Eric Frazier

Why we look for heroes in troubled times

Alphonse Leroy Ross (l) and Peter Monroe Stowe after their rescue of six stranded men.
Alphonse Leroy Ross (l) and Peter Monroe Stowe after their rescue of six stranded men. Charlotte Observer

When times turn bad, we look for heroes.

When a racist gunman shot up a church in Charleston, we found them in the relatives who forgave him.

When police officers shot Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, we found one in Sterling’s son, who eloquently defended his father while directing protesters to protest “the right way” – in peace, not with violence.

And when another racist gunned down five Dallas police officers, we found one in that city’s police chief.

A century ago, the Great Flood of 1916 struck the Charlotte region, killing 50 people, washing away homes and causing damage of up to $550 million in today’s dollars.

People looked for heroes then, too. They found Peter Monroe Stowe and Alphonse Leroy Ross, two African American men who risked their lives to save six white men from floodwaters after a railroad trestle collapsed in Belmont. Reporter Bruce Henderson tells the story on Sunday’s front page.

Compare the heroes of that tragedy to the ones we’re limping through now, and you learn something.

Not about heroes. About ourselves.

Stowe and Ross pulled off such a daring rescue that the Charlotte Observer’s editorial board at the time called it “as brave an exhibition as ever witnessed in North Carolina.”

The paper raised a $550 “hero fund” for the men.

And yet, the feel-good narrative was stained by the racial prejudice of the day. It was, in fact, just 18 years removed from the Wilmington Riot in which rampaging whites burned buildings and killed dozens of African Americans to snuff out an interracial governing coalition.

The Observer editorial called Stowe and Ross “two darkies of the genuine old Southern stock.” They had black faces, the writer noted, but “their hearts were as white and as big as the eternal hills that furnished them a home nearby.”

Ugh.

Then, as now, even with heroes in our midst, the rest of us come up short.

It’s how the Dallas police chief’s grace under fire wins applause, even as a Columbia, S.C., fire captain gets sacked for saying on Facebook that he’ll run over Black Lives Matter protesters if he finds them blocking the street.

It’s how Sterling’s son wins admiration, even as a few other African Americans wrongly declare the Dallas shooter’s actions “understandable.”

In 100 years, we’ve gone from Model Ts to self-driving Teslas, from open windows to central air.

And yet, when it comes to living with those who are different from us, we still divide ourselves up by color-coded teams. Not as rigidly as in 1916, but we do it nonetheless.

And we still look, especially in times of tragedy and crisis, for heroes to step into the spotlight and show us our better selves. Those who reach across the color line to do it seem to gain an extra measure of our gratitude.

Why does it take these extraordinary moments to help us appreciate what should be ordinary, everyday decency?

Could it be that we look to others because that beats looking at ourselves?

In presenting the $550 check to Stowe and Ross, Charlotte Mayor T.L. Kirkpatrick told them their actions had demonstrated “the true meaning of loyalty to a trust and love of their fellow man.”

A century later, it’s a rising tide of violence – not floodwaters – that makes us yearn for that altruistic spirit. Let’s demand more of it from ourselves in ordinary moments. Perhaps then we’ll need less of it from strangers in extraordinary ones.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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