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Published on September 21, 2020

Tom Cone on the Importance of Cone Health Foundation

Tom Cone

Tom Cone

I would like to tell you why Cone Health Foundation’s work is so important to me. Let me go back to two documents written in the mid-1800s. The first, you may have heard me refer to before – the letter from Joseph Rosengart to Herman Cone as my great-great-grandfather was about to depart for America in 1846:

You have the sweet hope of finding a second home abroad and a new country where you will not be deprived of all political and civil rights and where the Jew is not excluded from the society of all other men and subject to the severest restriction, but you will find a real homeland where you as a human being may claim all human rights and human dignity....

Now let me read you a quote from speech given in the same year by Frederick Douglas, a man born into slavery in the United States:

The slave has no rights; he is a being with all the capacities of a man in the condition of the brute. Such is the slave in the American plantations. He can decide no question relative to his own actions; the slave-holder decides what he shall eat or drink, when and to whom he shall speak, when he shall work, and how long he shall work; when he shall marry, and how long the marriage shall be binding, and what shall be the cause of its dissolution—what is right and wrong, virtue or vice. The slave-holder becomes the sole disposer of the mind, soul and body of his slave, who has no rights, all of which are taken from him. This is the condition of three million human beings in the United States.1

Many of your ancestors, just like my great-great-grandfather, came to this country precisely because they would “not be deprived of all political and civil rights, … [nor] excluded from the society of all other men and subject to the severest restriction.” They, too, looked to America as a place where they could “claim all human rights and human dignity.” There was anti-Semitism, of course, and discrimination against Jews, but these events are relatively rare, and as Jews moved up the social ladder and further from their immigrant roots, have lessened.

While Herman Cone may have traveled in steerage, it was voluntarily and with hope; Africans arrived with nothing but shackles and chains. How can it be that in the mid-1800s, Jews were mostly accepted even in the South, while Blacks were seen as non-human property, not just out of commercial interest, but by “imperious law of nature?”2 How is it that European Jews saw – and for the most part experienced – the United States as a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity, while Africans and their descendants saw and experienced only slavery – bought and sold in the market square?

Tom Cone
Tom helped Foundation volunteers prepare over 5,000 COVID-19 care kits (masks, soap, testing information) for community distribution

Our service on this Board has allowed us to see past any illusions we may have held that the consequences of slavery have been eliminated. As we know, health outcomes for Black Americans are significantly lower than for Whites, as are income and employment levels. They remain disproportionately targeted by banks for sub-prime loans. They are disproportionately arrested, disproportionately jailed, and disproportionately killed by law enforcement. They are more likely to live far from medical providers and even healthy food sources; yet near environmentally compromised sites, including landfills – even right here in Greensboro.

George Bernard Shaw in his play, The Devil’s Disciple, said, “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” We can no longer ignore this sin embedded in our society.

Based upon principles arising out of enlightenment ideals, I believe the founders of our country thought, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say many generations later, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In these tumultuous times, it is sometimes difficult to share their optimism; in fact, it often seems that we are trying to undo the damage the government has done both historically and, sadly, currently.

But Cone Health Foundation certainly does its part. We are not indifferent and have made, and continue to make, a real difference. Our focus is on underserved communities, and largely the Black community in Greensboro. We measure our outcomes in percentages and numbers, but each tenth of a point represents people helped, lives touched, and families saved.

Tom Cone Staff
Staff from Cone Health Foundation and Impact Alamance, joined Tom and 70-plus other community members on a three-day opportunity to travel the path of the civil rights movement.

I have been honored to work with wonderful volunteer chairs such as Frank Mascia, Margaret Arbuckle, Steve Sumerford, John Cross, and Kim Gatling. My predecessor as chair of the Program Committee, John Campbell, set a very high standard with both technical skills and spirit. But of course, it is the staff that carry out the work. We are so lucky to have such talented, dedicated, and passionate people:

  • Susan Shumaker
  • Sandra Boren
  • Antonia Monk Richburg
  • Vicki Walker
  • Tracey Webster

All of you have, as Susan likes to say, “a heart for this work.” I have been blessed, and more importantly our community is blessed, to have such exemplary people – both board and staff – to carry on what my rabbi refers to as “this holy work.”

As I depart, I have two requests for you:

    1. Do not be indifferent. I don’t know what the future – even the near future – will bring for Cone Health or the Foundation, but I do know the Foundation is a critical source of healing in our community and has a solid base upon which to build. Do all that you can to ensure that its essential work continues.
    2. Vote.
      • We always hear that “this election is the most important of our lifetime,” and perhaps it is always true; I am certain it is true this year. North Carolina may well be the pivotal state in the presidential election. I don’t need to tell you who to vote for because I trust you will vote on behalf of the people you and this Foundation serve. Most of us will be able to weather the storms no matter who wins in our national and state elections, but the people we serve may not. Please think of them when you vote.
      • I will tell you how to vote, though. I have sent Susan a voting guide which describes the various ways to vote, including mail-in voting (and updated with how to submit an online request for a mail-in ballot).

I have served on many boards, and I truly believe this is the most consequential. Thank you for the honor of allowing me to serve this Committee and Board for nine years.

Tec Signature

1 Remarks of Frederick Douglass from Sheffield Mercury, September 12, 1846. Digital document courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (http://www.yale.edu/glc/). At https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/support5.html

2 A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union, January 15, 1861, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp