Racism: Part 1 Ignorance and Fear, pre-Toy Factory.

    I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1960s, and experienced the effects of racism and rioting throughout my junior and high school years. My experiences of schools emptying within minutes, arrivals of ambulances and police cars, having riot police as hallway monitors and the rising tension between blacks and whites leading to violence on a daily basis, were mirrored by students of that era in larger cities like Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. As a result, people are genuinely surprised to learn that Des Moines too, had its civil rights turmoil.
    I grew up in an old neighborhood on the city's east side. My elementary school was only a couple blocks away from my house,  on Des Moines Street, east of the railroad tracks. Brooks was an integrated school, having a body of 'culturally-mixed' students, if not teachers. We played together on the playground, as kids do. Two of my classmates, one black and one white, were close friends, who lived near one another and sometimes stayed over night at each other's homes - -  until we went into junior high and the seventh grade, when everything changed and they became distant, separated by this thing called 'race.'
    The demarcation line deciding which junior high school I attended was the railroad tracks east of our house. If I lived west of the tracks, I'd go to Amos Hiatt, and if I lived east of the tracks I'd go to Woodrow Wilson. I lived west of the tracks. My older sister had to go to Amos too, in the 1950s. Amos had a bad reputation as a rough school even in those days.   
    Racial conflict perplexed me. Granted, I was naive, had no idea about racial inequality, couldn't figure out why we 'got along' in sixth grade, so why we couldn't get along in seventh. The hostilities increased dramatically, but I was warned junior high would be like that anyway. Shaken down for lunch money on more than one occasion, made me wary of anyone bigger, stronger, taller than myself, especially the guys who looked a whole lot older- - and were, since they were held in ninth grade until they passed, or someone 'passed' them into senior high school.
   Back then, the predominant mix was 'Euro-Americans,' Mexican-Americans,' and Afro-Americans,'- -and maybe a few Native Americans, who we didn't know about as they were still the invisible race until 1968- - when nothing was politically correct and ignorance and fear held the day. 
    As disappointed I was to have to go to Amos, I decided it was a good learning experience once I got to high school. By that time, I had a few black friends who had my back and on more than one occasion prevented something unfortunate from happening to me when the odds weren't in my favor. I, in turn, prevented unfortunate things from happening to classmates, many of whom went to Woodrow Wilson or Des Moines' far west side schools, who couldn't read the signs of impending doom on either side of the racial line.
    During the rise of the Black Panthers, and a situation with two of them that I found myself in, (the premise of which memory fails me presently), my butt was saved by a black female classmate who warned them, in no uncertain terms, to leave me alone, and for whom I was eternally thankful. It paid to have friends like Suzanne, several times. 
    But it wasn't always stress and violence between races, although it dominated newspaper headlines. Calm heads prevailed through the darkest times. Not everyone was out to destroy whomever they met. Fear was felt on all sides of the spectrum so many chose to tread lightly.
    Between the violence on the streets, on college campuses, all the civil unrest of the era, Viet Nam, I chose to escape the urban life  and moved to rural northwest Minnesota. I wanted to leave racism and hatred behind me. I wanted to get away from it all, but learned otherwise. Racists just trade one race for another. . .
    
























Comments

Popular Posts