Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

 Column #151. First published in the St. Cloud Times online, Jan. 31, 2020; in print, Feb. 2

“Open up and let them in.” Of all the words I heard at two stellar events in January, these have stayed with me longest, because they operate in several dimensions.

They were spoken by Valerie Jarrett at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast and Day of Service 2020 on Jan. 20. I was one of 1,600 gathered in River’s Edge Convention Center for this local commemoration of the national holiday.

The night before, I had been at the same venue for the 39th annual Freedom Dinner of the St. Cloud chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The keynote speaker was Christopher Lehman, professor of ethnic studies at St. Cloud State University and author of “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders and the North Star State,” featured in a Nov. 4 Times article and a finalist for the 2020 Minnesota Book Awards.

Both events were demonstrations of what’s good about this community.

Jarrett’s words, responding in an informal, unscripted interview format to a question posed by Annesa Cheek, president of St. Cloud Technical & Community College, and grounded in her long experience in public life (most famously as senior adviser to President Barack Obama), can be understood on a personal, an historical and a social level.

On the personal level, and most immediately, she was saying this: the fundamental solution to the dysfunctional polarization that bedevils our nation is everybody’s abandoning the poses we put on to inflate ourselves and diminish others. We need to simply open up, tell our own stories and let the stories of others in to our own pondering. We must become not just listeners, but caretakers of one another’s stories.

On the historical level, Lehman’s talk at the Freedom Dinner was a classic example of opening up and letting in.

“African Americans have not always been visible in town, but African Americans have always been important to St. Cloud. African American lives have always mattered here.”

Lehman opened up a window on our past through which few of us have looked. We haven’t gone back to the beginning. “Before there was a St. Cloud State University, we were here. Before St. Cloud printed its first newspaper, we were here. Before there officially was a city of St. Cloud, we were here.”

In consequence of our ignorance of this history – our not opening up and letting it in – “seeing African Americans as a recent people to the city, [local residents] consider African Americans to be people who don’t belong to this city. These feelings towards African Americans have been applied to descendants of slaves and to African immigrants and their children.”

Lehman does not mince words about our reputation as “White Cloud.”

  • It traces back to instances in the 19th century when land here was sold to southern slaveholders for money that depended on the labor of their human property. “Money from slave labor gave St. Cloud’s business community its start.”
  • “In 1864, when no African Americans lived in town, the St. Cloud Times warned against African Americans gaining the right to vote.”
  • Closer to our time, restrictive real estate covenants emerged in the 1920s, and continued to appear in deeds in St. Cloud as recently as 1981 (even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968).

A recent civic action has opened up and let in a part of this history – the naming of Butler Park for Mary Butler and her son John (who was born here), slaves of Thomas Calhoun (“St. Cloud dedicates park to city's 1st African-American residents,” Times, May 6, 2017). They lived in St. Cloud for only a year, but in a period when slaves could be legally held in Minnesota.

How far have we come from the era of Mary and John Butler? For starters: St. Cloud police chief; superintendent of St. Cloud Area Schools; CEO of Metro Bus; presidents of St. Cloud Technical & Community College and College of St. Benedict.

The most compelling evidence for the distance we have covered was the huge attendance at both the Freedom Dinner and the King Breakfast. This illustrates the social dimension of opening up and letting in.

Both St. Cloud NAACP president Denise Fale at the dinner and St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis at the breakfast thanked police for their service (and at the breakfast, also all other first responders). This is not today’s common story about relations between blacks and police. Children were celebrated for their musical and artistic accomplishments. Conversation eclipsed caricature.

When Lehman’s scholarly descendants 100 years from now assess the St. Cloud area’s 21st century history, I hope that the opening up and letting in that happened on the personal, historical and social levels at River’s Edge Convention Center on Jan. 19 and 20, 2020 will be seen as a hinge on which the future turned.