My Reply to "Hick 4 Life"

June, 19, 2000
Duluth, MN 55XXX

Dear XXXX,

My family moved to Minnesota from Kansas when I started 7th grade. I was the only new kid in the entire school and the only one with a southern, or Kansan, accent. Kids called me "Reb," short for "rebel." I remember standing out on the playground at lunch while half a dozen guys whipped gravel at me and wondering why God had seen fit to send me where I didn't want to be. I wasn't black but I was different and there wasn't a separate school for me based on my accent.

When I was born in 1950 there were separate schools for some kids - black kids. Back in 1896 the Supreme Court agreed with you and said that states could set up separate schools for black Americans as long as they were equal. Lots of places had separate schools but they were rarely equal or even close to equal. That began to change in 1954 after Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. The Supreme Court changed its mind and ruled that even if separate schools were equal they really weren't equal because they sent the message that black children weren't good enough to be educated with white children. 

In 1958, when I was in second grade, I lived in Topeka, Kansas. One day I was sent out to the playground for an extra long recess. While I played, a long line of black children filed into our brand new school, each student carrying a chair stacked with schoolbooks. Kindergartners were first followed by first graders, second graders, and so on up to the sixth graders. Our teachers met them and sorted them into little groups and walked them to their new classrooms. 

Four years later when I was in sixth grade my classroom had 15 white kids, 15 black kids, and one Native American kid. I was in a minority. I liked some of the black kids. I invited Vicky to my Halloween party. I didn't like some of the black kids. Sherman grabbed my artwork for the whole year and threw it all over the playground. I judged each kid based on his or her actions not the color of their skin.

XXXX, you would separate all black and white kids because some of them don't get along. Its too bad that this should be so but its not the first time that kids have found an excuse to dislike each other. A hundred years ago in Duluth white kids and Indian kids squared off against each other. Seventy-five years ago Serbian kids were giving Italian kids bloody noses. Fifty years ago Protestant and Catholic kids were mixing it up and for the last twenty-five years white and black kids have had an uneasy time of it. These conflicts go back a long way.

When my Grandfather was born twenty years after the Civil War, there was only one black man in all of Salina County, Kansas. His name was Larry Lapsley. Larry had escaped from his slave owner during the Civil War and fled north through "Indian Territory" to Kansas. When Mr. Lapsley died my Grandfather's father was asked to help "prepare" Mr. Lapsley for the funeral. Apparently, my great-grandfather discovered one of slavery's dirty little secrets while dressing the body for the funeral. Mr. Lapsley's white owners had castrated him. That's how farmers keep male pigs, cows and horses from being troublesome. They turn them into barrows, steers and geldings. Not surprisingly, my Grandfather grew up feeling pretty sympathetic to black people even though he didn't really know any.

When America got into World War I my Grandfather volunteered to serve in the Army. He ended up serving as a white officer in an all black infantry unit from Harlem, New York. I think my Grandfather was shocked at how different these black men from Harlem were from him. My Grandfather was a college graduate and had been a school principal. Very few of his troops had finished high school and the schools they had attended were separate and unequal. Just one generation from slavery, forced to live separately from white people, denied an equal education, these men were not at all like my Grandfather except that when they were shot they bled red blood like any other man. 

I don't think my Grandfather much liked his soldiers but for the rest of his life he told anyone who would ask that his black soldiers were as good at their work as any white soldier. My Grandfather must have known something about being a good soldier because he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Infantry Division that my Grandfather commanded was the 369th. The officer corps of the American Expeditionary Force didn't want black soldiers serving in the American army so General Pershing gave the 369th Infantry to the French Army. That was how racist American society was. Every year hundreds of black men were lynched in America. In fact, just two years after the war was over ten thousand Duluth citizens gathered to watch three more black men lynched on a lamppost down on Second Street. It was the best show in town.

XXXX, our nation was founded on higher ideals of freedom and equality than our forefathers were willing to abide by even though they put those ideals on paper in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Each generation since the American Revolution has had the chance to more perfectly honor those ideals. When President Lincoln dedicated a cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania filled with Civil War casualties, he reminded Americans that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had tried to build a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." 

In the old days Americans lived by the "one drop" rule. One drop of black blood in a person's genealogy condemned them to second class status. A child who had seven white great-grand parents and one black great-grand parent was a "nigger." Look around your school, XXXX. There are plenty of black kids at Central with more white blood in them than black. Where would you have them go to school?

Fights in our schools are not acceptable, hatred is not acceptable and neither is racism. Our students, all of our students, deserve each other's respect. We obviously still have some work to do but segregation is not the answer. It may not be easy but I'd ask you to live by the ideals which will make your school the one you deserve and our nation the one our founders had in mind.


Harry Welty
2nd District School Board
2101 E 4th St.
Duluth, MN 55812