WELLESLEY — About 300 people set up beach chairs and spread blankets on the grass outside Town Hall Sunday, sharing handshakes and hugs in a spirit of unity following a series of allegedly racist social media messages posted by some local high school students.
Many in the diverse crowd were Wellesley residents, but others came from Rhode Island and Connecticut to show their support for the family of Tendai Musikavanhu, immigrants from South Africa who were targeted in Facebook messages.
Musikavanhu asked his neighbors in this wealthy, predominantly white town to remember the American ideal that people of all backgrounds can live harmoniously.
"Hatred, division, and lies never built any noble country," he said. "Only love, unity, and truth stand the test of time."
The event was organized by World of Wellesley, an organization that celebrates diversity in the town, to show solidarity with the family after classmates of Musikavanhu's 15-year-old son allegedly posted the private messages, which Musikavanhu said included racial slurs and references to lynching and genocide.
Musikavanhu said he was moved by the size of the gathering and the outpouring of support his family has received.
"What's really heartening is just the love the community has shared," he told reporters after addressing the crowd. "I managed to go through the whole speech without a tear, but wow, the number of people I've had weeping on my shoulder who are white, who know me, who know my family, and this hurts them."
Musikavanhu and other people of color at the event said the offensive messages did not represent the views of most Wellesley residents, and that the town and its schools are generally welcoming. They said, though, that some residents are less inclusive.
Seboe Maparyan, who emigrated to the United States from Liberia five years ago and works at Wellesley College, said he has been treated with respect.
But a small number of children at a Wellesley elementary school taunted his daughter and called her "weird," he said. At an after-school program, his wife said, one child told their daughter "I don't want to play with you because you're black. I don't want to be friends with you because you're black."
When the family reported the incidents, Maparyan said, the school's principal was quick to call a meeting and address the issues. His family felt supported by the principal and by his daughter's teachers, he said.
Students of color who attend Wellesley High said most of its teachers and students are never overtly racist. But sometimes, the students said, they feel isolated or singled out because their classmates are predominately white.
Zimmie Obiora, 17, is one of several Metco students from Boston who attend Wellesley High and came to the event. She said some schoolmates reacted negatively two years ago when she called for a moment of silence at the school in memory of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Friends told Obiora, " 'This person called you this.' 'This person said this slur against you,' " she said. "It was really disheartening. But that's as bad as it gets for me."
Isis Glover, 17, of Wellesley, said she was among a group of students who reported the Facebook posts to police. One of the boys who wrote the messages had been a friend of hers, she said, but they had a falling out over his casual use of the N-word.
"I tried to open up a conversation about it and explain to him the history of African-Americans integrating into white communities and . . . how that word is not acceptable," she said.
"Even if you're saying it in an endearing way and a friendly way, it's not a friendly word, and you can't say it. He just didn't really want to understand."
Glover said she doesn't believe her neighbors are racist, but some lack awareness of racial issues.
"It's not their fault. It's kind of like a bubble," she said. "It's just that they don't run into a lot of minorities in towns like these, so they don't think that they have a problem with those people."
Musikavanhu said that it was painful to experience racism in such a "beautiful, idyllic town," but he still loves Wellesley and believes in working with the community to make progress.
"Anger and revenge is not the way," he said. "It never has been."
Musikavanhu's son, who also spoke at the gathering, echoed his father's message of reconciliation.
"We know that it was love and forgiveness that Martin Luther King [Jr.] used, and that it is love and forgiveness that Jesus used," he said.
"And I know that it is love and forgiveness that we as a town have to use."