Some see improvements in the city’s racial climate; others say change is too slow coming
The Black citizenry of St. Cloud gathered at that city’s Riverside Park to celebrate Juneteeth last Friday, June 13. Many agreed that the experience of local African Americans sharing their common heritage imparted an encouraging sense of empowerment.
Juneteeth is the anniversary of freed Black slaves in Texas who finally got the news of their freedom between June 13 and June 19, 1865. Annually celebrated by Blacks in many parts of this country, it “is a holiday that has such [a] powerful meaning to people of color and African Americans of this country,” noted Rev. Yolanda Lehman, former pastor of Resurrection AME Zion Church in St. Cloud.
This year’s was the 12th such annual event held in St. Cloud. Under a warm, breezy evening sky, people ate food, listened to various forms of entertainment, and browsed the several information booths provided by local organizations and agencies.
Compared to the last few years, Friday’s weather was perfect. “The last three years we had rain,” recalled Clarence White, who has lived in St. Cloud for 46 years and raised his four children there.
In past years, busloads of St. Cloud Blacks would travel southeast for the Minneapolis Juneteeth activities. According to White, a member of the African American Male Forum of St. Cloud, that effort became too much trouble, “so we started our own. It has grown. We have had over 400 people in here at one time.”
The African American Male Forum is one of several local organizations that sponsored the Juneteeth event. “I like to see these people get together as a group having fun,” observed White of last week’s event. “This is something that is rare in St. Cloud.”
“The Juneteeth celebration in St. Cloud is a wonderful opportunity to bring people together across race, gender and class,” added Lehman, who helped sign up new voters at the gathering. She is a delegate to this year’s Democratic convention in August, one who is pledged to Sen. Barack Obama.
“It is a wonderful opportunity to bring together people who might not otherwise come together,” Lehman said. “Given the history of St. Cloud, it is important that we do this.”
John Lewis, the St. Cloud NAACP chapter president, noted, “I think this is something St. Cloud and the surrounding areas needs.”
“I didn’t even know St. Cloud put on functions like this that will bring the community together,” said Ulysses Mullins, 31, who passed out flyers about his barber shop. He moved from Minneapolis to St. Cloud a year ago. “I came up primarily to open a barber shop,” he explained. “I realize that there was a market here that needed this service, and it wasn’t being provided.”
Pointing toward the entertainment tent where the Nu Way Missionary Baptist Church Choir was performing, Lehman said proudly, “It’s not just church people under that tent. I see White people and Black people, children, Somalians and presumably Muslims.”
St. Cloud State University President Earl Potter and his wife also enjoyed the festivities. “We need to celebrate all our diversity here in St. Cloud,” the second-year president said.
Among the many information booths at the Juneteeth event was a table staffed by the St. Cloud Police Department, which historically has had an uneasy relationship with the Black community because of racial profiling by officers.
Residents are able to see them in a better light when officers attend events like this, noted Rev. Jerry Mason, a Nu Way associate minister. “It makes them more cordial [when] talking to them,” he believes.
“I think it is nice to interact with [the] community when it is a positive interaction,” said St. Cloud Police Officer B.A. Mushatt, a six-year member on the force.
As festive as last Friday’s Juneteeth was, several community residents are still mindful that race relations in St. Cloud must improve. “Nothing changed,” said a 59-year-old Black man who asked that his name be withheld. “They [St. Cloud police] will check your license plates before they will check someone else’s.”
“I have been pulled over twice by the police,” admitted Mullins. “[However], they have been very pleasant experiences. It really was a surprise.”
Nonetheless, he is fully aware that racism does exist in St. Cloud. “Not that I am ignorant or don’t see it. I really try to maneuver around it,” he explained.
Added Mushatt, one of the city’s few Black police officers, “I don’t speak for every officer in our department, but we try to treat everyone fairly, regardless of race, religion, sex, anything. Having not been in those situations, I can’t tell you if [a police officer] acted appropriate or inappropriate.
“Overall, I feel comfortable in the job that I work in,” Mushatt said. “I feel that if it was an organization where there was racism, I wouldn’t feel [as] accepted as I do.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Black woman who moved from Chicago to St. Cloud 10 years ago said, “It’s been a struggle here, because you have to deal with so much because you are Black. Sometimes it is hard to get housing and jobs, even though you have not done anything wrong in your life.” Of the police booth at the Juneteenth event, she added, “At least they are trying to reach out to the community, to get to know us better.”
“There always is something in the air; things are happening all the time,” said St. Cloud State University Ethnic Studies Department Chairman Robert Johnson, who believes that “displays of intolerance and injustice” will keep occurring “as long as people are people.”
“There truly isn’t going to be a day when St. Cloud is completely free of racism,” noted Lehman. “While I never will say that racism is gone, I will say that I feel more empowered when I look around and I see so many African American people here.”
“Things have quieted down,” surmised SCSU President Potter on the racial incidents that occurred on the school’s campus this past winter. “We all learned a lot in ongoing meetings with folk to talk about the next steps in how we prepare to bring students back [in the fall] in a positive way.”
“Change is slow,” said White, who first moved to St. Cloud in 1962. “It is not quick enough for me, and I don’t think I will ever see the change.”
But Lehman believes change indeed is coming. “We are getting a sense of our own power in this community,” she claimed, adding that there is “more of a passion, a voice, and more concern about building an equitable and just society for everyone in St. Cloud.
“Juneteeth is an opportunity to celebrate what we can do as a community,” concluded Lehman, borrowing from an Obama campaign theme. “It represents a ‘Yes we can’ moment.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, or read his blog: www.ww wchallman.blogspot.com.