Looking ahead through the lens of history

Cripple_Creek_,_Colorado_,_1957_,_Kodachrome_by_Chalmers_ButterfieldA printer-friendly version is available here.

Donna Bryson is a US-based writer whose study of race relations among young South Africans, It’s a Black White Thing, won first place in the nonfiction category of the National Federation of Press Women’s 2015 book contest. She is at work on her second book, about the return to small town America of veterans of the war on terror. Donna tweets @donnaindenver

Research on life in a small town in America led me to a local history reading room in western Colorado. There, I found a photocopy of a closely typed pamphlet titled Passing of the Two-Gun Era: Memoirs of the late Alva W. Galloway, Cowboy, Rancher, County Official and Businessman. It was bound with tape and cardboard and, according to a hand-scrawled note, written in 1940.

Galloway recounted working for a newspaper in the southern Colorado town of Pueblo when an uncle persuaded him he could find his fortune farther west. Arriving in the 1880s, six weeks after the incorporation of Montrose, Colorado as a town, he found plenty of other dream chasers:  young men “seeking work in the mines, little co-ed graduates of the East just landing in the big open West seeking a job as school teachers and eventually landing a good-looking cow puncher in marriage and growing up with the country.’’

Montrose wasn’t much for looks,’’ Galloway remembered. “But, boy, there were things doing that you had no idea of. One could at any time of day or night strike a $5.00-ante poker game or over at the hotel meet all kinds of mine promoters just returning from the east with pockets of money gleaned from the poor suckers who wanted to own a gold mine and suddenly become rich.’’

He concluded his reminiscences with a description of the Ku Klux Klan’s role in a 1924 U.S. Senate election. My initial response was to recoil from something that did not fit the stereotype of the West on which so much of our image of America is based, and about which Galloway wrote so vividly. I had to return to the library a day later to take proper notes on Galloway’s final passages.

The Klan, by exploiting prejudices and appealing to a narrow vision of what it meant to be American, had spread into the southwest from the south following the Civil War. The KKK dominated Colorado politics in the 1920s. Galloway wrote that during that 1924 race, Klansmen swept around town in a silent, menacing campaign against the local favorite for Senate. They even went into churches.

“When these boys, sheathed in long white shrouds with slitted holes in the hood for eyesight, long white gloves covering the hands, entered the place of worship, everything folded up in the beat of an eyelash, the atmosphere took on a ghostified eery feeling, a sensation often felt in the presence of the dead.’’

Galloway linked the Klansmen to one death and to threats against a resident known only as “colored Bob.”

In 1862, the passage of the Homestead Act had helped speed settlement of areas that would become Colorado and other states. The act offered land to adult heads of household who had never taken up arms against the United States and could pay a small filing fee, build a home and farm and endure for five years. Freed slaves and women were as entitled to land as white men.

The rise of the Klan showed the Homestead Act’s offer of opportunity to black Americans had not set well with some of their fellow countrymen.  There’s little evidence many blacks ever joined Galloway’s “colored Bob’’ in inhospitable territory. According to the U.S. Census estimate for 2013, Montrose today is overwhelmingly white – 86 percent.

By 2030, we will be at the dawn of a historic population shift. By some time in the 2040s, experts say, Latinos, blacks and other minorities will together comprise the majority of Americans. Our country’s experience of race relations gives little reason to hope the coming demographic change will be smooth.

The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie- who grew up in Nigeria, was educated in the United States and has written about both countries-  said in an oft-shared TED talk: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’’

Adichie lamented that the single story often told of her own country and continent is a negative one. I propose that the single story of America that focuses on the winners and glosses over the subjugation leaves us without the language or the resources to cope with change. We’re hobbled by the history we forget.

And not just the sweeping, big histories. We need a complete roster of personal stories as well.

When I was a freshman at Northwestern University, a generation ago, white men in a passing car shouted a racial slur at me as I strolled on the edge of the lakeside campus near Chicago. I was grateful the men did not stop to assault me. Hunching my shoulders, I walked on, thinking I should be careful where I wandered alone. I did not talk about that frightening moment to anyone, not wanting to hear that I was overreacting or that nothing could or would be done to ensure I and other African-Americans felt safe on a campus that was overwhelmingly white.

This summer, we’ve heard protests from young black students in campuses across the United States who aren’t grateful things aren’t worse. Students who think they should be safe not only on their own campuses, but anywhere in America.

These students have courageously shared stories that, if they don’t redefine race relations in our country, at least give us an opportunity to have a frank discussion about where we are.  Backlash is likely, as the Klan’s history tells us. But in 2030, I predict these young people will be continuing the conversation as professors and administrators on the campuses where they now are protesting, and at other pursuits in the wider world.

Galloway, that old newspaperman who wrote about the Klan in Montrose, left a reminder that America has been multicultural since its earliest days, but that the struggle for equal treatment and true democracy is much more recent.

The past can be instructive. But not if we only take note of the exceptional chapters. If we accept that in places like Montrose, the current racial profile was the result of considered action, perhaps we can be more considered about our own actions as our world and our sense of our place in it changes.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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