James Sutton was working on railroad maintenance gangs out of Chicago when he first saw how blacks were welcomed to this Mississippi River city. As trains arrived, he recalled, police officers would greet disembarking black passengers and “tell them to get back on the train.”
That was the 1950s, and the technique worked, giving the city that made John Deere tractors and Dubuque hams an ugly reputation among blacks. In the words of the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, Dubuque had become “the Selma of the North.”
Dubuque had so few minority residents that, as Mayor James E. Brady, 49, said recently, “You could go for a year or more without seeing a black.” The Dubuque of Brady’s childhood had at most four or five black families, and all “put their heads down when they were stared at,” he said.
Claudette Carter-Thomas, a black from Freeport, Ill., said she stayed here after finishing college in 1978 despite a warning then that was simple and direct. “The message was, ‘Don’t go to Dubuque,’ ” she told the Washington Post.
Few people, least of all city officials, apparently were troubled by the scarcity of blacks or the way they are treated in this heavily unionized, blue-collar community cut by Irish Catholic and German Protestant immigrants in the 1830s into a beige limestone bluff along a gentle bend in the river.
Then, on the morning of Oct. 23, 1989, police found the charred remains of a small wooden cross bearing a racial epithet and the words “KKK Lives” in the burned-out ruins of a garage owned by a black official of the local chapter of the NAACP.
To Brady and other city officials, it was stunning evidence that deep undercurrents of racism existed even though Dubuque had a tiny minority population. Of 57,546 residents, 331 are black, the smallest percentage of any major Iowa city.
This spring the city government established a “Constructive Integration Task Force” that drafted an ambitious, nine-page plan titled “We Want to Change.” It pledged to bring 100 minority families here by 1995 and said public funds should be used to help private companies recruit minority workers.
City leaders called the plan unprecedented and expressed hope that Dubuque would be ready, in the plan’s words, to shed its image as “a closed, intolerant and even racist community.”
Far from producing racial harmony, the plan sparked confrontation that has spilled into the night, with 10 cross-burnings since July 3 and a racial fight in the city high school that resulted in four arrests and police patrols in corridors. Moreover, it has spurred whites to talk about what, if anything, the city should do to attract more blacks.
“They come in fast enough now,” said Vincent Neyem, 80, nursing a beer in Noonan’s Bar in the working-class north end. “Why bring in more trouble? We’ve got enough trouble.”
“Why do you have to have a plan like that?” asked Connie Booth, a city worker having coffee at J&R; Bakery near the site of a recent cross-burning. “If they want to come, let them pay their own way.”
In the last few weeks similar sentiment has gained national attention, fed in part by angry statements of what authorities say are about 10 to 20 young men, professed supporters of the defeated Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke. Some have been implicated in the first wave of cross-burnings and other crimes.
A week ago Friday, police announced the arrest of David Israel Simpson, 19, and said they were seeking another adult and a juvenile in connection with cross-burnings. Two days later, William D. Allen, 31, turned himself in on a warrant charging him with possession of an incendiary device in the burning of five crosses Nov. 10 outside an apartment house.
Simpson was held in lieu of $5,000 bond. Bond for Allen was set at $10,000.
Shortly before his arrest, Simpson told local reporters he had erected hand-painted signs around town that supported some of the local men who were trying to form a chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People.
One of those is Mike Lightfoot Jr., 19, serving a jail sentence on charges related to previous cross-burnings. In a recent letter published in the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, he wrote from jail, “I don’t think it’s fair to take the few jobs that we have and give them to minorities.”
The cross-burning led Lightfoot’s father, Mike Sr., to denounce the actions of his son at a vigil attended by about 100 people.
Lightfoot Jr. and his companions have said they lighted the first crosses to alarm people about “the plan.”
The young men, who said they hoped to organize an NAAWP chapter here, have been branded as racist toughs by Brady and city officials. Duke, who founded the NAAWP, has publicly disavowed a connection to the group here. Lightfoot Jr. said plans for a chapter here were abandoned because some prospective members are on probation and prohibited from associating with each other.
All major employers have endorsed the integration plan, and many merchants are distributing black-and-white ribbons for townsfolk to wear as a plea for racial harmony. But neither labor unions nor Roman Catholic Church leaders, primary forces in local politics, had a major role in shaping the plan.
Last Monday, Gov. Terry Branstad announced that he would attend a nondenominational prayer service in the city Thanksgiving eve as “a symbol of my commitment and support for the good folks of Dubuque,” who are being overshadowed by a small number of racists. “I want to be there as part of a process to demonstrate a commitment on the part of the people of Iowa to love, understanding and respect for diversity,” he said.
Charles Azebeokhai, chairman of Dubuque’s Human Rights Committee, says the town’s very whiteness breeds racism.
“It shows that here, you have people . . . who do not know any different, who have not had any opportunity to associate with the other people and their cultures,” he told the Associated Press. “They have been sheltered all along.
“But all this is wrong. The real reason for these problems is deep down racism, wanting to keep Dubuque as white as it can be,” said the Nigerian-born Azebeokhai, who moved here from Salt Lake City about five months ago.
Others point to economics. Dubuque’s unemployment rate soared to 10% in August, highest in a state that had an overall rate of 4.7%, according to the Iowa Department of Employment Services.
“They want to bring 100 minorities in and we just don’t have the jobs for those people. If they want to move here, they should move here on their own,” said Tom McDermott, 24, a laid-off construction worker.
“It would be nice for them not to even come in. Dubuque’s been pretty much a white town, and it’s been a nice little town,” he said. “They’re going to bring them in and there’s going to be all sorts of problems.”
McDermott and his brother, Bill, are among the whites who had hoped to start an NAAWP chapter.
“Everybody is trying to say we’re racist,” said Bill Carpenter, 18, another member of the group. “We’re just trying to stick up for the whites. It seems like every time you stick up for the whites, you get called a racist. It ain’t fair, you know? You get hammered.”
Carpenter is the person who placed the burning cross carved with the words “KKK lives” next to a black couple’s garage two years ago. He says he did it because his girlfriend was harassed by a group of blacks while walking home.
No one was injured, but the garage caught fire and Carpenter was convicted of second-degree arson. He spent 17 months in prison.
“I am not racist. I have black friends,” Carpenter said. “I know if you burn a cross, it doesn’t look good. But you’ve got to get attention somehow.”
Lightfoot Jr. said he burned a cross at Dubuque Senior High School the night of July 3 after he witnessed a fight between blacks and whites at a Taco John’s restaurant.
“When the cops came, they heard both sides of the story and they just let the black guys go,” he said. “I really wanted to stick up for the white race because of reverse racism.”
Lightfoot Jr. and Russell (Rusty) Thomas, 18, were sentenced to community service work and participation in racial-awareness forums.
“I was wrong for going around doing this the illegal way, but (it) kind of turned out good because it got everyone’s attention,” Lightfoot Jr. said.
It certainly did. Dubuque’s racial incidents have drawn the notice of the national news media, and many townspeople say that is unfair.
“If Dubuque is the only city in the country that’s got racial problems, then we deserve the attention,” said Dirk Voetberg, a City Council member who also teaches finance and international business at Clarke College.
“But the vast attention of the national media is fanning the flame. We can pull together and solve our problems. But I’m afraid that the glare of the national press is going to encourage people to take sides and become more polarized than trying to get together and work it out,” he said.
Mike Pratt, another City Council member, does not blame the media. He supports the integration plan but was voted out of office this month, and he says his stand on the issue was the reason.
“We have the old racism and rednecked element in the community that’s fanning the flames on this issue, and they’ve chosen to do things to get attention,” he said.
At Dubuque Senior High, which has 12 blacks among its 1,483 students, some students hope there is a change in attitudes.
“There’s a lot of racial tension here. . . . It’s so stupid. It’s like they can’t accept other people,” said Sammie McCabe, a white who is in her freshman year.
A black student, freshman Sabrina Winfrey, says her parents have told her to “ignore it and to stay away from troublemakers.”
“I just learn to cope with it. I hope it gets better. I don’t know if it will,” she said.