No, I haven’t died. Yet.
It’s been a long time either since I published a story or wrote an update, so I would understand if you think I had died. But nope…I’m alive and well. Given that you have a dog in this hunt, I figured I owed it to you to let you know what I’ve been up to.
My last story, the one on housing, was published in February or maybe March. I was in Portland chasing that story in January. Since then I’ve been back and forth to Denver several times chasing a story or two there. But one of my key contacts there, an elderly woman, is undergoing cancer treatments and feels bad way more often then she feels like talking. So that project is on hold until January when she will have completed her treatments.
It’s kind of strange, this chasing stories thing. When I head out I don’t necessarily know what the story is going to be. Most of the folks in Denver that I have talked with want to talk about losing Five Points, their historical black neighborhood, to gentrification and politics. But Jane, the elderly woman, seems to have a much more compelling story (to me) about the life and times of her grandfather in the early days of Denver when it really was just a cow town.
But it is interesting the stories these older folks have to tell. An elderly gentleman in Denver showed me the building that his father owned and wanted to turn into affordable housing for veterans. But he couldn’t do business with the bank because the address was in the black part of town. It was a large corner building. So he boarded up the entrance on one street and knocked an entrance on the other street, thus giving the building - the SAME building - an address in the white section of town and he was then able to do business. Go figure.
So I’ve been on the road again for about 10 days now. I passed through Sheridan WY to talk with a fine man about the confederate flags that he sells. I wondered who his customers were and what was the motivation for Wyomingites (Wyomingers?) to buy and fly a symbol of the old south. Are they hoping it will rise again? Are they hoping to 'Take America Back' to when it was great? I got one man’s answer. Turns out that his customers are all history buffs and simply want a piece of history. So now you know the answer to the mystery question. He had a lot of other nonsense to chat about as well.
I’m writing this from Helena. A beautiful small city with a number of very good breweries (I hear) nestled in the foothills of west central Montana. I ended up here because I was curious about the monument to the Confederacy - the northernmost such monument on public land in the country - that was removed a year ago following the tragedy in Charlottesville. I was curious how a monument to the confederacy came to be in a northwest state that wasn’t even a state at the time of the Civil War. This is turning into a fascinating story, the short version of which is that Montana was a lure to post-war Confederates and was very much a southern sympathizing state. So much so that the territory was refused its first application for statehood precisely due to it’s southern leanings. That explains Davis Street, Davis Gulch, Jackson Street, Confederate Gulch, the small section of town called Unionville, and many other names associated with the Old South. Who knew? But in a state almost devoid of African Americans the question of who crafts who gets to live in a place is a compelling one.
The monument was given to the city fifty years after the war by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group (who refuses to speak to me) that has always presented themselves as a group of genteel southern ladies who merely wish to honor their brave ancestors. But….secret backstory...it turns out that the Southern Poverty Law Center as well as many current day historians consider the UDC, with a then chapter in Helena of all places, to be aligned with and promoting white supremacy. The orator they choose to dedicate Helena’s monument was a well known industrialist…and spoiler alert...a ranking member of the Klan.
The UDC installed many of the country’s confederate monuments including Silent Sam, the statue on the campus of the University of NC that was recently toppled by students. Turns out that the apolitical and genteel UDC selected another ranking klan guy to dedicate that monument as well.
Anyway, I think the story of the genesis of Helena and of Montana may be the story, not so much the monument itself. Turns out that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. But I gotta say - I’ve met with the current mayor, the former mayor, two city commissioners, the director of the Montana Human Rights Network, and the head of the city historic preservation commission. All of them, to a person, are some of the most thoughtful and informed people that I think I have ever spoken to. They did not take the monument issue lightly and did an unbelievable amount of digging and due diligence to come up with their final positions on the issue. That says something good about Helena and Montana. And to be fair to Helena, it seems like I should mention that the current mayor is a black man. The city is not a stronghold of white supremacist.
Later today when my dirty laundry is all washed and dried, I’ll head to the Bay Area where again, I’m not sure exactly what stories will present themselves. I’ll be digging into the Port Chicago disaster where some 250 black sailors were blown to smithereens in WWII while doing one of the very few jobs black sailors were allowed to do. Loading munitions from rail cars onto ships. When fifty of the remaining sailors refused to go back to work under needlessly dangerous conditions, they were court martialed, defended by Thurgood Marshall, lost their trial, and jailed. But it was the seminole event that led to the integration of the armed forces. All the sailors involved are now gone, but there are still people around who were part of the tragedy. I hope to talk with some of them.
I’m also talking with an elderly back minister who seems eager to talk about race and San Francisco. I have no idea what he has to say. And back before the NRA was all against any and all gun control measures they were all for any and all gun control measures when the San Francisco Black Panthers realized they could openly carry firearms. I hope to find some folks that were involved back in the day.
And finally, when both Social Security and Unemployment were enacted, blacks were de facto (decfactoly?) excluded by excluding the domestic and agricultural jobs that were largely and almost exclusively held by black Americans. Given that California is such an agricultural state I am hoping that my contacts there can lead me to folks who’s father or grandfathers were impacted by those exclusions.
So, that’s what your money is working on these days. This is a WAY slower and more difficult process than I, being a neophyte, ever imagined. But in these awful, and divided times, I’m glad as hell to be doing it and am grateful for your support.
And kind of as an aside, I do want to pay tribute to my friend Ed Marston. Ed and his wife Betsy were the long time editors of HCN and Ed was Executive Director. Ed remained as Editor Emeritus, a title that hopefully implied his long-term and tremendous contribution of turning High Country News into one of the country’s leading publications on environmental and social issues pertinent to the west. Ed died recently very suddenly and unexpectedly of West Nile Virus. Ed and I had become very close over the last three or four years. We engaged in many conversations, and Ed, being a PhD physicist, many of the conversations were over my head and I just pretended to keep up. But Ed was the earliest person to encourage me to write and we become big fans of each other. This Civil Conversations story came about partly because of Ed’s influence and he contributed before we even had a Kickstarter campaign. I’ll miss Ed.