In Dubuque, Racism Fed By Backlash Over Plan

Posted: December 09, 1991

DUBUQUE, Iowa — This is the raw season here in Dubuque.

Snow has left the farm fields cold and white. For some, the city seems scarcely different.

Alice Scott discovered that last month, just 10 nights after she moved her family into an apartment on busy Central Avenue in the city's north end.

"I was sleeping, and I heard the sound of breaking glass," she recalled.

"My daughter said, 'Mama, what was that?' A brick was lying alongside a chair near the side window. . . . When the police came, they told me there was a burned cross out in the yard.

"I said to myself, 'They done got me now, because I am black.' "

In the last 16 months there have been 14 cross-burnings in this Mississippi River town. There has also been a rash of racial graffiti scrawled on city walls, and police were called to break up a racial melee at the high school.

These dreadful days are part of a painful public catharsis brought on by a controversial plan with a simple goal: to find 100 minority families willing to move to this overwhelmingly white city.

The plan that has sparked such virulent debate was itself a response to virulence: a cross-burning two years ago that set the garage of a black couple aflame. The cross was inscribed with the words "Nigger" and "KKK Lives."

The incident struck a nerve in a community trying to retool for tourism with a dog track and riverboat casino drawing two million a year between them. It revived the city's reputation for isolation, homogeneity and racial bias.

Local archives contain dramatic reports of a Ku Klux Klan "Konklave" that organizers said drew 56,000 paid admissions in 1925 and of a "massive" march of hooded Klan supporters through the streets of the city a year later.

Local blacks recall how people of color were greeted by police at the train station in the 1950s, and told to get right back on.

Black leaders such as Ruby Sutton and Ernestine Moss still speak of being steered toward slum areas of town for housing, of difficulties getting such staples as car insurance, of a constant undercurrent of racial mistrust. Others talk of business leaders who still give currency to words such as colored and darkies.

"Sometimes it would get overwhelming, and we would think about leaving," said Sutton, a soft-spoken poverty counselor who co-founded the local NAACP after moving to Dubuque 29 years ago. "We used to think of packing every night. Now it's down to once a month."

The hostile environment has had its effect on the complexion of Dubuque. There are just 331 blacks in a population of 57,546.


In many ways, Dubuque seems a town frozen in time. Located on a scenic crook of the Mississippi, amid dramatic limestone bluffs, it was founded for mining and grew with furs and forests and agriculture.

The glories of 19th-century Dubuque are still evident in the striking Victorian mansions along Locust Street, the gold-domed county courthouse and the fanciful brick commercial blocks and factories. A pair of restored riverboats grace the shore at the River Adventure tourist complex, and labors of German and Irish Catholics still find expression in spires of local parishes.

Dubuque is still 70 percent Catholic, and scarcely more diverse than in its glory days last century.

"This is really a closed town," said Jack Hanson, spokesman for the task force that drew up the integration plan. "We paid no attention to the civil rights movement in the '60s, but all of a sudden this plan has made people look inside themselves."

Seeking an end to Dubuque's "intolerant, and even racist" image, the plan challenged the city and its employers to seek out 20 minority families a year for five years, mostly for professional jobs.

It suggested that the city spend public money, if that's what it took to make the recruiting work, and it urged labor and management to re-examine seniority rules to assure jobs for the recruits.

"To improve race relations in the community, we needed more minorities," said Moss, current head of the local NAACP. "The more white people interact with them in positive ways, the more they will put aside some of the fears they have."

The city's Human Rights Commission signed on, the City Council endorsed it 6-1, major employers lent support, local colleges offered free master's degrees to minority teachers who would relocate. And then came the fallout.

Jobs are scarce in Dubuque these days.

Unemployment is 10 percent, the highest in the state. More than 4,000 union workers were furloughed at the town's major employer, the sprawling, gray John Deere plant on the north side of the city.

"The economy just went down the tubes in the last 10 years," said Pat Dillon, president of United Auto Workers Local 94, which represents Deere workers. "There was a lot of resentment to (the plan). There's a big difference between accepting people and going out and recruiting them and guaranteeing they have jobs and places to live."

Economic fears exacerbated racial fears. Crosses were burned at the high school and at a park opposite the office of the school system's one black administrator.

Swing through the northern end of town, down streets of modest homes and corner taprooms, and the fears get faces.

"I'm prejudiced - I don't want black families coming in," said Chuck Berwanger, 29, an unemployed meat plant worker tending bar in a Harley Davidson shirt at Mike's Ten Pin Tap. "They'll turn it into a little baby Chicago. . . . People can't work here, and there ain't no jobs, and they're going to bring other families in and say they get jobs."

The volatility of the issue has been heightened by a group of vocal devotees of David Duke, who have gone national with their views in TV appearances on the Phil Donahue and Larry King Live! shows.

Most Dubuquers publicly rebuke their tactics, but their message is powerful.

"If I could write the rules, I would say keep Dubuque exclusively white," said Bill McDermott, 21, a laid-off construction worker. "I don't feel there's nothing wrong with that."

McDermott, son of a truck driver who grew up with nine brothers and sisters in Dubuque's north end, promotes a pastiche of big-city stereotypes in arguing against the plan.

"Poverty plus blacks equals crime," he said. "You don't see people wanting to visit high-crime areas."

Five foot six, 210 pounds and a weight-lifter who deadlifts 650 pounds, McDermott seems perfectly cast as a combative point man.

"I've been through Philadelphia, and I wouldn't want my town to be like that," McDermott said. "Here you don't see people driving down the street sticking shotguns out the window, blowing people away for what they're wearing."

Such views, beamed over the airways to every corner of the nation, have made many Dubuquers squirm.

"When I saw those guys on Donahue, I said, 'God, how embarrassing,' " said Hanson, the task force spokesman. "Afterwards, I thought, 'No, it was not embarrassing.' . . . A lot of Dubuquers looked at it and said, 'I don't want to be associated with that element.' "

Last weekend, as the city braced for the visit by Ku Klux Klan leader Thomas Robb, Mayor James Brady asked his community to send that message in the strongest terms.

"Do not attend," he said through the ingenious medium of his phone answering machine. "Let them talk their empty voices to empty brick walls, and the echoes will resound with their stupidity."

The rally drew about 200 opponents to the plan, and the local NAACP countered with a gathering that attracted 250.

As the task force revises its proposal - the use of tax dollars and the challenge to seniority are likely to go - people are looking for the positive

from this painful experience.

"It's been hard, but there's been growth," said Ruby Sutton. "It's like wading through deep water. Sure it is deep, and you're afraid you're going to drown, but if you make it through the deep water the shallow is easy."

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