The effects of racism had a made a long-lasting effect on Terry Schimmel, so much so that 51 years later she has written a historical fiction account of its penetrating effects.
The South Kingstown author has recently published “Yankee Girl in Dixie” and tomorrow at 2 p.m. plans to hold both a book reception as well as a forum on racism at the Kingston Free Library.
“Since I was a young girl and watched civil rights protests from the comfort of my living room, I have been disturbed and angry at the injustice of racism,” Schimmel, 73, said in a recent interview.
She added, “I hope that my book will incite discussion and expand awareness of the history of racism. As they meet the characters in my story, I also hope readers will feel, not just factually know, its’ impact.”
The book and publicizing it are as much for her a literary journey as a personal one.
A University of Connecticut-trained elementary school teacher, Schimmel moved to a suburb of Pensacola, Florida, at 22. She obtained training in special education while there for 10 years and teaching at a local school.
She said that her novel’s characters — Cassie and Grant — are drawn from her own experiences as well as collective ones of the people she met and the events she observed.
The book opens in 1972 and Cassie and her husband, Jack, have moved from Connecticut to Pensacola FL, for his naval aviation training before his assignment to Vietnam.
Cassie is excited to begin her career as a special education teacher. Jack eventually goes off to war, but is killed in a helicopter crash. Cassie suddenly faces life as a widow.
She decided to stay in Pensacola and continues to teach children at an impoverished elementary school. Naive and ignorant of a pattern of racism, extreme poverty and segregation in the South, she is continually confronted with situations that both shock and disturb her.
Yet, she is determined to make a difference in the lives of her special education students. She also fights discrimination toward them within the school system.
A school social worker, who is also African-American, becomes her friend and comrade in arms in the fight. Her neighbor’s grandson, Grant, a high school history teacher, becomes embroiled in the action of the black high school students protesting the use of confederate symbols.
Through the emotions of Cassie, Grant — and most importantly author Terry Schimmel — a story unfolds about the effort to combat these issues still lingering more than 100 years after the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln declaring an end to slavery.
Woven into the tapestry of this story are the threads of a budding romance between Cassie and Grant.
It is complicated by Cassie’s grief and love for her lost husband and the unfolding traumatic events around racism and segregation in this northern panhandle and western-most city in Florida.
Also, like the characters in the book, Schimmel, too, has been involved with fighting racism since her younger years.
“In college I became part of a group whose mission was to raise awareness of racist attitudes within,” she said.
“We held small discussion groups in dormitories. It did not take long to discover the ingrained racist attitudes within all of us as a result of our culture and country’s history,” she said.
The move to Pensacola deepened both her outrage and understanding of racism’s systemic origin. Cassie and the author hold in common experiences that both challenged and changed them by the experience.
“I was continually shocked by the blatant acts of racism and extreme racist attitudes that I encountered as well as the devastating poverty,” Schimmel said.
Schimmel’s added attraction of a panel discussion fits with her continuing interest in causes related to stamping out discrimination and supporting others involved with efforts to raise awareness of prejudice.
“Attendees will learn more about the continued struggle to achieve racial equity in our society. While much progress has been made, the fight for full racial equality is far from over,” she said.
Panel speakers include Nicole Tingle from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Jennifer Lima from the group Toward an Anti-Racist North Kingstown and Gail Faris from Non-Violent Schools RI.
In addition, the group will include Etta Zasloff from the Anti-Racism Group of the United Unitarian Church of South County, Anita Bruno from Women in Trades, and Luis Daniel Moniz, community activist and member of the RI Equity Council.
The panel will be moderated by Corinne Collier, community activist and member of Black Lives Matter. The book is available at www.tamstales.net and Amazon and Rarities Books on Main Street in Wakefield.