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Infant survival improved in North Carolina, but black babies are more likely to die

RALEIGH — Babies born in North Carolina were more likely to live to see their first birthdays last year, but black infants were still more than twice as likely to die in infancy than white infants, according to the new 2018 North Carolina Infant Mortality Report.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office released the report Monday, saying the state has a record low death rate for infants in the state in the last 30 years. The death rate for children younger than a year old dropped to 6.8 for every 1,000 births last year, from 7.1 for every 1,000 in 2017.

The overall rate for Guilford County for 2018 dropped to 8.5 from 9.8 in 2017. In Forsyth County, it dropped from 9.8 to 8.3.

“These numbers are encouraging but there is more work to do,” Cooper said in the release.

The report reflects that pronounced disparities persist in infant mortality, particularly among African Americans, the governor’s office said in the release. The African American infant mortality rate reached an all-time low, decreasing by 9% since 2016 to 12.2 in 2018, but it is still more than twice the white infant mortality rate at 5 in 2018.

Keeping more infants alive is a top priority for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which has an emphasis on reducing the gap between black and white survival rates. A goal in the state’s Early Childhood Action Plan is to reduce the ratio to 1.92 by the year 2025. The ratio was 2.44 last year.

A separate plan to improve infant and parent health includes a dozen goals that range from providing health care for women between pregnancies to undoing racism.

Research has found steeper drops in infant death rates in states that expanded Medicaid, and greater narrowing of racial gaps. An impasse over Medicaid expansion between Cooper, a Democrat, and the Republican-led legislature has held up approval of parts of the state budget.

“It should come as no surprise that a baby’s health is impacted by a mother’s health, reinforcing why North Carolina needs to expand access to affordable health insurance,” Dr. Mandy Cohen, the DHHS secretary, said in a statement.

The leading causes of infant death are premature births, being born underweight, birth defects, pregnancy complications and sudden infant death syndrome.

For the third year in a row, the mortality rate for white babies in North Carolina was 5 deaths for every 1,000 births, according to the report. For black babies, the rate was 12.2 deaths per 1,000. Death rates for black babies have fluctuated over the past five years but have declined over the past two years, from 13.4 deaths for every 1,000 births in 2016.

County public health offices, university clinics and doctors in private practice have been working to reduce the overall death rate and tackle the racial gap.

This year, Wake County introduced a “Best Babies Zone” in southeast Raleigh, a effort to reduce infant mortality by focusing on community health and such factors such as housing, education and employment.

“When you look at the data, there’s not one thing driving the decline,” Dr. Kelly Kimple, the chief of the DHHS’ Women’s and Children’s Health Section, said in a telephone interview Monday.

Infant mortality is a reflection of several societal factors, Kimple said.

“We have counties that are doing great work to try to decrease infant mortality,” she said. “A lot of these programs impact different risk factors or different things that we look at.”

Kimple cautioned against drawing conclusions from counties’ year-by-year mortality rates because they fluctuate so much.

The gap between death rates for black and white babies in Wake County narrowed from 2017 to 2018, but the overall rates for black and white infants increased.

The gap in Mecklenburg County widened from 2017 to 2018. The death rate for white infants remained steady at 3 for every 1,000 births, but increased from 8.8 to 9.4 for African American babies.

In 1989, North Carolina had the second-worst infant mortality rate in the nation, according to the North Carolina Medical Journal. Then-Gov. Jim Martin started a statewide effort to improve it.

In 1988, the mortality rate in North Carolina was 12.6 deaths per 1,000 births. Despite dramatic declines in infant death rates over the decades, North Carolina remained in the bottom tier of states in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The sage: NPR podcast showcases 'Greensboro's greenest hotel' and the man behind it

GREENSBORO — When he was planning the Proximity Hotel, Dennis Quaintance wanted to install the most environmentally-friendly toilets he could find. But he wanted them to work as well as traditional toilets that used a higher volume of water.

So every week or two, he had a different toilet installed in his house.

“My daughter was precocious and she called it the ‘toilet du jour,’” Quaintance recalled Tuesday.

He finally found what he considered the best environmentally-friendly toilet — and urinal, showerhead and ventilation system. The list could go on. Those and scores of other touches, big and small, were enough to earn the hotel LEED Platinum certification. That means the Proximity meets the highest standards for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” from the U.S. Green Building Council.

When it opened 11 years ago, the Proximity made news around the country because it was the first LEED Platinum hotel — ever. And it’s still making news.

Public radio host Tom Wilmer came to Greensboro a few weeks ago and made a 42-minute podcast featuring the Proximity and Quaintance, who is CEO of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels, which also owns the O.Henry Hotel and two Lucky 32 restaurants.

Wilmer, a host on a local California public radio station, produces a podcast called “Journeys of Discovery” that is available on the National Public Radio website.

His episode about the Proximity, “Greensboro’s greenest hotel,” was released in early October.

In his short time here during September’s North Carolina Folk Festival, Wilmer said he was “very impressed with the town as a sense of community.”

Wilmer came to the area at the invitation of Development Counselors International, a national public relations and marketing company that Triad officials pay to get the word out about the region.

The agency had a hand in attracting The New York Times to High Point this summer to do a story about the city’s resurging economic development.

Quaintance, who can talk for hours about a variety of subjects, said Wilmer just turned on the recorder for 50 minutes and built the podcast around their conversation.

During the episode, Quaintance discussed the features that make the Proximity unique and good for the environment. The Green Valley Road hotel features a solar water-heating system, elevators that generate their own electricity, a kitchen fan that comes on only when it detects heat and a host of water-saving measures.

Wilmer also asked Quaintance about another innovation at the Proximity. That’s the employee-ownership program, which allows workers to earn shares of company stock that can help build retirement savings during their careers.

“Dennis and I immediately clicked,” Wilmer said. “How can you not be impressed? He could’ve just sold the hotel and made a pile of money and walked away.”

Quaintance, 62, said being on the podcast “gives me a sense of civic pride. It makes me happy that me and my colleagues get to do something that’s significant on a national level.”

An N.C. A&T graduate tells the story of homecoming to children

GREENSBORO La-Donia Alford-Jefferies can still remember her first homecoming.

She’s young, about 3 or 4, and she’s riding on a float in N.C. A&T’s homecoming parade. She’s wearing an oversized A&T sweatshirt, cheering the A&T cheers she learned at A&T’s preschool and waving at everyone gathered along the parade route.

Fast forward to 2015, when Alford-Jefferies was pregnant with her first child and living in Cincinnati, too far to return to Greensboro for A&T’s homecoming. Was there a way to pass her homecoming memories to her own children? Could she tell other boys and girls about the sights and sounds of a black college homecoming?

Alford-Jefferies found a lot of children’s books about historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. When she turned up no book about the HBCU homecoming experience, she wrote her own.

In April, the Greensboro resident, high school biology teacher and mother of two self-published a 26-page children’s book titled simply “Homecoming.” Since then Alford-Jefferies has sold 1,000 copies of her first book that’s available as a paperback and in an electronic format for Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. She and her illustrator have collaborated on a coloring book. This week during A&T’s homecoming, Alford-Jefferies will do a pair of book signings on back-to-back nights.

“This has exploded,” Alford-Jefferies said in a recent interview. “I just did not see this coming in this time frame.”

“Homecoming” tells the story of two African American parents taking their three young children to their first college homecoming. The parents bring their kids to the yard, show off the fraternity and sorority plots and point out where they took classes when they were in school. The family goes to the football game, sees the drum major, hears the band and chows down on fried food at a tailgate party afterward.

Alford-Jefferies is an A&T graduate, and it’s clear that she had A&T in mind as she was writing. “Homecoming” includes an allusion to the A&T Four statue on A&T’s campus, and the book’s primary colors are Aggie blue and gold. But “Homecoming” isn’t set at any particular school by design, she said, because HBCU traditions are universal.

“This may be the teacher part of me, but I remember thinking I want young children to have a book with characters that look like them and characters that they can relate to in terms of what’s happening in their community,” Alford-Jefferies said.

“Homecoming reaches far past the campus. Some kids know what it’s about and some kids don’t,” she added. “I just wanted children across the county to have a sense of what homecoming is and why it’s important.”

“Homecoming” draws largely from the author’s own experiences.

Alford-Jefferies grew up in Greensboro and attended preschool at A&T, where her mother, Sylvia Bembry, was a business professor before moving over to Winston-Salem State. Her dad, Eli Alford, is an A&T graduate who has had football season tickets for years.

On fall Saturdays, she went to A&T football games and tailgates with her family, and she attended a lot of A&T homecomings.

After she graduated from Grimsley High School, she went to A&T — there were more homecomings, of course — and got her degree in animal science in 2010. A&T is where she met her husband, Michael Jefferies. The couple has two daughters, Eleanor and Emerson.

After A&T, Alford-Jefferies got a master’s degree at Fort Valley State University, an HBCU that sits about 100 miles south of Atlanta. She now teaches biology full time at Greensboro’s Page High School. Twice a week at night, she teaches an introductory course in laboratory animal science at A&T.

She got the idea for the book when she and Michael were living in Cincinnati for Michael’s job. She put the project aside until 2018, until after the family had moved back to Greensboro and she had a dream about the book. She quickly knocked out a first draft, got feedback from family and friends and revised it over the next several months.

Alford-Jefferies looked online for an illustrator. She found J’Aaron Merchant, a Savannah State University graduate now living in Arkansas.

“I loved the story,” said Merchant, a visual storyteller who has illustrated several other children’s books. “There’s nothing out there like this. It’s really, really needed.”

As Alford-Jefferies mulls ideas for a second book, she’s hoping parents will use her first book to talk to their children about going to college and all the exciting things that go on there.

“I just want kids to be excited about college,” Alford-Jefferies said. “If homecoming is what does it, fine by me.”

An interesting article in today's paper

Safe at home: Big changes coming to the minor leagues won’t hurt the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Page C1

City of Greensboro asked to apologize for police actions during deadly Klan-Nazi confrontation in 1979

GREENSBORO — As the 40th anniversary approaches for the Nov. 3, 1979, Klan-Nazi massacre that left five dead and 10 injured, one of the city’s oldest ministerial alliances is asking elected officials for an apology “of substance,” this one involving police conduct.

On Tuesday, the Greensboro Pulpit Forum, including the Rev. Nelson Johnson, who had been one of the organizers of the “Death to the Klan” march where the shootings took place, outlined seven reasons that the city needed to revisit the tragedy — among them the failure of police to be present to protect marchers, who had a legal parade permit.

Sandi Smith, Dr. Jim Waller, Bill Sampson, Cesar Cauce, and Dr. Michael Nathan were killed during the shootings. Waller’s widow, Signe Waller, sat in the audience during Tuesday’s press conference. She had also participated in the march.

“Their absence was remarked by a couple of people who were killed or wounded,” Signe Waller said of not seeing the police nearby. “Sandi Smith said, ‘It’s awfully strange I don’t see any police here.’ “

Clergy, referring to a commission that took two years researching the happenings that day, spoke of the police failing to warn the marchers of what they knew about the planned attack, which a paid police informant had earlier told them about. The police should have stopped the caravan because they knew the group had weapons, they said.

“But merely followed them several miles to Morningside Home, where the attack occurred,” said the Rev. Johnny Freeman, who was a 19-year-old college student at N.C. A&T at the time.

At a meeting two years ago, the Greensboro City Council broadly apologized for the city’s role in the massacre, which took place just as the march was forming in the Morningside Homes community.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

City officials have previously acknowledged the police made what they called tactical errors, but from the council’s view at the time, no officer acted maliciously.

The caravan of Klansmen and Nazis were caught on video pulling out weapons and firing at the marchers.

“Nothing or none looms larger than Nov. 3, 1979,” said longtime Greensboro pastor, the Rev. William Wright, of his recall of an event that made national nightly news broadcasts.

All criminal defendants later were acquitted in state and federal criminal trials. A civil jury found the city and some Klansmen liable for one of the deaths. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent two years researching the shooting and the events surrounding it, and released its findings in 2006.

Besides blaming the Klansmen and Nazi shooters, as well as the local police, it found that the march’s organizers, members of the Communist Workers Party, share some responsibility, “albeit lesser.”

The ministers say an apology outlining the police’s role is needed to heal lingering wounds that continue to affect the city and to avoid making those mistakes in the future.

Among its other complaints, the group also said the city participated in an atmosphere of blaming the victims rather than encouraging an objective investigation and comprehensive trial with no criminal convictions.