CALERA, Ala. (WIAT) – For years, it’s been his cool-down spot.
Run after run, day after day, Geoffrey Gwin has always sat down at the red picnic table outside Calera High School, catching his breath after pounding the pavement for two or three miles.
But today was different. On Tuesday, after finishing his run, Gwin – a Black military veteran, comic artist and train conductor – couldn’t sit down on the red bench. He wouldn’t sit at all. Written across the table’s top in white marker, in a mix of capital and lowercase letters, was a racial slur.
Gwin said he felt the slur was aimed at him. He reported the incident to Calera Police, he said, but he believes the problem runs deeper than ink on a picnic table.
“There’s a boldness to it,” Gwin told CBS 42.
He said that a few months back, he found the table littered with half-eaten watermelon rinds.
“I didn’t read any more into it, because it’s a picnic table,” Gwin said. “So I didn’t really press the issue.”
Now, Gwin thinks the incidents could be related.
“Maybe they felt I hadn’t gotten the message,” he said. “And now they kind of put it out there for everybody to see.”
Gwin grew up in Grove Hill, a town in south Alabama, but has lived with his family in Calera for 16 years. Gwin works as a conductor for BNSF Railway, having retired from over two decades of service in the Army National Guard. He’s also been a comic artist since he was three, even drawing sketches of Marvel characters for Upper Deck. What’s connected those experiences, Gwin said, has been his desire to give folks a reason to smile.
On Tuesday, though, it was Gwin who needed that boost in spirit. Still, Gwin said that he hopes some good comes from the situation, even if the incident provides an uncomfortable insight into the ways racism still bubbles to the surface in our communities.
“They chose the mantra of hatred,” Gwin said. “Nobody is safe from it, no matter how good your intentions are.”
It’s up to every individual to be vigilant about calling out and addressing racist acts. It’s the only way to make progress, Gwin said.
“It’s up to us to keep this fight going,” he said. “If it’s shedding a little bit of light to it and puts people’s heads on a swivel, that’s mission accomplished.”
Gwin said it’s important to address all acts of racism because ignoring them can cause more serious issues down the road.
“We have to understand that this is an element that’s still floating around this country,” he said. “It can fester. It can grow. And it needs to be stopped.”
CBS 42 reached out to Calera High School and city officials for comment on this story. We have not yet heard back.