Reflections on living black in Chico
“If I could take on the skin of a black man, live whatever might happen and then share that experience with others, perhaps at the level of shared human experience, we might come to some understanding that was not possible at the level of pure reason.”
—John Howard Griffen, when asked why he wrote Black Like Me
What does it mean to be an African-American living in Chico, where only 2 percent of the population is black? What is it like?
Short of putting on blackface and recreating John Howard Griffin’s experience in his 1961 classic Black Like Me, most Chicoans will never know. That racism exists in America in the 21st century is undeniable. It may not be as blatant as it was 40 years ago, but it is still here, no matter what the enemies of affirmative action may want you to believe.
Recent events in our fair town—the long and grueling effort to name something of significance in Chico after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the shooting death of a black man by police in early June—have once again sparked accusations of institutional bigotry and prejudice here.
While those accusations may be a bit overwrought, what they do show is the great gulf of misunderstanding that still exists between white and black America.
In the fight to get some recognition for King, most white people simply can’t understand the connection—the great civil-rights leader never even came to Chico, they argued. Hell, there aren’t that many black people here, anyway.
Members of the coalition behind the effort to honor King were mystified by the resistance. How could anyone oppose naming something after the greatest martyr in the country’s history?
The coalition fractured when two of its senior members, Willie Hyman and Joe Person Sr., had a falling out over a comment made by Hyman and printed in this paper.
Jackie Leser, a white member of the coalition, proposed adding King’s name to the 20th Street Community Park. A frustrated Hyman said white people had no say in this issue. Person, a calm and tolerant black man in his 70s, came to Leser’s defense, and Hyman, who is quick to anger and cry foul, moved on to other issues, like the June 3 shooting of a black man by police in a southeast Chico neighborhood.
Chico and Butte County have had their share of unashamed racists. There is Greg Withrow, a proud white supremacist who lives in Palermo and occasionally distributes hate fliers in minority neighborhoods.
Go back a few years, and we have Perry “Red” Warthan, self-proclaimed Nazi who lived in Oroville and was convicted in the early 1980s of killing an Oroville teen, a recruit who sealed his fate when he stole Warthan’s revolver. Warthan died in prison in 1999.
Incidents in Paradise—teens shooting a construction worker in the leg with a nail gun because he is black, hate messages and swastikas scrawled on private property, numerous other acts of bigotry and hate—have given rise to the Paradise Center for Tolerance and Non-violence. Recently the center held a rally. A caller to the Paradise Post’s 49er Speakeasy, protesting that event, made the case that the Ridge is racially tolerant because “Paradise far exceeds most towns in Oriental and Mexican food restaurants.”
To learn more about what it’s like to be black in America and Butte County, we turned to some people who know. One is Joe Person, who moved here from the South more than 40 years ago. Another is Anthony Porter, a writer and editor who moved to Chico from Minneapolis just two years ago. And the third is Michelle Brown, who is also a writer and has offered her impressions of Chico and Butte County gained while on a short visit here from her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa. We learned much from them. Perhaps you will, too.
From the Deep South to Butte County
Joe Person Sr. and his journey to Chico
If you want a taste of race relations in America’s not-so-distant past, you need look no further than the recently opened Chico Air Museum.
There, near the polished wood desk of World War II hero and flying ace Jimmy Doolittle, is a framed copy of the front page of the March 3, 1944, Chico Enterprise newspaper featuring a story on the Chico airport’s becoming only the fourth Air Force air base in the nation.
Mixed in with war news and local gossip on that yellowing front page are two United Press stories. One is headlined, “Negro Confesses Slaying Librarian of National Cathedral” and reports that a “34-year-old Negro handyman has confessed that he killed Catherine Cooper Reardon, 37, comely acting librarian of the National Cathedral” in Washington D.C.
The other carries the headline, “Arguments Made in Negro Slaying.” This one is about Robert E. Lee Folks, “the negro driving car cook” facing a death sentence for the murder of Martha Virginia James of Norfolk, Va., during a train ride through Oregon.
Two stories about unconnected and distant crimes, linked together with the demonization of all black men in America.
When these stories were printed, Joe Person Sr. was a teenager living in the Deep South. Today he lives in Chico, geographically, chronologically and philosophically light years away from that past. Person is 76 and a veteran of the Korean War, sent there as a young man to defend America’s way of life, which included grinding racial injustice.
For years Person ran a barbeque restaurant at Fifth and Mangrove, and he still operates a catering company. Pearl is a semi-retired school teacher, who still teaches a special-ed class.
Sitting in the living room of his comfortable home in south Chico, Joe Person talked about growing up in Russell County, Ala., and raising a family here in Chico, which he has called home since 1964.
The shelves and the tables of the living room are lined with photos of his and wife Pearl’s three children, Debbie, Joe Jr. and Johnny, the only black officer on the Chico Police Department, and their eight grandchildren.
Russell County in the 1930s and ‘40s, when Joe was growing up, was about as deep into the Deep South as you could get.
“In Alabama, when I grew up there, you were scared to go to the white community not because of the people, but because of the police,” he recalled. “If they saw you there at a certain time you’d get picked up. You’d get beat up if you didn’t pull your hat off when they came up to you. That was the thing that you worried about in Alabama.
“You had to say, ‘Yes sir,’ ‘No sir’ to the man. I remember Dean, a white policeman there who had that evening shift from 4 to midnight. He used to come up into the black community when the clubs were having their parties in the evening, during the prime time, and he’d walk around like Wild Bill Hickok—that’s what we called him—'cause he’d have his gun strapped to his side so everybody could see it. He’d walk into the kitchen and just all over the place like he owned it.
“I remember one time, I was about 14 or 15, we were up on the block—that means a bunch of us boys would congregate in a yard somewhere. There were about eight of us sitting there at the time. Dean walks up with this other fella. Something had happened, we never did find out what.
“We all wore hats or caps back then. Dean walked up to Shed, and he slapped Shed, knocked his hat off his head. ‘Nigger,’ he said, ‘when a white man comes up to you, pull your hat off.’
“He got to James Riley and James Riley had pulled his hat off. Dean said, ‘Nigger, what you been doing? Where you been?’ Riley said, ‘Mr. Dean, we been up here a whole hour, so we been here.’ Then he got to me and slapped me and asked me the same thing.
“My daddy had a closet in his bedroom, and way back up in the corner of the closet he had a little shoebox where he had his .45. He’d got it from his daddy. He always left it loaded. I knew it was up there and my mind got on that and I said, ‘No. This man slapped me for nothing and he’s vulnerable. I’m gonna kill him. He’s dead.’
“That’s how I felt then. I’d had it with the guy and the way he’d come up and slappin’ people and knockin’ their hats off.
“He got to me and I said, ‘Mr. Dean I don’t know what you’re lookin’ for or who you’re lookin’ for or for what,’ I said, ‘but please don’t hit me.’ I wasn’t beggin’ him. He felt it. He said, ‘This nigger ain’t done nothing. Let’s go.’ He felt what I felt, and he thought, ‘I’m gonna die.’ I felt like maybe justice was done. What else could I think? He’d backed off. It was just a case of standing up for the right thing. He had no business coming up slapping teenagers like that for nothing. But that’s the way it was. That’s the way it was in all areas back then.”
Person said most of the parents of his friends raised them to treat all people the same.
“My dad taught me to fear white people because he knew what would happen if I spoke out. When I came out of the Army in 1953—I’d been in Korea for about 16 months—we went to a bank. I was 24, and a young guy about 30 years old was with the bank. Well, I was saying ‘Yes” and ‘No’ to him, and my dad steps in and starts saying, ‘Yes sir,’ ‘No sir.’ That was the mentality of black men. I remember that day well; it was about a month after I’d gotten out. That memory is still in my mind and I realize now that my dad was trying to protect me.”
Between Russell County and Chico, Joe and Pearl lived in Chicago for three years, moving there in 1953, right after Joe was discharged from the Army. They then moved just down the road to East Chicago, Ind., where all three of their children were born.
In Chicago, Person said, he didn’t feel open racism but saw its manifestations in the fact that all the bosses at Youngstown Sheet and Tool, where he worked, were white.
“We had guys who were qualified to be labor foremen,” he said. “They knew how to do it better, but they just didn’t get the jobs.”
In 1964 the family moved to Chico, and Joe and Pearl have been in the same house ever since. After renting for nearly 25 years, they purchased the house in the late 1980s.
Person recalled how in the 1970s conservative African-American columnist Thomas Sowell would visit and lecture in Butte County. He was brought here by, of all groups, the John Birch Society.
“I remember going up to Paradise to hear him,” Person said. “I was like a fly in a glass of buttermilk; I was the only black person there, except for Sowell and he was at the head of the audience.”
Sowell’s message was that Martin Luther King and the entire civil rights movement were “duped by the communists,” Person said. “To that I would say, when somebody is reaching down and helping you out of a hole, you don’t care if they are communist or whatever. You’re just trying to get out of that hole.”
The struggle to get something named for Martin Luther King was first brought to Joe’s attention by Willie Hyman in February 2004.
“He’d asked for some streets that were historically connected to be named for King, and he was sort of turned down. Then he went into an Internal Affairs meeting with the city where he sort of bogged down. Then he asked for Vallombrosa to be named for King, which was another dead deal because the Bidwells donated that street to the city.”
A few weeks later, coalition member Jackie Leser suggested naming the park after King, and Hyman was quoted in this paper saying that a white person had no business getting involved.
“That in my opinion was a bad thing to say because Dr. King wouldn’t want us to do that,” Person said. “We’re talking about the inclusion of all races. Everybody has a chair in this. The people participating in the coalition are white, Latino, Asian. It’s a coalition.”
At the Sept. 17 meeting, Person said he was told, “If you want something to honor that man, that man, you come and build it yourself.”
“Dr. King is one of the most recognized men in the 20th century. Trust me, I know. He brought me out of the muck.
“I raised my kids to love everybody. There is so much good in the worst people in the world, so much bad in the best people in the world, so we’ve got no business hating anybody; we should judge people individually.”
‘Living among rattlesnakes’
Anthony Porter on being black in America
Anthony Peyton Porter, 59, was bornand raised in Chicago. In 1984 he moved to Minnesota to pursue a job. Two years ago he and his wife, who is white, and their two young sons moved to Chico so she could attend graduate school at Chico State University.
Payton is a published writer whose spoken commentaries can be heard regularly on community radio station KZFR.
As a writer and social commentator, he is not shy about sharing his thoughts and observations and comes across as a man very much comfortable in his own skin.
He says that, while the specter of discrimination is always hanging in the air when you are member of a minority class, defining it is no simple task.
“You never know how it’s affecting things, how sentences are phrased or just about anything. There is nothing I can do about it. And you’ll drive yourself crazy if you don’t learn to accept it. For a black man not to go crazy in America is an accomplishment. I think there are tremendous forces arrayed against you. And then there are certain advantages.”
His skin color, he said, seems to carry a lot of importance when it comes to how he is received by white society.
“With white people, the most important thing about me is that I’m black,” he notes. “Not that I have books in print.”
Those books include Jump at de Sun: The Story of Zora Neale Hurston, which can be found at Barnes & Noble and amazon.com, and Can He Say That?, a collection of essays, which is available at Black Oak Books in Berkeley and Carol’s Books in Sacramento. Payton recently edited and designed the cover of Bidwell Park: The Beginnings by M. Jeanne Boze.
His Web site (www.anthonypeytonporter.com) says this: “Mr. Porter has also edited outright lies and has no preference in that regard, except lies are easier.. He has admitted responsibility for the quotations on the walls of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial, at First Street and Second Avenue East in Duluth, Minnesota. Carla Stetson designed the memorial, and it’s a stunner. See it.
“Mr. Porter has been repeatedly accused of poetry and remains at large in California, of all places, whoring for a multinational retailer. Go figure.”
Porter’s radio commentaries can be heard on Thursdays at 9:55 a.m., Saturdays at 10 a.m., Sundays at 12:58 p.m. and Mondays at 11:25 a.m. at 90.1 FM.
Chico News & Review: I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to be African-American in a town that is overwhelmingly white and where most of those white people think everything’s OK.
Anthony Porter: Well, I’m here because my wife is going through graduate school at the university. So we moved here almost two years ago from Minneapolis (after living there 18 years). I was born and bred in Chicago, and I grew up on the Southside, where there were just millions of black people! Just all over. So moving to Minnesota was a shock.
What took you to Minnesota?
I was tired of Chicago and wanted to see something else. A buddy of mine had moved up there a few years before and told me about a job. So I said fine. Ten days later, I was there. Minneapolis and St. Paul are way more culturally diverse than anything around here, anything in Northern California that I’ve seen. There’s a whole African community in Minneapolis, from Somalia and Ethiopia. There’s a huge Hmong population. And there’s a large Native American population. So this is the whitest place I’ve ever been. And having been in Minnesota for 18 years, I’m used to being the only black guy in the room, but it was not necessarily a room filled with white people.
Did you get overt bias or discrimination directed against you in Minneapolis, or were you pretty well accepted?
Yeah, I was accepted in Minneapolis. I was harassed by the cops, but that’s a given.
Was it the same thing in Chicago?
Yes, but it was different in Chicago because there were a lot of black cops, which really changed things, even if they are all cops and it doesn’t necessarily make it better. It just tips things. That was really all. I did OK in Minneapolis. There are always times where you know there’s something going on, but you can’t really verbalize that.
What, you just have a feeling?
Sometimes it’s a feeling. Sometimes it’s subtle changes in behavior. Sometimes it’s being asked for an ID to write a check when the guy just in front of me wasn’t asked, you know?
You notice these things, obviously, so you’ve got to start taking them personally…
Well, I don’t, though, because it’s not about me, it’s about him.
How long does that take to get to that point? I mean, when you were younger, did you get angrier?
Probably. But you know, I think youthful boisterousness is going to get in the way a lot of the time. And then, I don’t know how much of what you learn is just part of getting old.
Do you get tired of it?
I just accept it. You have to or you stay mad all the time. It’s like if you live among a lot of rattlesnakes. You can be neurotic about that or you can adjust; you know—learn to survive. And at least accept reality.
What are your impressions after two years in Chico? How would you describe the situation of being an African-American living here?
Well, I’d say there is nothing that is blatant. California strikes me as a kind of place where the government and the laws have a higher profile than they’d seem to somewhere else. People seem very aware of legal transgressions and that possibility of being sued by somebody for leaving themselves open. So I see a lot of apparent care being taken in most interactions. People are very careful not to offend me.
Does it seem sort of forced and artificial?
Sometimes, and I think often it’s a sign of prejudice. It may not be overtly malevolent, but they’ve already assumed something about my attitude. Just like when you were talking about the woman who has the African Connection. [I told Anthony that I’d considered interviewing an African-American business woman for this story but reasoned there would be no profit for her in critiquing the community that shops in her store.] What I heard was that somewhere in the back of your head is the notion that for whatever reason she would not be socially or morally sophisticated enough not to incriminate herself; you know, stick her neck out.
So because people are generally careful around you, you don’t get that much [outward discrimination]. We have some friends, the boys have made friends, and there are great people here, but Chico has an attitude, particularly the local government. We’re just starting to learn some of the things they do. I’m just starting to get a feel for Chico as a unit. It takes a while.
You mentioned the cops earlier…
[Laughs.] We drive an old Honda, so you know…
Driving as a minority? The white community doesn’t think about it.
I don’t see the reason they should.
What’s been your impression of the coalition to get something named for Dr. Martin Luther King?
I met Joe Person at the Dorothy Johnson Center last fall. They were having some presentation on housing that’s going up on 16th Street, and they were showing some plans. Joe said he was involved in this effort to name 20th Street Community Park. He told me he was involved in this effort, and would I get some petitions signed? I told him I didn’t think so because I had seen and heard of things named after King all over the country and I that I thought it was a gesture, almost certainly empty as far as the city is concerned. You know, as far as the people who can really decide this kind of stuff are concerned—they don’t care.
Although I don’t see any real value in more people knowing about King, because I think pretty much everybody already does in this country, I thought there would be some value to people knowing about his ideas. I thought it would make the most sense to maybe put up some of his quotes and what expresses the things that people most revere about Dr. King. But just calling it King Park is a waste of time, and it wouldn’t be worth doing the signs, and that’s still what I think.
The ideas get lost. In two public schools I know of in Chico, as far as I can tell, everything they learn about King is on a worksheet. That’s it. It doesn’t talk about his being anti-war or many of the other things he stood for. So I would rather see something that talks about his ideas.
There is a perception in a mostly white town like Chico that the black people all know each other, that you’re all on the same page. Do you resent it when you’re asked to represent the whole black community?
Well, I’m pretty much always Mr. Black Man. Since I left Chicago…
It’s like, “So tell us about the black race.”
Right. What does the Negro want? I don’t know.
We had an intern from Sacramento, and I asked her once if she was offended by something, and she said, “I don’t speak for all black people; what are you asking me for?”
Right. At this point, what somebody looks like really doesn’t tell you much about how they think.
You’re 59. How far has America come?
I think people are more polite and have better manners, so in that way I think things are better. You know that’s a very small thing in the big picture because we are still militaristic and tyrannical.
African-Americans in high places are expected to be liberal.
I’m sure people are confused by Condoleezza Rice. She’s a human. There is a wide range of modes of behavior.
It sort of throws people a curveball.
That’s good. In some ways, Condoleezza and Colin Powell and folks like that are good because they go against the stereotype.
They run the risk of being called Uncle Tom—the sellout.
A lot of black people expect some kind of racial solidarity. They expect us to think the same way. Even black people are human. We don’t do all the same things.
The movement today by gays, some say, is just like the civil-rights movement of the ‘60s, but some veterans from those days disagree.
Yeah, because there are a lot of black people who don’t approve of homosexuality. There’s just rampant homophobia among black people. Black people are as goofy as any other group, just in different ways, and even that statement is not true because it assumes we’re all the same, but we’re not. We have something in common, part of the gene pool in common, but that’s it.
It’s interesting how young white kids are influenced by rap; they adopt that lingo.
My sons do it because they get it from little white boys at school.
How do you raise your kids and what do you tell them about race relations?
I tell them the truth as I know it. I mean they pretty much know the history of black people in this country. They know that black people are discriminated against, especially black men. They know that. They don’t really look black, and they know that if some people knew they were black, half-black, that they would hold it against them. They know the outline, anyway, and I’m sure they’ve had trouble in school. But as far as I can tell, the trouble has been from black kids, back when they went to school with black kids.
In my experience, unfortunately, there are probably more black people, proportionately, who oppose miscegenation than white people. And I suppose that’s due to oppression.
A visitor describes her creeping sense of reality about Butte County
by Michelle Burton Brown
I live in Pittsburgh, Pa., a city that has had its share of race-related problems. It has come under scrutiny due to discriminatory public-housing practices, police brutality and racial profiling. In 2000, Pittsburgh earned national media attention when two separate, racially motivated shooting rampages, by both a black man and a white man, occurred within weeks of each other, resulting in a combined total of eight dead and three wounded.
It’s no secret that racism in Pittsburgh is deeply entrenched. Many neighborhoods and public schools remain segregated despite legislation outlawing housing discrimination and the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which was supposed to end segregation in federally funded schools. African Americans in Pittsburgh are accustomed to the blatantly racist tactics of law enforcement officials, politicians and businesses that are engineered to keep African Americans out of key decision-making positions.
While visiting my sister, who moved to Chico in 2002, I have been impressed by the multicultural events, diversity in the schools and neighborhoods, the beautiful parks and the bike-friendly roads. Many of the Chicoans I’ve encountered have been very friendly and smiled openly at me in a manner that often caught me off guard.
It was disconcerting at first, but I got used to it rather quickly and began to respond in the same friendly manner. I did not come to Chico in search of evidence of racism. In fact, my first few weeks here were a reprieve from the overt racism that I have come to know in Pittsburgh.
While sightseeing in downtown Chico on [Farmers'] Market day, I was approached by several local activists who were seeking signatures on a petition against a proposed parking structure. It amazed me that the most pressing issue in Chico seemed to be parking. On the surface, it appeared that Chico did not have the persistent racial problems of my hometown.
However, as I perused the local paper each day, my opinion began to change. What alerted me to the racism in Chico was the Enterprise-Record’s coverage of the recent shooting of a local African-American man by the police. The E-R covered the incident for several days, and the reporting was chillingly reminiscent of the type of one-sided coverage I’ve seen in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
Reading the article about the fatal shooting, I noted that the views presented were those of law enforcement and no one else. The young man’s past was presented in a manner that seemed intended to justify his death. He was portrayed as a menace to society whose foster-care placement, past illegal activities and self-destructive behavior led to his untimely death. As I read the article, I wondered what his family, friends and loved ones felt about his unfortunate death.
The next day’s follow-up story reported that based on an investigation conducted by the district attorney the shooting was justified.
The second incident that gave me a reality check was another story in the Enterprise-Record about a town called Paradise. My first week in Chico, I was warned by a young African-American woman not to go anywhere near the town of Paradise. When I asked why I should avoid it, she responded, “The Klan is there. Don’t go to Paradise under any circumstances.”
Last week, an article was written in the Enterprise-Record about the efforts of a few residents in Paradise who hope to eradicate its long history of racial intolerance and bigotry. The article reported incidents of African Americans who were run out of town, racist graffiti sprayed on buildings and interracial couples who were harassed. It is difficult for me to believe that a town as seemingly liberal as Chico—that is situated near a town as seemingly toxic as Paradise—is not in some way affected by its racist views and practices and vice-versa.
The third incident that I found disturbing was the year-long controversy over the naming of a public space after slain civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It appears that the Chico City Council is unable to come to an agreement on whether to rename a street and a park in honor of Dr. King’s legacy of racial solidarity.
Most Americans are aware that there is a national holiday in honor of Dr. King. He is the first African American in the history of the United States to be honored with a national holiday, a major achievement in itself. There are buildings, boulevards, schools and highways throughout the United States named after Dr. King. I am simply baffled as to why such a simple issue has been mired in controversy for over a year.
Even in Pittsburgh, we have the Martin Luther King Bus Way, Martin Luther King Elementary School and the Martin Luther King Reading Center.
It is not surprising that in a city that is only 2 percent African American there is less overt racism directed toward African Americans. One may see only between five and 10 African Americans per day. Compared to the number of other ethnic minorities one encounters on an average day in Chico, that’s not a lot.
Overall, the personal encounters I’ve had with teachers, police officers, residents, Chico State University students and service providers has been very positive. Chico is certainly a friendly town, yet the systemic racism I detect is not a figment of my imagination.
I’m from Pittsburgh, a city so steeped in racism that in 1995 the federal government approved a consent decree after finding that the local housing authority was systemically placing African Americans in segregated housing. And, in 1999, Pittsburgh earned the distinction of having the first police department in the United States to sign a federal court order agreeing to court oversight and independent monitoring by an outside agency.
Based upon my experience, I’m confident in asserting that racism is being practiced in Chico by influential private and public institutions, including the local daily paper, local law enforcement and local government.
Although discrimination should be unacceptable in any form, I’d rather see the type of blatant racism that exists in places like Paradise and Pittsburgh than be lulled into a false sense of security by bright smiles, empty gestures and phony clichàs. At least in a place like Paradise I understand exactly what I’m dealing with, know to keep my guard up at all times and have legal recourse that insists on accountability and has proven effective in exposing institutionalized racial discrimination.