Growing up black in Chico
Coming from one of the city’s most respected families hasn’t protected this writer from racist attacks
Last fall, as I walked along East Ninth Street near my home, a small, black car filled with young white men drove past. As the car approached me from behind, I heard an angry and very loud voice yell, “You black bitch!” and I saw a couple of heads and flailing arms poke out of the windows.
Had you been there, you would have seen a tall, some say statuesque, confident, well-groomed and -coiffed African-American woman striding along the sidewalk. Inside, though, I was stunned, terrified—I felt like a hopeless, lonely, misunderstood and disillusioned little black girl.
I gave them a friendly wave and “kept my head up,” as we are so often implored to remember to do in the African-American community when going through whatever trials or degradation life might present us.
It was this incident, as well as the recent attack on Chico State student-body President Joseph Igbineweka, that made me believe that the story of what happened to me not quite three years ago needed to be told.
In August 2007 I was physically attacked by a group of five or six young white people as I approached my car after leaving a downtown Chico restaurant. They ranged in age from mid-20s to the oldest, the woman who initiated contact, who was in her late 20s.
I can’t be exact as to how many attackers there were, as there was no time to count them before they started hitting and kicking me.
I had heard a woman in the group call out to me as they stood together on the sidewalk. I assumed that either she had a question for me, or perhaps there was something going on with my car that I hadn’t noticed.
When I approached the small group, the woman in her late 20s began swinging her fists, hitting my body several times before I tried to grab her arms.
Within seconds, I fell to the ground. She (her name was Lena Danielle Bowers, I later found out from police records) and several others were striking and kicking me. I sustained injuries to my face, shoulders, back, arms, chest and mid-section.
They repeatedly shouted obscenities such as “nigger bitch!” and other expletives. They were saying things like, “Get her!” Mostly I remember “nigger bitch” being repeated over and over again throughout the assault.
It was probably a couple of minutes before I had the thought to scream for help, which I began doing. I don’t really know how long it was, because I think I might have gone into shock. My guess is that the entire assault lasted five to 10 minutes.
During the first stage of the attack, after a couple of minutes, I looked up in time to see a gentleman who had heard my screams for help from inside the restaurant and come to my defense. He was bleeding from the throat. I found out later from the peace officer who arrived at the scene that the female attacker’s husband had broken a bottle to be used as a weapon against me and had used it on the man who tried to help me. That compassionate, brave gentleman pursued the gang members in his own car as he bled.
It was a traumatic and terrifying experience for me, as well as for the people who witnessed the attack. One woman, a blonde probably in her 40s, knelt down beside me after the attackers fled and calmly pleaded for me to know that most whites “are not like that.”
I could not have asked for a more appropriate consolation. She was obviously fearful that she might leave me feeling afraid of all “whites” and putting them in the category of those terrorists. She asked how she might help me. I asked her to retrieve my wig, which had ended up several yards away. She quickly scooped it up and brought it back to me, and I put it back on.
A young couple who had come to my aid from the restaurant when they heard my screaming had their small son with them. I felt ashamed for the child to see me bleeding and battered on the sidewalk, and that he had to witness such violence. I communicated this to the parents, saying something like, “I’m sorry he had to see this.” His mother told me that it was an opportunity to teach him about compassion and helping others.
Though several citizens (all of them Caucasian) came out to help me, called 911, and even got into their cars to assist the police in locating my attackers, only one person was “positively identified.” It was the woman, Bowers, who had initiated the assault.
The young white male officer dispatched to the scene was compassionate, professional, and sensitive in his handling of me and taking my story. He was convinced this was a “hate crime” due to the language used toward me. He took my report, having me repeat it several times over a two-hour period, in order to have a thorough and accurate record.
The officer photographed my injuries, recommended that I follow up with the Victim Witness Program for counseling, and encouraged me to go to the hospital. I received medical attention at the Enloe Medical Center emergency room.
When I was summoned to Bowers’ hearing a few weeks later, I was made aware that she was being charged with a misdemeanor and that the others involved, including her husband, were not charged with any crimes. At that hearing she offered an apology for “what happened” to me, with her attorney by her side supporting and coaching her. I reminded her that what “she had done” to me was a crime. The district attorneys were adamant that I was not there to tell my side of the story.
Bowers ended up being sentenced to 30 days in jail, 50 hours of community service and three years’ probation.
I am a Chico native. My parents migrated to California from rural East Texas in the late 1950s as teenagers. My father had taken the train alone at age 16 to live with extended family who had arrived a few years earlier. My dad had the opportunity to leave the harsh cotton fields of Texas where his mother and siblings worked to survive. It was not unusual for him to work rather than attend school, which he enjoyed, in order to earn the money the family needed.
He first arrived in Selma (near Fresno), where his family, aunts and cousins worked the grape fields. I remember Dad shrugging (more like shuddering), with an exhausted laugh, when he recalled that work in the grape fields was “too much like pickin’ cotton.” Within weeks he had joined his eldest brother, Alois, in Chico, probably traveling by Greyhound bus.
Legend has it (among certain of our family members, anyway) that my uncle, Alois Scott Sr., who had just completed his Army service in World War II, was heading on a Greyhound bus to Oregon when it made a stop in Chico. My uncle assessed that Chico would be a good place to bring his young family from Texas. My father soon joined them.
My parents, A.D. and Dorothy Johnson, were married at First Baptist Church in Chico in 1959. They had met through relatives. Their four children were born at Enloe Hospital in 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1976. I am the oldest.
My father was a strict disciplinarian. We were not allowed to visit most of our schoolmates’ homes, had to be accountable for our whereabouts at all times, and needed to maintain “above-average” grades. He told us we should and could “always do better.”
I recall that following my first trimester at Chico Junior High I brought home straight B’s and cried because I knew that my father expected more of me. He probably told me that it was OK and that I could “do better.” The next term I improved, receiving mostly A’s and a couple of B’s.
Television was restricted. Reading, which was greatly encouraged, could—occasionally—get me out of some weekend chores.
In retrospect, I understand that his “protectiveness” was due to an awareness of potential harm for us if he did not hold tight on the reins.
My siblings and I received our education—kindergarten through university—in our hometown of Chico. I earned my bachelor’s degree in business administration, with an option in international business, in 1987. My three siblings received degrees in economics, social studies, and communications, respectively. We attended Chapman Elementary School, Chico Junior High School, Chico High School, and California State University, Chico.
This is how “native” I am: The Dorothy F. Johnson Neighborhood Center is named for our mother, who retired from her 30-year career as director there. It was formerly the Chapman Neighborhood Center. Our father—who worked as athletic trainer/equipment manager for Butte Community College and was recognized statewide for his exemplary skills in treating and preventing sports injuries—was inducted into the Chico Sports Hall of Fame during his retirement. He was also a mentor to students of many backgrounds.
My adored Sunday-school teacher was Chico’s first black nurse. Mind you, this was in the 1960s. Later, she became Chico Unified School District’s first black teacher. She still “subs,” and is a family friend. Her son, a fellow student in that Sunday-school class, became the Chico Police Department’s first black officer.
My older cousin, the daughter of my Uncle Alois (my favorite uncle), was Chico Junior High’s first black and female student-body president. Some 20 years later my “baby-est” sister, as I affectionately like to refer to her, became that school’s second black, female student-body president.
Our parents encouraged—my father insisted—that his children maintain good grades. We were allowed to do activities related to school, but there was no “hangin’ out” for the “Johnson kids,” as we were known in our community and at school. As a result, we played musical instruments and participated in sports, theater, and other extracurricular activities.
Earlier, I mentioned our father’s strictness. It did not occur to me, however, until I began writing this story that I had “stuffed” the memory of the murder of a sweet 22-year-old named Jimmy Lee Campbell.
Jimmy, whose family also attended the small church in our neighborhood, was shot to death in 1979 by two drunk and drug-addled young white men and a white woman from Oroville who had set out to go hunting for deer. When they couldn’t find any deer, they tried to find a cow to shoot. Failing that, they decided to drive to Chico to “kill a nigger.” They shot Jimmy from their car as he walked down Park Avenue near 20th Street and killed him.
As an adult and parent, I can’t begin to imagine the horror of the small group of black parents in Chico at that time that had recently migrated from the rural South, including Jimmy’s family.
Only in writing this story have I made the correlation between Jimmy’s murder and my father’s unwavering commandment that his children come “straight home” after school every day. We were allowed to take recreational bike rides only a few blocks from our homes. Our friends’ parents were just as rigid.
I have received other verbal assaults from cowardly white men through the years, as they’ve driven by in their vehicles. I remember taking a walk in 1992, again intended to be leisurely, when a truck drove past me, my former spouse, and our toddler son, who was in his stroller. Someone threw a half-empty soda can at us as we walked near the West Lindo Channel. An angry voice yelled, “Nigger lover!” I presumed it was directed toward my ex, who is white.
My children have had their own experiences that are uniquely a result of being people of color.
I remember when my son was in the first grade, I walked into his classroom to find him sitting alone eating his lunch while the teacher sat with a small group of students. When I asked him if he wanted to be alone, he sadly told me “no.” My heart sank. Earlier that year he was passed over and not allowed to present his family biography due to a “time constraint.” His biography included photos of his biracial family. I felt terrible for him, as would any mother of a sweet and friendly child.
A few years ago our daughter, who was in the sixth grade at Hooker Oak Elementary School, was called into the principal’s office to be dealt with by a Chico police officer because a parent did not like the way she “looked at him.” Neither her father nor I was notified until after the fact, though each of us was accessible by phone.
When I talked about the 2007 assault and my resulting feelings of fear and mistrust at a recent group-therapy meeting, someone suggested that my problems were “largely of my own making” and implied that perhaps I ought to know better than to show up in public being, apparently, black and female.
Fortunately, I had been receiving private counseling prior to these recent events. I was told by my therapist that I exhibit signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder from the 2007 attack, as well as other incidents throughout my life. Ya think?!
Growing up, I had very good friendships with mostly whites, some African Americans (there were so few of us), Mexican-Americans and Native Americans. I never heard my parents speak disparagingly of any group of people, and am still shocked to know that people do sometimes teach their children to fear, mistrust, and even hate others.
My proverbial voice shakes now as I have been encouraged to share these experiences, and long-held tears are finally being released as I begin to fully feel the pain. Recently, while I sat at a local church fundraiser, I was reminded that “we do what we do to make things better for those following us.” This statement was made by a retired woman, who happens to be white, as she recalled her father’s words explaining his dedication to his union work. This was and is courageously modeled to me by my parents and many other elders in the community.
When people hear that I’m “from Chico,” they often imagine a completely idyllic scenario at all times. They say things like “Wow!” and “It must have been really cool growing up here!”
And, I agree, there are many advantages to living in this community.
But, when I read the bumper sticker “Chico Is My Hometown”—which I’ve thought about purchasing—I wonder how many are aware of the multiplicity of experiences of people here. Not only such things as the brutal, unwarranted attack on me in 2007 and the assault on the Chico State A.S. president mentioned earlier, but also the less tragic accounts, which are just as indicative of the sickness of the minds of some, such as public buses not stopping to let a black person on and a CSU professor, a black woman, being arrested by a University Police woman because she was in a restricted area and was not believed, and could not “prove” that she was a professor there. She was not carrying “identification.” When she gave her name and stated that she was, in fact, on staff she was told by the officer that she “did not believe her.” I have no reason to suspect these stories to be contrived.
One of my dear friends proposed to me that writing my story is like giving birth. I think it’s so. It’s been exhausting, exciting, a little fearful—but with a huge amount of hope.
Over the past several days, several women have organized a support circle for my coming out with my story. An elder Native American woman, Bebba, will offer her drumming and singing to start and end this ceremony-of-sorts.
Initially, when this gathering was offered as a support and celebration, part of me felt a little undeserving. But, as words from different people have come by e-mail, there’s an overwhelming consensus that I have taken a courageous step in letting my story be known. As we hold hands in that circle and the women offer their prayers and well-wishes, the gift I hope to receive is that others, too, can share their—maybe long-held—stories, and tell us about where they get their strength and inspirations. There is healing, understanding, and strengthening in the stories.
I believe my late father will look on approvingly, from the other side, as his eldest daughter gains strength in her heart and legs from the Native drum, as he had come to appreciate her love of her ancestral African drumming and dance. He might probably say something like, “That’s good. Uhmm-hmm! But, you can do better.” And in the tradition of my parents and their parents’ parents’ parents, I intend to “do better.”
“If the Lord says the same…” and “In Jesus.” Amen.