Rural Diversity: More Blacks living in rural Minnesota, but it's a struggle for some

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Listen: RD BEMIDJI...African-americans in northern MN

On this segment of Mainstreet Radio’s Rural Diversity series, Tom Robertson looks at Minnesota's 'hidden' population -- rural minorities.

A small but growing number of African Americans are calling Northern Minnesota home. Some are attracted to education or job opportunities, others seek relief from urban strife, but many find it a challenge to settle into a rural culture where Blacks are rarely seen.


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TOM ROBERTSON: 50-year-old Lavoria Bodine is an African-American, originally from Mississippi, who moved to rural Blackduck, Minnesota 25 years ago.

LAVORIA BODINE: I was like an ink spot in the middle of a white linen tablecloth. And so yes, heads did turn. But people would be cordial. But still, you could feel something.

TOM ROBERTSON: She came to marry a White man she met at a southern college. Lavoria says she was the first Black woman to live in the small northern town.

LAVORIA BODINE: Everybody's eyes just, it was so different. At that time, I wore a very short little afro. And I was skinny and cute. [LAUGHS] But I could not believe how everyone looked at me. I was so different for them. And so obviously, they had not seen any Blacks, except perhaps on TV.

TOM ROBERTSON: Lavoria says most people in the community were friendly, but she occasionally felt the barbs of racism, usually subtle, sometimes direct, but always painful. The incident that sticks out the most in her mind is the loss of a job in 1981.

LAVORIA BODINE: I was dismissed as a result of my color. I found this out later. So instead of taking it to court-- and I was going to because I was a fighter-- my father-in-law encouraged me not to do that. He said, you have to live in this community, don't pursue it. It took the fight out of me. And for a long time, I was angry over it, very hurt.

TOM ROBERTSON: Lavoria says her four children had a difficult time in school because of their mixed race. She says they had few friends and were treated as outcasts. Troubles began early for her son Chris, now 21.

SPEAKER 3: First grade, little White girl ran up to me, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, which upset me, which-- I don't know, I knocked her out. She made me mad. So I clocked her one. I've been getting it in school since then. And it's always been the same.

TOM ROBERTSON: Chris got fed up with school and quit in the ninth grade. He says he not only has a hard time with racism, but also feels like something is missing, like he's been deprived of his heritage. Chris says he'd like to go down South to his mother's Mississippi home to learn what it means to be Black.

SPEAKER 3: I don't even know what my black side is about. I've lived around White people all my life. So that's all I really know. I don't even know much about my Black culture. I would like to know what it was like to be Black. My skin color might be different, but I'm all White boy underneath, which is the truth. I don't even know what it's like.

TOM ROBERTSON: 25 miles South of Blackduck, there is a somewhat larger Black community. There are 33 African-American kids in the Bemidji school district. And last semester, there were 23 African-American students at Bemidji State University. Kerry Woods graduated a few years ago from BSU and decided to stay in the area to teach school.

Originally from Rockford, Illinois, Woods says the biggest draw for African-Americans to come to Bemidji State is sports scholarships. But he says many don't stay around long enough to graduate. And of those who do, very few decide to stay in Northern Minnesota.

KERRY WOODS: Because a lot of Blacks come up here and can't make it. Because they're not used to surviving in a non-Black neighborhood, where a lot of people, they need to go where there's a lot of Blacks at so they can survive.

TOM ROBERTSON: Another former BSU student, Eltoine Fuqua, also chose to stay in Bemidji. He came from Detroit, Michigan to play sports and stuck around to avoid returning to his crime-ridden neighborhood.

ELTOINE FUQUA: It's like you come here and you can let your guard down. So when I lay down at night, I don't hear no cars going by with booming systems. I don't hear no gunshots. I don't hear no police sirens. I don't no ambulance. I don't hear none of that.

["THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE" PLAYING] This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.

TOM ROBERTSON: No one has done more to develop greater awareness of the African-American experience in the local community than Dr. Annie Henry, one of the few Black professors at BSU and the force behind local Black History Month celebrations.

["THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE" PLAYING] Let it shine, let it shine. Oh.

The Jacksonville, Florida native arrived in Bemidji 12 years ago and, at first, shed a lot of tears, she says, because she felt isolated and experienced some racism. But once she overcame the culture shock, she made it a personal crusade to educate the community about Black culture.

ANNIE HENRY: I think when you come to a different culture, we have to share and get to know each other.

TOM ROBERTSON: The 57-year-old Henry says she doesn't get nearly the support she feels should be given to Black History Month. She says many in the rural White community are politely indifferent to the Black experience and are unaware of the loneliness African-Americans feel, living away from larger Black populations. But Henry takes constant inspiration from the late civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. She spent time with King at his Atlanta home back in 1967 and has maintained a friendship with the King family ever since.

ANNIE HENRY: I have lived to see everything Martin said to me, come true. And he told me there'll come a time in my life when I say, oh my God, why me? He said, always remember, there'll be a little bird over your shoulder, saying, if not you, then who? The issue of race is still a problem. And it will be a problem until we, the people of our great country, really sit down and honestly do gut-wrenching dialogue about the racism in our country. Cruelty exists in Bemidji, Minnesota. You don't have to go to Miami, Florida. You don't have to go to inner city Saint Paul. It is here.

TOM ROBERTSON: Annie Henry is considering a new project. She'd like to plan an event gathering African-Americans in Northern Minnesota together to begin creating a support network.

ANNIE HENRY: We are so isolated. And there are probably many of us up here, and we don't know how to go to get the connection with another one, to say, you know, I'm having some concern, can you help me? I think it would be so great. I would like to see how many of us here, so I can say, my God, quite a few of us are here. And I can begin to feel that I've got some more brothers and sisters in this place that I don't know anything about.

TOM ROBERTSON: Henry says soul food and lutefisk can exist side by side, but networking and education will open more hearts and minds to the Black experience in rural Minnesota. In Bemidji, I'm Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio.



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