Racism in the Valley confronted head-on


Very early on a cold, cloudy morning in late November 1953, my father dropped me off at the Minneapolis train station, suitcase in hand, 18 years old, stepping into the unknown. In the pre-dawn darkness, I said goodbye to my mother and younger brothers at the family home on the north hill in Stillwater.

I reported to the recruiting officer at the designated place in the terminal and presented my enlistment orders. I had signed up for three years of service as an U.S. Army Ranger paratrooper.

There were a dozen other enlistees and draftees, most older than myself, assembled nearby. Several were African American and two were Native Americans. The train to Fort Riley where we would undergo processing and basic would leave shortly. Just before being escorted to the train, the captain walked up and handed me a set of orders with a roster of the men who would board the train.

“Ayers, you’ve been designated as the individual in charge to assure all these men arrive as scheduled. If you have problems, there are phone numbers you can call for instructions. Any questions?”

It was one of those “Why me Lord?” situations. I was still suffering the emotional pangs of leaving home. Nevertheless, I spent the next 24 hours keeping track of everyone, making sure they got fed, were in their berths and had all their gear. Only when the bus from the depot with all aboard arrived at the processing center did I feel a sense of relief.

Let me to put this in a personal perspective. I had grown up in an essentially “all white” environment. I don’t think there was a single minority student in the St. Paul Highland Park parochial grade school I attended, nor was there any significant representation I can recall at Stillwater High School during the early 1950s. The only non-Caucasian contacts I had during my adolescence were the Native Americans who lived in teepees and tar paper shacks on the St. Croix River north of Stillwater and came in to town to sell crafts, bead work and tell native tongue Indian stories at the horse watering fountain in front of the old fire station at Third and Olive streets.

There was the single African-American family living by the old landfill, in the marshland south of McKusick, off what is now the Boutwell Road complex. The family would spend much of the time dump picking and fishing carp on the river in the area of what was the Muller Boat Yard. I don’t think they had any interaction with the white community.

So, as a young soldier, appointed acting squad leader during basic training, I found myself in charge of 12 men of varying backgrounds, three African-American, two American Indians, the rest whites — some enlistees, others disgruntled draftees. My platoon sergeant was a wounded tap dancing African American Korean War veteran. Dan Blackwolf, a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, was my bunkmate. Such was life in the barracks in the 1950s.

In Bamberg, Germany, in the late 1950s as an infantry rifle company commander on the German-Czech border, nearly a third of my 200-man unit were minority soldiers. I had no significant problems with them, but I had to deal continuously with minor incidents arising from the Germans’ discomfort with having the minority soldiers in the town when my men went on pass.

With this as background, I’ve struggled to understand the insipient prejudice that infects American society today. Unfortunately, I find myself living in an area where racism, bias and bigotry festers just under the socio-cultural façade. Psychologists refer to this as subliminal discrimination and its manifestations are more disturbing when one considers they have the potential of destabilizing our most fundamental democratic structures. The recent Trayvon Martin court decision in Florida and the fallout is an example.

I watched with interest when President Obama stepped to the White House news briefing podium this past Friday and spoke directly to the issue at hand. His remarks will go down as landmark in history’s evaluation of his presidency because in a few words he cut to the heart of the sociological cancer that is metastasizing in America today. Referring to the shooting of the teenage Martin, he said, “It could have been me 35 years ago.”

As an observer and sometimes critic of the socio-political-civic dynamics of this area, I considered the Obama’s remarks in light of my own experience and what might be local public reaction to his speech. My question was: are the attitudes about minorities in my area, not far from the St. Croix, an anomaly or are they reflective of the cultural underlayment of the Valley in general?

Curious and troubled, I lay awake pondering the question. One does not sleep well with eyes wide open.

Over the last several days leading to this publication, I embarked on my own informal survey. By phone and direct contact, as discretely as possible, I engaged people from Grantsburg to Prescott in Wisconsin and from Hastings to Taylors Falls in Minnesota.
I asked two questions: How do you feel about minorities in your community? What do you think of the President’s speech on race and the George Zimmerman trial in Florida, and his “could have been me” observation.

Predominently, even from those I consider to be the most intellectual, cosmopolitan respondents, the consensus response was:

  •  I (we) have no problems with minorities. I (we) just don’t want them in our area.”
  • As to the President’s observation, “It should have been him (Obama) 35 years ago and we wouldn’t have the problems in America we have today.”

This admittedly intrepid imperfect “man on the street” taking of the St. Croix Valley pulse brings me to this commentary. The hatred of Obama and everything he stands for is not isolated to my region of the Wisconsin northwoods. There is a profound ideological-racial divide in the psyche of America today that transcends the whole array of other critical social problems, including the economy, immigration, education, wealth disparity, health care, civil rights, and the ideological divisiveness that’s tearing this country apart.

Given the answers to my questions, one cannot hold hope for healing and reconciliation of the issues that divide our nation.

Brad Ayers, a Stillwater native and a regular columnist for the Gazette, writes from his wilderness home in northwest, Wisconsin. He began his journalistic work with this paper in 1952 while still in high school. His forth-coming, non-fiction book, “Zenith Secret,” that looks into the assassination of the Kennedy brothers, will soon be released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder.)