Guest Columnist

Emerging from small town racism

Submitted photo

The Methodist Episcopal Church in Guthrie Center.
Submitted photo The Methodist Episcopal Church in Guthrie Center.

I grew up in the 1940s in the small Iowa town of Guthrie Center. That was my good fortune. I wouldn’t trade my experience for the Hope diamond. But looking back, I realize along with the good cheer and neighborliness I absorbed, I was also introduced to racism.

One has to wonder how race became an issue in a community of white folks with no one of color living within 50 miles. But racism existed in my hometown in a variety of forms ranging from ignorance to ridicule to hostility. I doubt it differed in most Iowa towns. It was part of the culture. I knew nothing else.

Via movies I saw “Buckwheat,” a little Black boy in “Our Gang” films. I saw Black entertainers like the “Ink Spots,” Lena Horne, and Bojanggles. Via news reels I knew of Black athletes like Joe Louis, the boxing heavyweight champion. But in standard films, Black folks were doormen, chauffeurs and maids. In my young mind, blacks were singers, dancers and athletes. I never saw a Black family in a movie portrayed as just average Americans going to work, going to church, sending their kids to school.

In my later elementary school years, I worked at Bill Sanger’s barbershop as a shoeshine boy. I heard men tell jokes about a mythical “Rastus,” a feckless Black man. I had customers who boasted of membership in the Ku Klux Klan combined with frightening racial comments. No one offered a counter position. The inferiority of Black people seemed assumed and accepted.

In the mid-1950s I competed in high school sports against towns in our area, from Adel to Audubon, from Greenfield to Jefferson. Not once in those years did I face an opponent with darker skin. Indeed, the first time I saw a non-white Iowa high school basketball player occurred at the 1954 state tournament in Iowa City. The young man was Gene LeMaster, an all-stater from Ottumwa.

The next year the University of Iowa reached the Final Four of the NCAA basketball championship with two Black players, Deacon Davis and Carl Cain, in the starting lineup. By then television became widely available, and I watched as an increasing number of Black players joined the college ranks.

While the Hawkeyes were in Kansas City playing in the NCAA championship, I was a high school junior at Grinnell College competing for a much-needed scholarship. The process involved a series of interviews and tests, including writing an essay on the following question: “The Supreme Court ruled last year in “Brown v. Topeka Board of Education” that racially segregated schools are contrary to the U.S. Constitution. What long-term implications does this decision hold for our nation?”

I paused. I thought. No one ever asked me such a question. Racially integrated schools didn’t hold much significance in Guthrie Center where there was no one to integrate. For my 17 years I basically followed the local crowd on racial matters, although I began to question how people could form opinions with no firsthand knowledge. But I wanted and needed the scholarship. Think. Think. I did and wrote for most of the provided hour.

The only detail of the essay I now recall is the conclusion: “We may even have a Negro president by the year 2000.” I was correct in foreseeing a long process lay ahead. As it turned out, I only missed by eight years.

Yes, I did win a generous scholarship and enrolled at Grinnell College in the fall of 1956. I was one of several freshmen assigned to Clark Hall, along with a young Black guy from Chicago named “Herbie.”

At last, I had met a real Black person. Not one in the movies, not one on television, not one on a stage or in a sports arena, but one whose hand I could shake and greet. The first thing impressing me was not Herbie’s skin color but his age. He was only 16, very young for a college freshman. “He must be very bright,” I thought to myself.

We freshmen, called “Preps” in those days, went through hazing together, being tormented and paddled by upper classmen. But Herbie found time, a lot of time, to improvise songs and hum along on our lounge piano.

I found my new friend very clever with a piano but wondered if he might be neglecting his studies. Freshmen sometimes flunked out. I was concerned he might not make it to the finish line. But he did, graduating Grinnell in 1960 and moving on to a celebrated musical career where Herbie Hancock has become one of the all-time great jazz pianists and composers, winning an Academy Award and a bundle of Grammys along the way.

In 2010 we held our 50th class reunion at Grinnell College. Herbie Hancock flew from a concert at the White House to receive an honorary doctorate from his alma mater. I hadn’t seen him in decades.

“Hi, Carroll,” he greeted me with a big hug.

Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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