"Never could I have anticipated . . . a black man being at the top of the ticket"
In the Vastness of Montana, an Overwhelmingly White Population Enters a New Political Frontier

By Wil Haygood
The Washington Post
Thursday, October 30, 2008


Cattle ranchers in the high plains of central Montana sometimes come across square rock formations just beneath the ground's surface. They have no doubt about their origins.

"They're the foundation of old one-room schools," says Dan Teigen, pointing to a spot where he recently made just such a discovery.

Teigen's family settled in these parts more than 100 years ago. The dot-size town carries the family name. There's little in Teigen now but the husk of an old hotel and the huge Teigen ranch that sweeps up and around the McDonald Creek Valley.

Among those who came here over the years were the descendants of Irish, German and Scottish immigrants. Their families continue to populate the spare landscape between the towns of Roundup, Grass Range, Teigen and Lewistown.

But one group that never settled in any numbers here, or in any part of Montana, were blacks. There has never been a black schoolteacher, mail carrier or law enforcement officer in any of these towns. As those school foundations attest, there is history here, but no black history -- no frayed emotions over the flapping of the Confederate flag, no sit-ins for voting rights, no debates over the duties of the Talented Tenth.

So how do the people here get to know the accomplishments, artistry, pain and jubilation of more than 36 million Americans? How do they begin to understand Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, who could become the first black president? Particularly when they may never have seen a black mayor, a black school principal or even a black shift supervisor?

Martha Farnsworth Riche, a former director of the Census Bureau and now a consultant on demographic issues, says that whites in states such as Montana are faced with a unique situation when it comes to Obama. "They really are being asked to think on two different planes: One is saying, 'I don't know people like this,' and the other is saying, 'Okay, I'll have to look at what the country needs.' Now, how they play those two feelings out is the issue here."

Montana, where just 0.4 percent of the 945,000 residents are black (6.4 percent are Native American), is one of the least racially diverse states in the country. But blacks are the most highly segregated minority in America, according to the Census Bureau. And like here, there are many neighborhoods across the country where whites' daily experience of blacks is limited to chance encounters and what they see on TV.

"I remember being in Billings as a little kid," says Teigen, 39, an Obama supporter running for the state House. "I was in a grocery store. I saw a black man and I said, 'Wow, that's a black man.' It occurred to me that that was the first black man I'd ever seen in Montana."

There is a certain kind of innocence to his words. Which is part of the complexity, as you travel around the ragged buttes of this region. With a black man inching closer to the White House, many folks here just might have to grapple with a situation they've never faced before.

Still, notes David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, where he studies demographics and race, "the days of Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' are over. These people see Will Smith and Halle Berry on TV. And the college football teams in these states are certainly apt to have blacks." He goes on: "Colorado has a very small black population -- 4 percent -- and yet in the late '90s they had two black statewide elected officials."

"In a small town," says Kay Mathison, 64, of Lewistown, "people want things like they were 50 years ago." More words of a certain kind of innocence and complexity.

A Land of Buttes and Vistas

To get to Lewistown (population 6,000), you drive 125 miles along U.S. 87 north from Billings, along rolling roads that vanish into knuckle-hard beige mountains. The sky swirls in the distance, the sun glinting off a sky-blue plate of Melmac china. This is the landscape that so fascinated painter Charles Russell, his images of cowboys and buffaloes frozen in a handsome beauty from his brush strokes.

Mary Weaver is about to sit down for breakfast at McDonald's. She's 56 and works compiling medical records. She says she is curious about black people but is reduced to learning about them from TV and movies. "I'm probably more afraid of black men because of the movies," she says, reeling off examples of robbers, criminals and gang members. "It gives me the chills. I do make exceptions, though. If the black man is handsome, I tend not to think so badly about him. But just take the rappers in the movies. They's so angry. They've got these gangs. I know that's not all black people, but . . ." She trails off. She picks back up: "I had a nephew, though, in a gang once. Of course, he's white."

She admits she has never had a black friend, or held a long conversation with a black person.

"I haven't made up my mind about the election," she says.

Bonnie Foley, 68, who works in a Lewistown clothing store (she's putting out a new batch of heavy wool blankets on a recent morning), is grappling with her feelings about the election. "I hate to admit it, but I think, deep down, I might be prejudiced," she says.

Sometimes, it's just the unknowing about black life that bewilders her.

In her youth, she traveled in and out of some major cities in California and Washington state. "There was such poverty, and areas where there were black gangs," she says. Returning home more than three decades ago, her insight about blacks came mainly from TV. "I feel about blacks the way I often feel about Indians. The Indians that make themselves noticeable are the ones you come into contact with because of their drunkenness. It's the same way with black people -- the ones I'd come into contact with in the past were like that. And the ones you see on TV are silly and stupid on these sitcoms. I don't think -- I don't think-- black people really act like that."

She adds: "I met a black gal once in Missoula. She asked me to go hear a talk with her one day. I liked her a lot. But what I'm trying to say is that I haven't come into contact with a lot of 'normal' blacks."

She lives up in the mountains with her dog. Sometimes mountain lions are a worry, but the dog chases them away. "They don't like the barking," she says.

She goes on: "Now, my nephew married two black women, one right after the other, up in Seattle," she says. "Of course my family didn't go along with it."

'Very Idealized' Views

"There is one black man here," says Brenda Douglass of Lewistown. "You know about them. When they move in, bam, you know. He works at Pamida," a department store on the edge of town.

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.

She says nice things about Obama.

Another 30 minutes passes without a customer in sight.

"I haven't made up my mind. But I'm listening to what Obama is saying."

A Broader Perspective

One man in Lewistown who knew both Captain Delbridge, the auto mechanic, and Tommy Dell'ar, the black man who recently lived here, is Sheriff Thomas Killham. He's a tall, deep-voiced Vietnam War vet. There's a sign in his office that reads "Blunt Is Good."

Killham found himself in the Army in 1968, in basic training over in the state of Washington. "My first experience with blacks happened during a warm-up exercise drill," he recalls. "I was lined up with some other soldiers from Montana in a kind of line formation. There were these black soldiers in front of us. And I said, 'Look out, boys, we're coming through!' Well, you can just imagine what went on from there. The black soldiers shot looks. Then an officer called me into his office and said, 'You shouldn't use that word "boy." ' Private Killham learned a lot that day. Me and the other guys from Montana just didn't know how to talk to blacks."

He thinks he knows how many people here get to know about blacks, and he doesn't like the methods. "It's through TV and movies. And probably stuff that they've heard from their families. The first thing I tell a kid, a young person, who gets in trouble is to travel. Get out of Montana. Go see the country. Have other experiences."

"Cap was the finest gentleman I've ever known," he says. "Now, as to Tommy Dell'ar, if he'd of been white, purple, green, chartreuse, he would have been a knothead. He'd just get real down-low drunk. It wasn't a matter that he couldn't fit in. He wouldn't fit in. He'd go into some of these bars and get up in a redneck's face. He just had this 'I gotta make a scene' attitude. 'I gotta be loud.' Well, you take a Montana redneck cowboy -- and maybe there's not a prejudiced bone in his body -- and you get up in his face, he'll surely get right back in yours."

They won't be seeing Tommy Dell'ar for a while. "He's in Montana State Prison. Pulled a gun on somebody," the sheriff says. Dell'ar, 37, is serving a 60-month sentence for assault with a deadly weapon.

'Not a Single Black Person'

The town of Grass Range is old, weathered and down to 180 residents. The land is gashed as if huge claws dug up the earth at the foot of mountains close enough to cast shadows. It's easy to imagine Gary Cooper, who was raised on a ranch over in Helena, rounding a corner.

Betty Ahlgren describes herself as a "ranch widow." She lives here in a light blue mobile home festooned with rustic bric-a-brac. There are pictures of her children and grandchildren on a wall.

A black man she knew nothing about came into her life through a TV screen. "I saw Obama on the Oprah show. I don't even watch it every day, so it's kind of amazing that I was flipping the channel and there was this man. I listened to him and was very impressed with his ideas."

She voted for President Bush in 2004.

She's got four sons. Two have told her they won't be voting for Obama. She thinks she knows why. The other two, she says, may be undecided. "Actually, I never hear anybody else around say anything about Obama besides myself. But I think come voting day, when people walk inside the booth over at the school, there may be some surprises."

The town school -- all grades -- is less than 40 yards from her back door.

"The school was on lockdown the other day," she says, walking over to the school. "Some man shot his wife four times, then killed himself. She survived, though. Lives over in Lewistown."

She's in the school gymnasium. Every high school graduate is honored with a framed picture on the wall. "Look, not a single black person," Ahlgren says, waving her arm. "Or even an Indian. We've never even had a minority child in this school except for a couple exchange students from Mexico."

Uncertainty About Change

It's hunting season. A man holding a rifle over his shoulder stands by his pickup on the side of the road to Roundup. A sticker on the rear bumper reads "Nobama." The town, which lies about 40 miles south of Grass Range, used to be a booming oil burg. But the oil went dry and now there's fewer than 2,000 residents.

Gay Holliday slides into a booth at the Busy Bee Cafe. She's 72, elegant and dark-haired. She works in the casino next door and also manages a low-income housing development.

A former Democratic state representative, she's fascinated with the political landscape. "Montana is pretty redneck. And chauvinistic. I often wonder how my husband, Frank, would react with a black at the top of the ticket."

She's a widow now.

She and Frank took their three boys to Denver in the early 1960s to attend a big stock show. There was an ice-skating rink outside the downtown hotel where they stayed, and Frank and Gay let the boys go skate. Now and then they'd peek through the window, checking up on them. "It was where we first met black people," she says. "I remember looking out the window and two of my boys had this little black boy by his hands and they were taking him around the skating rink. If it weren't for Denver, I don't think my boys -- even as they reached the age of 50 -- would have had meaningful contact with black people."

She's got only one son left. One died after a long illness, after having been kicked by a cow and suffering a debilitating head injury. Another son had a heart attack.

She takes a sip of coffee.

In 1976, Holliday traveled to Washington, D.C., with a group involved in farming. "We had entertainment one night. The performer was James Brown himself. One of the farmers, a black man, asked me to dance with him. Oh, the flashbulbs went popping! Nobody in my group had ever seen a white woman and black man dancing together."

A man in a white cowboy hat -- hard-lined face, tough hands, wolfing down a thick burger -- has caught Holliday's attention. "He reminds me of my Frank," she says. Some tender and quiet moments float by.

She says: "Never could I have anticipated the current circumstances, a black man being at the top of the ticket. My Frank was around black soldiers in World War II. But it would have been hard for him to accept this ticket. I often think about it, wondering what he would do."

Soon, night will fall here, a big maroon glove enveloping the infinite sky and the tiny towns beneath it.

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