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.)

  • Cindy Graham

    The “subliminal” discrimination the writer mentioned is spot on. The problem is only made worse by HUD and the Federal government because of their public housing projects, especially the high rises in all our inner cities. The low income people who live in these projects have little hope of bettering themselves because the young are encouraged to join gangs for social activities, friendship, fitting in and belonging somewhere. The drug world such as the Mexican mafia love America’s public housing projects because for every mule, street dealer and drug addict that is murdered or overdosed there is a steady supply of more youth to take their place. If we, as a caring society really want to end discrimination then public housing projects must be eliminated and those needing assistance with housing needs integrated into our neighborhoods throughout our cities. There are many foreclosed homes sitting empty that belong to the Federal government so the supply is there. Only when we quit grouping our poorer citizens into high rise public housing projects will our society stop fearing them and open their hearts to equality.

  • Sam Curitiba

    Fast forward from your 1953 St. Croix Valley naivete about minorities to 1971, the year a co-worker of my husband convinced him to check out the lovely and quaint town of Stillwater, where he and his wife had just built a home. Six months later, our home at the end of Myrtle Street was ready and we moved in, only a hop, skip, and a jump from our friends.

    I eagerly applied for a job with a law office whose head attorney was from a respected and long-standing family in the Valley, and the interview started with welcoming small talk about where I was from, my family, and so forth. When I told him where our new house was located, he looked surprised and then asked, “Do you live next to that nigger family on Myrtle?” Speechless, it took me a few moments to realize he was referring to my husband’s co-worker, who was a very dark-skinned native Bahamian. “I heard he’s married to a white woman,” this prominent attorney continued. “Trash like that won’t last long in this city.” He then went on to detail another minority family–Jewish, in contrast to what he described as the “good Christians” in the city. They had moved to Stillwater a decade earlier but soon learned they weren’t the “right kind of people” who belonged here. This attorney also told me (with what seemed like pride) that Stillwater was once home to a group of people who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and held meetings here. Whether true or not, I can still remember my shock.

    Our friends stayed in Stillwater for less than three years, finally moving to Minneapolis when their mixed ethnicity children were continuously targeted by taunts and cruel comments at their elementary school. My husband’s co-worker only experienced the coldness in the Valley on weekends, as he worked in St. Paul, but his wife, who was white and outgoing and very friendly, shared her anguish when some of her nursing colleagues at Lakeview Hospital turned the other shoulder to her friendship when they found out she was married to a black man.

    Hatred based on the color of one’s skin or religious beliefs is hatred based on ignorance and arrogance. It’s a pity that those who judge others based solely on these criteria don’t realize that it is they who have the problem with their stereotypes.

    I concur with you, Mr. Ayers. The Valley–as much as we wish it were not so–has a way to go before many of its residents become color blind.

    • Joe Bltznk

      I have lived in this community since1950 and I have never known any individual, lawyer or otherwise, that has ever been known to talk about African Americans like you are describing. I will not deny that over time that a few Stillwater residents have used racial slang or did not want African Americans in their neighborhoods because of their ignorance or misunderstandings of African Americans but they were never as blatantly racist as you have described.

      Also, the Jewish family that lived here for many years before my family located here were well respected and treated very well by the residents (I worked for Sherm Gordon of Gordon Iron and Metal Co. when i was a teenager and even tho my family was of strong German heritage we were considered friends of Sherm and his extended Jewish family). In fact, I have actually felt pride in the way Stillwater has treated African Americans and any Jewish family that lived or worked in Stillwater and I think you are doing a great disservice to this community with your race baiting comments.