Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published Jan 8, 2004


Fifty years ago Mary Cameron was kidnapped from her Mother and her Mississippi home by her Father and brought to Duluth, Minnesota. Back then Mississippi was a hellish world for Black Americans that few today can comprehend. The northern city he escaped to with his daughter was no Eden. It was a city with far fewer black residents than other northern industrial cities because most of the black population had fled from it thirty years before in 1920. That was the year that ten thousand white Duluthians lynched three innocent black men from a downtown lamppost.

Mary and her brothers and sisters grew up in this strangely white town before a more color tolerant society took hold. Soft and vulnerable on the inside, tough on the outside, Mary responded to racial sleights with her fists. Last night Mary Cameron was elected Chairman of the Duluth School Board.

As a result of behind-the-scenes maneuvers Mary’s selection was preordained. Laura Condon was not happy about this choice and took the opportunity to nominate a different candidate. Laura’s eulogy for her own nominee was really a veiled rebuke of Cameron who, Laura implied, would not work with the Superintendent, or be nice to the public.

It was ironic that Condon would suggest that Mary couldn’t work with the Superintendent. Six years ago Mary joined Laura in voting for Almanza, and not with her usual allies, thus guaranteeing Julio’s hiring.

However impolitic the rebuke it was not completely without foundation. Mary has a temper. As one of her admirers, however, I would hasten to note that I’ve never seen Mary’s temper flare unless she was addressed with contempt, accusation, or insinuation. Mary is not a good role-model for the kind of “Minnesota Nice” which simply veils hostility.

I introduced myself to Mary after I was told we might be running against each other for the Board. I was so impressed with Mary that I worked on her campaign as well as my own even though she was a Democrat and I was a Republican.

That’s when I discovered that Mary was graced with a rare quality for a politician - loyalty. I ran afoul of Duluth’s African American men’s group because I supported keeping a book with the offensive “n” word in it on the shelves of the Nettleton library. Although she disagreed with me on the merits of the book Mary stood by my side after I was attacked. It cost her votes and strained some of her friendships. 

Mary has always voted her own conscience even when it offended her traditional supporters. When she filed for reelection four years ago the President of AFSCME, Alan Netland, dropped by her office. He told her that “everyone” was “disappointed” with her.

Her offense was to have voted to give a charter school a chance to operate in Duluth. Since ISD 709 had a miserable record teaching minority children Mary reckoned that something had to be done. It cost her the DFL endorsement. As if that wasn’t bad enough another school board member organized a letter writing campaign which accused her of arrogance and indifference to Duluth. Mary lost the election but she didn’t give up. Two years later she ran again and this time she was elected.

Mary has good reason to have a chip on her shoulder. She grew up in a lily-white town with deep prejudices. Many of her classmates felt free to point out that she was different. As recently as last year some kids drove by and shouted the infamous “n” word at her.

Not all of her siblings survived the ordeal of growing up in Duluth. One of Mary’s sisters became a drug addict. An emotionally unstable brother was imprisoned for murder. The verdict on Mary herself wasn’t immediately apparent. Striking back got her removed from her home. A few years ago I met Judge Earl Gustafson and his wife who once let Mary stay at their home. Both of them had fond memories of Mary and remembered her as a girl who held rich promise.

The Mary I know is best reflected by a former neighbor who fondly recalled how Mary’s two boys always shoveled the snow off her sidewalk. I’ve always felt that this was a better measure of Mary’s temperament.

Last night an African-American School Board Chairman and an Hispanic-American Superintendent were at center stage. Both of these people have gone through some pretty rough patches to get where they are.  Almanza was enrolled in a tough public school in Chicago before he knew a word of English. He too learned to survive with his fists. Together these two have presided over something of a golden age in the Duluth School District despite enrollment losses, declining revenue and more controversies than you can shake a stick at. I just hope that the people who address the new school board keep in mind Aretha Franklin’s famous refrain: “Show a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com