By Tim Trenkle
On the first day of summer, the front page of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald set a table for its readers.
The table noted empty plates for hungry African American residents, especially immigrants from Chicago. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) confronted the failure of the city that Forbes named the best small city to raise a family in 2010 to abide to rules — rules that include the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The next day’s headlines read, “Buol Shocked by HUD Report,” as if Mayor Roy Buol had been to the impoverished homes, had conversed about the pain and isolation, about the segregation and policing of the black population.
Contrary to his beleaguered surprise, perhaps a memory lapse, Mayor Buol had heard it before at a meeting in February 2010. Chicago immigrant Jonathan Cheatham confronted him then about the trouble now hanging like a scythe: “If you want to call it black people or people of color, that’s fine, but I think when you refer to Section 8 it’s just another way to refer to us.”
HUD says that Dubuque intended to exclude participation in Section 8, denying benefits to applicants based on race. The claim is substantial and the history of racism endemic.
Cross burnings of the late 1980s, early 1990s, when national news shows descended upon the port, are reviewed often as if a badge of honor.
And the image has been worked.
In a Dubuque story of March 21, 2002, the headline read, ‘Decade after all the accusations, Dubuque learned its lesson.”
The city has an image machine, compiling national awards like the All America designation and citations for civility and business acumen for the niche groups it has catered to.
HUD notes a 2007 stabbing as a landmark for racial tension. I remember the day of the murder.
I parked my bicycle against the wall filmed in “The Field of Dreams” at the corner of 17th Street and Central Avenue. The manager of the corner pawnshop said there had been a killing. I saw where the pool of blood had been washed away from the sidewalk. It became an altar for the victim’s friends, where his photo and a ceramic Bible were set.
In the beginning of his novel Hard Times, Dickens reviews the one needful thing: Facts. Dubuque is not shuffling today. HUD has a full house.
The 2009 summer was another crucial time. Perceptions about crime and race began to change. Afterward, HUD says the city changed policies.
In their own words, the city writes in the minutes of the Jan. 20, 2010, Safe Community Task Force Enforcement Sub Committee, “…people come to Dubuque, get on our system, stay the twelve months and ‘port out’ to another city.”
Two paragraphs later it reads, “This whole issue has the community up in arms as it’s a moral, ethical, economic blight.” They note a woman on Section 8 has panic attacks, then observe the illness as a “ … draw on our city and medical resources.”
The facts. Infamous for racism, the city appears to be bloodless.
Witness to racism
After a student invitation to the club Players, I saw police squads at all four corners of the block, surrounding the building where mostly college-educated African Americans gathered. I noted the experience during a police and black resident meeting. Proud that my father helped open Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp, I said he was rolling over in his grave at this herding of U.S. citizens. None blushed.
Visiting after the meeting, a resident recalled her arrest after Bible study, charged with being without a driver’s license and failure to surrender. A beautiful black mother, she had told the police she was under the influence of the holy ghost. Eight squads surrounded her that night when she visited with a friend after discussing their Bible verses.
Again and again and again, I have been privy to events and stories of racism. The shooting in the back of African American Geromey Gilliand; no charges ever filed, despite the shooter’s family involvement in cross burnings.
In 2009, a young black mom, a local honors student I taught, left Dubuque after a neighbor urinated on her mailbox.
I met with Dubuque NAACP official Jerome Thomas, then-chief of Iowa’s Human Rights Commission Preston Daniels and a Dubuquer who spoke out to the mayor at the local landmark, Mario’s restaurant. We talked police, housing and crime.
Daniels said he was sorry, he believed what we were telling him about the racial discrimination, but his department didn’t have enough funding to investigate.
Thank God, finally, somebody did.
Tim Trenkle of Dubuque teaches psychology and writing at Northeast Iowa Community College and is a freelance writer. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org