After moving back to New York City following his graduation from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Gil Palmer was looking for a safer place to live for his wife and small child.
Such an opportunity presented itself in Columbus, and Palmer accepted a job offer in 1981 from Cummins Inc. as an industrial service manager.
Palmer never intended to stay long in Columbus, but he fell in love with the community and never left.
After his first 10 years in Columbus, however, he came to a crossroads.
Professionally, Palmer began working as an agent for State Farm Insurance, where he has been employed for nearly 25 years.
It’s also around the time he was recruited to join the Human Rights Commission to help mend relationships between African-Americans in the community and the Columbus Police Department.
Race relations weren’t great across the country at that time, and Columbus was no different, Palmer said.
But he vowed to be part of of the solution, not part of the problem.
Some tension stemmed from what some blacks in Columbus at the time felt were unwarranted traffic stops and a feeling that they were being treated differently from the rest of the community, Palmer said.
Following a community dialog, then-Mayor Robert Stewart unveiled a 10-point plan designed to help improve community relationships. Tremendous progress has been made in the quarter-century since, Palmer said.
Early in his time with the commission, Palmer worked with longtime Human Rights Commission Deputy Director Lorraine Smith to resolve whether the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday should be celebrated through activism in the community or with programs in the schools.
The majority opinion — one that Palmer supported — was that the holiday should be celebrated out of school by committing time to service in the community, consistent with what King stood for.
When he was a teenager, the future chairman of the Columbus Human Rights Commission — now 60 — wasn’t sure what direction his life would take.
Growing up in New York City, Palmer’s career goal was to work for the post office. But after being pressed by his school guidance counselor, he looked into program called A Better Chance, created to help students overcome obstacles in their lives.
Palmer looked into the program, was accepted and spent two years at Radnor High School in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
Radnor was located in a predominantly white, affluent community, which Palmer said was akin to being on a different planet. It had far more amenities than he was used to.
While some students may have floundered so far from their comfort zone, Palmer flourished, and it changed his life.
Moving to Radnor catapulted Palmer toward a life where he had direction and purpose.
He went on to St. Joseph’s to major in business administration.
“The only difference between me, a kid from the ghetto, and my counterparts in affluent communities is exposure and opportunity,” Palmer said. “I told myself I can do anything I want to do if I’m given the chance.”
Palmer spent many of his adult years paying it forward.
“He has this ability to bring people together,” Smith said of Palmer, who often worked behind the scenes in his 20 years as chairman to address injustices in the community, earning respect of people across the city in the process.
Lived in Columbus since: 1981
Profession: State Farm real estate agent in Columbus, former Human Rights Commission chair/commissioner.
Community service: Columbus Human Rights Commission; IUPUC Board of Advisors; IUPUC Diversity Council; Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Diversity Leadership Committee; Leadership Bartholomew County board member; Mill Race Center board member; African American Fund board member; Centerstone of Indiana board member; Centerstone Research Institute board member, Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals member.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
Family: Wife, Dawn; son, Ferryn; daughter, Khai.