He is a pastor, a counselor, a husband, father and grandfather. He is a teacher and retired military – and he is a black man.
The Rev. Robert Whitaker, born in 1956 in Baltimore, Maryland, is not a native of Minden, but he and his wife, Mary, made their home in Minden in 1992 with their five children. One of the things that attracted him to Minden, he said, is its strong Christian roots and its compassionate people. However, he said he could still feel the “separation” between the city’s white and black population.
“This is a unique community,” he said, “because on one side, there is a lot of love and a lot of compassion. One of the things that drew us to Minden was that David Specht Sr. was leading the March for Jesus. That was an exciting time – to be in a community that would shut down its downtown – blacks, whites, rich, poor, no matter your denomination – you walked together. I always respected Mr. Specht for that.”
Specht was owner of the Minden Press-Herald until his passing in 2011.
“On the other side of that, I saw a photograph printed with some kids (from a Minden school) in black face, and that didn’t go over well,” he said.
“When Mr. Specht was addressed on it, he did try to correct that. But seeing those kids in black face, it was an insult.”
He explained the school had a talent show some years back and some of the kids were portraying the Jackson Five. They’d painted their faces black.
He said he felt it was insensitive.
“It’s like a husband and wife relationship,” he said. “If you do something insensitive and you don’t know you hurt her, and you continue to do it, either you are insensitive or there is a failure to communicate. That’s where the racial tension is in our community. Sometimes it’s insensitivity, and sometimes it’s a failure to communicate.”
Minden’s made a lot of progress since 1992, he says, but he believes it could go farther.
Coming from Baltimore, which the Mason-Dixon line runs through, he said racism wasn’t as prevalent as it was in the deep south. He graduated from Baltimore City College, one of the oldest high schools in the nation. He graduated in 1974 and after a stint at the University of Maryland, he joined the United States Air Force, where he would later meet his wife.
He grew up in a household where respect was one of the more prominent characteristics taught.
“I grew up in a household where education was important,” he said. “They taught us at a young age to respect ourselves, to respect our environment and to try to make things wherever we were better. They didn’t always say those words, but by the character they displayed, they taught us this.
Both of them were very well respected and very strong Christians.”
His parents retired from government service, and his father owned two small grocery stores. He is one of three children, the youngest of them.
“We debate about who is the baby in the family, but I am the youngest,” he said, laughing.
On a more serious note, he recalls his family history saying his father was raised in an area where slave quarters still existed.
“As I understood it, the family that ran the plantation was still there,” he recalled. “My grandfather was one of the first to own his own land. I still remember being told about how my great-great-grandfather, when he was informed he was free, they said he couldn’t stay in that area, because either he would still be enslaved or they would kill him. So he left.”
His father and his family are from North Carolina. His mother is from West Virginia.
And by the time Whitaker came along, they were living in Baltimore. Whitaker says while the segregation laws were diminishing in its power and effectiveness, there was still a reason for the Civil Rights Movement there.
“In parts of the city, there was still a lot of racism,” he said.
Today, he calls several people friends, but few he says embraced him and his family. He mentioned Graydon Kitchens, a prominent member of First Baptist Church in Minden. He mentioned the late Rev. B.F. Martin, father of the Rev. B.J. Martin, pastor of St. Rest Baptist Church.
“To this day, one of my closest friends in this community is Jeff Ramsey,” he said. “Our daughters were friends when they were little. They’ve gone their separate ways, but he and I have maintained that friendship close to 20 years. I can honestly say I love him like he’s my brother.”
Whitaker and his wife have five children between them, and they enjoy spending time with their seven grandchildren.