The World In The Living Room - Or The Boy In The Coal Shed

The World In The Living Room

Modern media puts the world in our living rooms, computer and devices. This has – in my opinion – made the world more just. Imagine the impact that would have been made if the massacre at Wounded Knee had been filmed. It would have gone viral.

I'm going to tell you how my family perceived, expressed and dealt with two types of racial injustice in a time before Facebook and Youtube.

In 1965 my family got our first television set and the world was in our living room. One of the first things we saw on the evening news was police officers beating civil-rights protestors, blasting them with fire hoses and setting dogs on them. Most, but not all of the protestors were African-Americans.

My father watched this atrocity. He spent his entire life on a farm in a rural area where blacks were almost never seen. He seldom raised his voice and he almost never swore. This time he did both. "Goddammit" he shouted, "it's wrong to treat (N-word deleted) like that. They're people too!" He used the “N” word. Not from racism, but from ignorance. He didn't know what other word to use. We did inform him that there were better words than that. He had a sense of justice but was short on political correctness.

In 1968 I sat at a table in the Student Union at the University of North Dakota. At the table was another white student and a African-American student. The other white person and I both complained that while both of our fathers supported civil rights, they both used the “N” word. The black student said: "They think right and that's 90 percent of the battle, the other 10 percent will take care of itself."

We had a family reunion in 1978. One of my sisters had a new hairdo. I guess it looked to my Dad like an afro. He said to my sister "You look like a white (N-word deleted)." Our father was subjected to a verbal sacking with the entire family piling on.

My father said to me in 1985, "I was wrong to use the 'N' word. I always thought that blacks were equal to whites and I believe it was wrong for them to have their rights denied to them, but everyone I knew used the word, and so did I. I was ignorant. We all were."


The Kid In The Coal Shed.

What follows is my interpretation of my father's voice. He related this anecdote several years before he died. At the time, my father's long-term memory was becoming more focused, but he may already have been in the early stages of dementia – which did become full-blown later. That condition could have created false memories. Although I cannot verify the facts of his narrative, I am including it because it reflects the nature of the times and the generosity of spirit that my father, my grandparents and others like them demonstrated in the 1920s and 1930s.

My father and my paternal grandparents were sympathetic of the way Native Americans were treated. The family farm was 12 miles from Fort Mandan where Lewis and Clark met Sakakawea. She was embraced as a local hero. We were 40 miles from Fort Lincoln where George Armstrong Custer embarked on his last deployment. My Dad and his folks did not idolize Custer.

As many of us know, Native Americans, including Alaska Natives were long subjected to an institutionalized effort to "civilize" them by taking their children away from their homes to boarding schools with the intent of "teaching them to be white". Another term that was used was "Kill the Indian and save the man." Frequently, young Native Americans would escape the boarding school and try to make their way back home.

According to my father his parents had an outbuilding on the farm that was primarily for the storage of coal used for heating. An area in that shed was set aside as a sleeping place with a simple platform for a bed. A can opener hung on the wall; canned food and some silverware were kept there. It was intended as a “guest bedroom” because my Grandparent's house was very small.

Guests sometimes came and went unannounced. It was not unusual to find cans opened and emptied. Sometimes a note with “thanks” would be left behind. Upon occasion, a family member might enter the coal shed and find a very nervous youngster there. That youngster would have been a Native American kid who had enough of the boarding school and was trying to get back home.

Such an encounter would have been awkward for all. Native Americans were segregated to reservations and not welcome in the “white” towns. Despite the sympathies of my father's family, they were not used to being around “Indians.” The visitor would have been treated just like any traveler in need. My Dad, his brothers and our Grandfather would have seen to it that the guest was equipped as best as could be for further travel, and my Grandmother would have packed food for the refugee.

This narrative implies an Underground Railroad[1] with some sort of organization and communication. If true, it is likely that our grandmother – because of her social activism – maintained those connections. However, our grandfather had his own story. He immigrated from Sweden in 1898 and worked for a time in a textile mill in New Jersey. Mill employees were treated little better than slaves. He also suffered from discrimination because the previous wave of immigrants were often hostile to the current surge. He was therefore sympathetic to a group or an individual enduring institutionalized abuse.

My father's family might have run the risk of arrest and prosecution, although other accounts from the time period suggest that neighbors and even law enforcement might have looked the other way. Many in the area at the time had been ripped from their homes and cast into a hostile world.

About 75% of the people in the area around our family farm descended from Germans whose ancestors immigrated originally to Russia at the behest of Catherine the Great [2]. After Catherine died, many of German descent in Russia were persecuted and had their possessions confiscated. Thousands of “German-Russians” then immigrated to the United States and settled in central North Dakota.

Understanding history or seeing history in the making cultivates understanding of others. Understanding of others cultivates compassion.



[1]Underground Railroad – here used as analogy to the network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves of African descent in the United States to escape to freedom.

[2] Catherine the Great of Russia (1729 – 1796) ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796. She was born in Pomerania, now part of Germany. She encouraged German farmers to migrate to Russia to teach Russians how to farm.