Anti-racism coalition honors memory of civil rights champion

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For 18 years, the North Hills Anti-Racism Coalition has fought racism and promoted diversity.

Last week, the organization honored one of its members who died last year by dedicating a peach tree in North Hills Community Outreach's garden in Bellevue to the memory of James Watson of Ross.

Mr. Watson, known as a champion of civil rights, died April 15, 2012, at age 69. He was a retired systems analyst and is survived by his wife, Judy, and two daughters.

The garden, on land donated in 2008 by Teresa I. Amelio of McCandless, is named the Rosalinda Sauro Sirianni Memorial Garden in memory of Mrs. Amelio's mother. It provides fresh produce for the 1,450 families served by the outreach's food pantries in Bellevue and Hampton each year.

About a dozen friends and coalition members attended the dedication, at which a brushed metal plaque was installed with the inscription, "This tree is dedicated in memory of Jim Watson, champion in the battle against racism." It also includes the date of his death.

Each person attending the dedication shared a memory and took turns watering the tree. Theresa Orlando of Shaler, president of North Hills Anti-Racism Coalition, read an Irish blessing.

Maria Christina, director of the Millvale satellite of North Hills Community Outreach, said she became friends with Mr. Watson during training for the Green Circle program, an effort to promote diversity appreciation among elementary schoolchildren that is sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice.

Mr. Watson coordinated a local Green Circle group, which visited private and public schools to teach about diversity and living together in peace. He received the Racial Justice Award from the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh in November 2002 and volunteered at the annual Unity Breakfast.

"He had a fabulous smile that bordered on impish, a dry wit and a great sense of humor," Ms. Christina wrote in a blog following his death.

The North Hills Anti-Racism Coalition was started 18 years ago in response to racism issues in the North Allegheny School District.

"Pittsburgh North People of Peace and Thomas Merton Center members convened a meeting at Northland Public Library seeking advice on how to be allies to people of color," Mrs. Orlando said. "It was disheartening to hear the stories of people of color."

A decision was made to organize as an entity to address racism in northern communities. A group worked with North Allegheny administrators to develop a culture of diversity and tolerance in the school district, which resulted in positive change, she said.

"We also have a relationship with the governing body of McCandless in an attempt at transparency," she said.

Mrs. Orlando, 74, has been involved since the beginning. Many of the 50 dues-paying members also belong to other organizations, such as North Hills Ebony Women Inc., Pittsburgh North People for Peace, North Hills Community Outreach, the Indian Cultural Association and the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh, she said. The coalition is loosely governed by a steering committee. One of the group's first activities was an Interfaith Gathering, which continues each year.

Mary Sheehan of People for Peace remembered Mr. Watson's personality, describing his "winsome sense of humor" and dedication to the Green Circle program and anti-racism. "We feel a real hole in our hearts. He was the glue that held us all together."

Ms. Christina explained the reasons for the tree dedication.

"People donated when he died. We wanted to do something to memorialize Jim, and it seemed like a perfect way. He was so committed to making a difference, and he contributed financially to various groups helping others. It's way for his goodness to be bearing fruit."

Plaques like the one that was placed near the tree honoring Mr. Watson are available from the North Hills Community Outreach for $500, with proceeds used for the support and cultivation of the 23 fruit trees in the Bellevue community garden, outreach spokeswoman Jennifer Kissel said.


Virginia Miller, freelance writer:


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