Page 3 of 5   <       >

"Never could I have anticipated . . . a black man being at the top of the ticket"

In central Montana, one of the least racially diverse areas in the United States, residents grapple with the idea of voting for a black man.

Douglass, 59, is a student. "I'm getting a degree in criminal justice. Online. In that course, I've dealt with more racially oriented questions than I ever have in my life: 'Is this suspect being judged because he's black?' 'Is this black suspect going to get a fair trial?' " She says she's seen only two blacks in the town in the many years she's lived here. "For years when my grandkids were little they had never seen a black person."

The Halloween candy is out at Ruth Hertel's store, Country Junction. Her husband tends to ranching duties while she comes into town a few times a week to mind the store.

Hertel, 36, says her first awareness of blacks was when she was 5 years old. " 'Roots' was on TV. And it was big!" she says, referring to the landmark miniseries about Alex Haley's family's slave roots. Aside from meeting the occasional black athlete when she attended Montana State University in Bozeman, Hertel says she has not had the opportunity to communicate with black people. "Movies. That's probably the thing that has the most influence on me. Probably my view of black life is like what outsiders might think life would be like for me and my husband on a ranch. Very idealized."

A discussion of race in these four towns inevitably moves to two black men from different generations, almost as if they, too, are characters remembered from movies.

Captain Delbridge arrived in Lewistown in the 1930s. He opened a little garage and worked for years as a car mechanic. He passed away in 1978. Tommy Dell'ar arrived just a few years ago from Chicago. He did odd jobs. He got in fights in local bars. Found himself in handcuffs and, later, in prison.

Just across the street from Hertel's store sits the Beauty Shop. Delores Schulze is owner and hairstylist. She's sitting alone with her hand on her chin, sunlight streaming through the windows and not a customer in sight. She's 75 years old. "I only work half a day on Saturdays now," she says.

"We've had a number of dark people here. One lady, years back, cleaned over at the Judith Theatre. And my dad used to take his car to Captain Delbridge's. One day after he fixed the car, Delbridge brought it out to the ranch. Mom invited them -- him and his family -- in for ice cream."

Her shop is immaculate, her voice thin and sweet.

The door swings open, and a lady comes in looking for a hairnet.

"We grew up and you didn't discriminate around here," she says. "My dad had a lot of Indians and what you call half-breeds. Well, my dad bought them out to the ranch to work. Sometimes they'd be drunk as a skunk. But they'd sober up and do good work."

She confesses that the presidential race has made her ponder the issue of race far more than usual. "I've wondered how people from around here form their opinion of colored people." Her own mind opened in the early 1960s, when she visited Cleveland. "My sister had gone there to the Cleveland Clinic. So I went out there to be with her. And there were all these Negroes, black people. They were taxi drivers. And a lot of them seemed to work security around the clinic. We talked and it was quite pleasant. It was all so new to me."

She says nice things about McCain.

<          3           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company