By Bob Thomas, Associate Sports Information Director
Silas Griffith has been one of the most active Florida State student-athletes when it comes to raising awareness about racial inequalities. The senior distance runner participated in the Unity Walk organized by the football team, spoke from the steps of the Tallahassee Police Department headquarters following the shooting death of Tony McDade, and shared a letter publicly on social platforms shortly after the death of George Floyd.
Beyond his active role in protests, Griffith is determined to be a problem-solver; a nod to his passion as a social work major and his caring nature, which is rooted in his diverse upbringing.
In a lengthy, recorded Zoom conversation with Davis Houck, the Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies and a founding member of the FSU Civil Rights Institute, Griffith shared the story of his upbringing and influences, his views on racial inequalities and how he hopes to effect change within the university and community.
To better understand Griffith, who transferred to FSU from Lipscomb University in the summer of 2019, it’s important to understand how he arrived at this place in life. This is his story.
Our Story: Campus Conversations
Silas Griffith and FSU Professor Davis Houck
The son of a special mother
Julia Griffith has raised her family on a foundation of faith-based love in the small town of Ridgefield, Washington. Bounded by the Columbia River to the west and the Cascade Range to the east, the town of 8,500 is 30 minutes north of Portland, but a world away from where six of her seven children were born.
One of those is rising senior distance runner Silas Griffith, 21, who was adopted by his mom Julia along with his sister and brother, from Ethiopia.
“I was born and raised in a small town called Wolaita Sodo with my older sister and brother, Abby and Abraham,” Silas said. “Essentially, the story is my family wanted a better life for us and they couldn’t provide that from a small, impoverished community. They gave us up for adoption.
“That’s when my mom found us and said, ‘I love you guys and I will take care of you.’”
From the moment Silas and his siblings arrived from their third-world, patriarchal homeland in January of 2008, life changed.
“Ethiopia is a very hot and sunny country, and I get to Washington and remember it was rainy, wet and cold,” Silas said. “I was shocked. ‘Whoa, where am I?’ … We got off the airplane, my mom gets in the car and starts driving. I’ve never seen that before – women driving. That’s different.”
Of course, so was Julia, who brought Silas and his siblings into a home on a farm with a built-in family already in place. Sister Mirlie and brother Billy, whom she had previously adopted from Haiti, would later be joined another pair of Haitian siblings, Samson and Jennica. She later adopted Jewel, now 3, a white girl from Vancouver, Washington.
“I had a white mom and a bunch of Black brothers and sisters,” said Silas, whose exposure to whites was limited to the rare missionary sightings in Wolaita Sodo.
A single, middle school physical education teacher, Julia had initially looked into adopting from China, but the lengthy process led her to Haiti.
“I don’t care where my kids come from,” she said. “I just want to be a mom. When I was going to get Billy and Mirlie I questioned, ‘What kind of parent am I to raise a Black, young man?’ I wasn’t so worried about the girls. I had done a lot of prayer and searching on that.
“Is it better to have just that white mom, or no mom and parents at all? That’s where I went.”
Ask Silas about his mom and he leaves no room for interpretation as to what kind of parent she has been.
“She instilled these great values and ideals in me that I carry with me,” he said. “She told me that no one is better than you; no one is less than you…
“She gave me this opportunity to come to the United States. She gave me a family and gave me love. And in the same way, I want to give that back to people, especially young kids like me who want to have that opportunity to better themselves; to have a better life and a better future. That’s one of the reasons I’m in the field of social work…to help the people who are in my shoes.”
Not surprisingly, Silas’ depiction of his mother falls right in line with her parenting ideals.
“I have a strong foundation in God and I just do a lot of trusting,” Julia said, explaining the approach she has taken with her children. “We’re in a predominantly white community. There’s good people and there’s bad people. [She told her children] I just need you to be a blessing to your family, a blessing to your community – give back to your community, if not the country of your berth – and I just expect them to work toward their potential, whatever it is. I just want them to give back and be the best they can be.”
New world transition
A January arrival in Washington meant school was in session. That, in itself, was quite a transition for 8-year-old Silas, who had not attended school in Ethiopia.
“I basically didn’t have any transition,” he said. “You take a little kid who doesn’t speak English, that doesn’t know the new culture and the new food and throw him into a whole new country and a new schooI…where I couldn’t read and couldn’t speak the language.”
Each day, Silas and his siblings would make the trek from Ridgefield to the nearby town of Battleground, where Julia taught at the middle school, across the playground from the elementary school they attended. Silas was enrolled in second grade.
That’s where he first noticed a difference between himself and his classmates.
“There weren’t many Black students in the schools I went to,” Silas said. “I’m pretty sure I’ve only had one Black teacher in my life and that’s in college here in Tallahassee.”
His awakening to those differences, and the accompanying prejudices, came over time. Regardless, it ran contrary to the American Dream he hoped to live upon his arrival in the country.
“You’re a small kid and you come to a country where you’re told this is the future; this is where you’re going to grow,” he said. “But you get to this country and learn that based on your skin color, your belief, your sexual identity, that you’re going to be looked at differently…
“My family made up the majority of the African-American community in Ridgefield.”
According to Julia, Silas adjusted quickly in school. He split his first year between second and third grade, and was advanced to fourth grade the following fall. Adjusting to the language, culture and food, didn’t come quite as easily.
“That was something I definitely struggled with and my siblings too, more than I, because I was eight years old and they were 10 and 12 at the time,” Silas said. “They had a little harder transition because I was younger and was able to pick up the language and culture a little quicker than they were.”
Yet the differences within their home is one of the things Silas cherishes most.
“We kind of have a world family,” he said. “The little things that each of us bring to the table – just our uniqueness – the different culture we bring to the family is one of the favorite parts of my family. We’re all so unique and bring such different world perspectives…
“My mom does a fantastic job of allowing us to express who we are and what we believe. She encourages us to be who we are and never really shy away from ourselves. She fully accepted us for who we are and never tried to change anything about us.”
Awakening…assimilating through sports
Though he didn’t necessarily recognize the significance as an elementary schooler, Silas was quite gifted athletically, which helped ease his transition.
“Sports was one of the things that came naturally to me, and sports doesn’t really discriminate,” he said. “As a kid, if you’re good at one thing, people want you on their team. That allowed me to have the friends that I have and kind of gave me that identity as an athlete. It was easier for me to belong in a group when I could run faster and play well. That definitely gave me a sense of friendship, not only among Black friends, but white friends, also.”
And it didn’t hurt that he was outgoing.
“Silas has always been the personable one,” his mom said. “I think he likes a challenge and I think he likes the competition, too.”
Though he grew up to compete in a variety of sports, Silas’ first love was basketball. Of course, he was also a gifted runner. As a sixth-grader he ran 6:10 for the mile, less than two months after having his ruptured appendix removed.
Still, he couldn’t outrun the prejudice he encountered as a youth.
“One of the things I noticed growing up and we were with [mom] in any social setting, people would give us a certain look,” he recalled. “It’s crazy to think that people see her as something different than our mom, because that is who she is to us and that’s what we are to her, her kids.
“It’s crazy how there are so many different perspectives when people see Black children around a white woman. I don’t think my mom ever saw it that way, but I definitely looked at it differently than her. She was oblivious to all of this. All she sees is her kids…I saw that from a different lens and it made me think differently.”
Silas also recalled an incident at the local YMCA, where Julia was bringing her children in for swimming lessons.
“We got out of the car and they’ve got their swimsuits and towels,” Julia recounted. “Billy was such a voracious reader, I think he grabbed a book [from home]…We walked in and the people at the counter said, ‘Stop. We’ve got a problem. Somebody called in and said one of you guys has a gun.’…
“We unrolled the towels and looked in the purse and there’s a book. They were very apologetic, but they were following through on something. Somebody targeted us way back when. So we finished up the swim lessons and we’ve never gone back. There’s always been little things.”
It wasn’t until more recently that Julia shared the entirety of the story with Silas.
“Sports was one of the things that came naturally to me, and sports doesn’t really discriminate. As a kid, if you’re good at one thing, people want you on their team. That allowed me to have the friends that I have and kind of gave me that identity as an athlete. It was easier for me to belong in a group when I could run faster and play well. That definitely gave me a sense of friendship, not only among Black friends, but white friends, also.”Silas Griffith on the role sports has played in his life
And there was the time when Julia and the children arrived at church as they did every Sunday; “the white lady with seven Black children.”
A visiting parishioner approached her and asked if she was a foster mom, or whether they were neighborhood kids.
“No, they’re mine,” she responded.
“Things like that make me aware of the challenges that we have as African-Americans in this country and how much work there is to be done,” Silas said.
Athletically, things were advancing nicely for Silas. He broke his older brother Abraham’s middle school mile record, when he ran 5:30.
“I knew he would do well in high school, but I didn’t know how well,” said Julia, explaining that Silas wanted to focus on basketball as a freshman. To that idea, she said, “You do track in the spring and we’ll talk.”
He never looked back.
“[Sports] instilled the idea that not only can I do this to get myself into college, but it was the key to opening doors,” he said. “I made more friends – more people that I’m proud to have today in my life – through sports than any other thing.”
As a senior, he won the Washington 2A state cross country title and followed up by winning the state 3200-meter title in the spring, eventually landing a scholarship to Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
Standing up for what’s right
Julia was wary about sending her son across the country to the Deep South and told Silas before he left that he should anticipate that he may be treated differently because of the color of his skin.
“But always be respectful,” she told him. “You might not like what people say to you, but don’t be disrespectful. As a teacher, I just expect respect.”
She didn’t have to worry, largely because of the groundwork she had laid and the kind of person Silas was.
“The things I’ve experienced don’t really mean as much to me as when my family is involved,” Silas said. “I can be out running and somebody will scream some vulgar things at me, try to run me off the road or give me the finger. That doesn’t mean as much to me as it just shows how ignorant that person is.”
Silas describes himself as “a caring person; a loving person.”
“I’m passionate,” he said. “That’s who I am naturally. I sympathize with people who are not being heard, or who are feeling like they’re not represented. That’s one of the reasons why I’m actually studying social work.”
From that perspective, Julia is not surprised by her son’s activism in his first year at FSU.
“Standing up for what is right, standing behind somebody who might be picked on – he would stand up for them and have their back,” she said. “He’s got a blind sister. He’s got a mentally-challenged sister. He’s always been there to help them, to work with them. So, for anybody else, I think he would do the same. I support him.
“I’m not surprised he’s out there and standing up for what he believes is fair and right. I think he’s just evolving as he gets older and sees and experiences more. Kind of like a lot of us. The more we see, the more we experience, the more we’re like, ‘Yeah, this is not OK. We need to stand up for what is right.’”
“He’s got a blind sister. He’s got a mentally-challenged sister. He’s always been there to help them, to work with them. So, for anybody else, I think he would do the same. I support him...I’m not surprised he’s out there and standing up for what he believes is fair and right. I think he’s just evolving as he gets older and sees and experiences more. Kind of like a lot of us. The more we see, the more we experience, the more we’re like, ‘Yeah, this is not OK. We need to stand up for what is right.’”Julia Griffith on her son standing up for what is right
Running embodies the bridge he’s hoping to build
Distance running is the stuff of legends in Silas’ native home of Ethiopia, which has produced countless Olympians and champions, all of whom are Black. Ironically, he is among the minority in the U.S. as a Black distance runner in a sport that is predominantly white.
“On the track & field side, it’s more inclusive, but on the cross country side, it’s definitely a majority white,” said Silas, whose lone Black cross country/distance teammate at FSU is freshman Gabriel Curtis. “A lot of my close friends are white friends, because these are the people I’ve spent so many hours training, traveling and just being brothers fighting for a common goal. I think that goal – when you’re in a group or team where everybody is striving to reach one thing – brings out a camaraderie that doesn’t care about your skin color, beliefs, religion, or sexual orientation.
“All that matters in the moment, in the now, is how are we – you and I as teammates – going to tackle this one problem. Whatever the goal, teamwork doesn’t care who you are, but what you bring to the table; how you can better the team. That’s one of my favorite things about cross country.”
In essence, it’s a microcosm of what he hopes to accomplish by not only raising awareness of racial inequality, but seeking solutions to eradicate racism.
“That’s exactly it,” Silas said. “Cross country, even though it’s predominantly white and I’m one of the few Black athletes, I can say, ‘When it comes down to it and we’re on the [starting] line, we’re fighting for the same thing.’
“They don’t see color. They see a teammate.’”
And through his wide range of life experiences, he feels a responsibility for contributing to change.
“We are the generation to make that change,” he said. “My generation and the generation before me, we’ve been around desegregation. We’ve been around white, Black, all sorts of people…We are the voice of this generation and I feel like our experience can change whatever is to come, and that’s why I feel passionate to keep pushing.
“Our experiences are different and I think that’s what is hopefully going to change the world.”