phone booth in the area of a supposed robbery.
Edwards has a mind for individualism. That’s how he chooses to judge people’s characters, by their own actions and not by their ethnic backgrounds. He said he’s encouraged by the current protest movement and believes positive changes are imminent and will be long-lasting.
“If a human being is handsome, wealthy, but treats other individuals like trash you need to look at that individual and not link the color of his skin and his wealth to it. It’s that individual, and that’s what I think people are starting to see,” Edwards said.