Before I ever considered moving to Greenville, I’d heard a lot about the city, much of which centered on one thing.

The sign.

College professors had mentioned it. My friends had mentioned it. If a big news story was printed about Greenville, it usually mentioned it, too.

Despite how much this city has changed through the decades, the public’s collective consciousness still closely associates Greenville with this bold, racist billboard that hung downtown for years touting “Blackest land, whitest people.”

Looking at it from today’s perspective, it’s almost unthinkable how anyone could be so calloused as to say such a thing behind closed doors, much less proclaim it to the world on a big, downtown sign. For its time, though, it was a reflection of small-town culture that permeated most of the South and seemed a perfectly understandable statement in an era when racism was the norm.

Thankfully, Greenville is much more tolerant of race today than it used to be, but the legacy of the sign — and a trace of the racist thinking that produced it — remains a part of the city today.

In a New York Times article published last August about an African megachurch moving to nearby Floyd, the first four words were “Blackest land, whitest people.”

That kind of publicity is common. Such frequent and prominent repetition hurts the public’s perception of our city, making us look like backwoods hicks barely able to keep ourselves from legalizing lynchings and passing Jim Crow laws to segregate our water fountains.

In reality, I don’t think that’s the case at all. The racism that was once so predominant here — exactly like it was in other cities across the South — has largely disappeared, relegated to the pages of history books and newspaper archives.

Nonetheless, a few traces of this social plague remain here and in other places across America, and Greenville needs to work as a city to eliminate any hint of racial bias that lingers.

And, sadly, it’s still lingering.

When I was looking for a temporary apartment for my family to rent while we were between houses — right after I started working here — I overheard a college-age woman give advice to her friend, who was also shopping around for an apartment.

“You don’t wanna live at such-and-such place,” she quietly told her friend. “There’s a bunch of blacks who live there. There’s only one white person who lives in the whole complex, so you don’t want that one.”

She similarly went down a list of apartment complexes and which races lived at each one — Vietnamese at one, Mexicans at another — along with which illegal drugs each race preferred and the reasons she shouldn’t live around each of the non-Anglo races.

Finally, she recommended her friend stay at a particular apartment complex because that’s where the white people live.

This one person’s comments clearly don’t reflect the opinions and biases of average Greenville residents, but they do show we have room for improvement.

Next time the New York Times writes about Greenville, let’s make sure the reporter has absolutely no reason to mention the sign, except, perhaps, to show how much the people here have changed.

It’s a part of our past, but it shouldn’t have a place in our future.

Derek Price is editor for Herald-Banner Publications.

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