Float Controversy Prompts Race Discussions in Norfolk

A float depicting President Obama's library as an outhouse got cheers at Norfolk's annual Fourth of July parade, but stoked controversy after it was spread across social media. Charges of racism also flew from within the community and from outsiders who saw coverage in the national news media. (Photo by Bobby Caina Calvan, The Heartland Project)
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July 17, 2014 - 6:30am

It’s been a rocky July in the town of Norfolk, all because of a little float in the Fourth-of-July parade. The float’s imagery depicting President Obama’s future library as an outhouse sparked outrage and drew national derision. Last week, city officials met with members of the NAACP. A representative from the federal Justice Department also arrived in town to observe.

The fallout has thrust Norfolk into an uncomfortable, and mostly unwanted, discussion about race.

At Downtown Coffee, in Norfolk, Nebraska’s historic town center, a crew of silver-haired women gathers weekly to knit and chat. The conversations flow freely.

But when the front door swings open one recent afternoon, the women’s voices hush.

Glory Kathurima has just walked in.

Kathurima is the 25-year-old African American woman who some townsfolk blame for Norfolk’s sudden national notoriety because of her criticism – and charges of racism – over one float in the town’s Fourth-of-July parade.

But others say she’s a courageous voice.

Either way, she’s got the town talking – even if it’s a low-key chat at the local coffee shop.

One of the women, Linda Beckenhauer, explained why her group quieted down when Kathurima walked in.

“We didn’t agree with her. For somebody to say they felt fear in Norfolk, Nebraska, because of their race is mind-boggling,” Beckenhauer said.

“They said the float is racist. I don’t think so, and Norfolk isn’t racist. We’re pretty accepting of everybody,” she said.

All the negative attention has been unwanted, the women agreed. And how do they counteract the negativity?

“Forget about it. … We go on. We forget about it. And the people who want to talk about it, let them have at it,” added Sharon Christina, visiting from neighboring Wayne County.

Norfolk's downtown on a quiet day. One of the town's claim to fame derives from the fact Johnny Carson, the former host of The Tonight Show, and the epitome of Nebraska Nice, grew up here.  (Photo by Bobby Caina Calvan, The Heartland Project)

Race isn’t an easy subject to talk about. Anywhere. Some think it impolite, perhaps especially here, in the hometown of the late Johnny Carson, the former host of The Tonight Show and the epitome of Nebraska Nice.

Two weeks after the July Fourth parade, Kathurima remains unapologetic for publicly sharing her concern about the float and for thrusting the town into a racially-tinged controversy.

“Perhaps the float was a door-opener. But this is a conversation we as a community needed to have. It’s been long overdue to talk about racial tensions,” Kathurima said.

Vickie Young, the chair of the NAACP’s Omaha chapter, attended last week’s three-hour meeting with city leaders and parade organizers from Norfolk’s Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

An official from the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service was also there, apparently just to observe. According to its website, the Service “offers mediation to help local communities address conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color, or national origin.”

Young sees an opportunity for the community to strengthen bonds among neighbors and promote harmony across racial lines.

“We’re outsiders. We’re not from Norfolk. So it’s going to have to take Norfolk people stepping up to the plate,” Young said.

Stan Kiepke watched the holiday parade from his barbecue shop when the now-infamous float appeared.

“In my mind, that’s probably not the greatest thing in the world. There were some cheers. There was some laughter. I heard a few groans and moans,” Kiepke said.

“Unfortunately, incidents like this happen … A lot of people can jump to conclusions on their own, and it does leave a black eye on our community,” he added.

In a move toward reconciliation, the parade committee agreed to review how it picks floats for the parade, and it vowed to include more diversity on the committee.

The city’s mayor, Sue Fuchtman, a lifelong resident of Norfolk, now says she plans to hold a community forum with the help of the NAACP. But no plans have yet been set, according to a city spokeswoman.

In an interview prior to her meeting with the NAACP, the mayor wasn’t sure where to begin.

“Help me understand what the conversation should be about race,” the mayor said. “We have colored folks that are here. We have blacks that are here. I can walk right by them and not think twice about it.”

She shares frustration over the unwanted scrutiny but hopes her town can push forward.

“Do I wish we could erase everything’s that occurred since? Absolutely. But it’s time that we go on. And how do we do that? I don’t know if we change anything that goes on in this community. It’s going to take every single one of us to continue the positive conversation.”

Patrick Jones, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says some whites are blind to their own racism and can more easily deflect criticism because they belong to the majority race.

“Part of it is this strong and pervasive sense among many whites that it’s only race or racism when it’s only in the most obvious and overt forms,” said Jones, who teaches about race relations.

“So if there is not the N-word scrawled on that outhouse, it’s not racism. And that I think becomes an easy way to excuse yourself and to dismiss away the experiences of anyone else,” Jones said.

Jones suggests civic leaders make a genuine appraisal of what recently transpired and have honest conversations about race.

But he says it can sometimes be difficult for residents of color to broach the topic with the rest of the community because they are so outnumbered.

Dale Remmich, 71, says his float was wrongly vilified by folks who misunderstood its intent. He says his float was "political satire" criticizing President Obama's handling of veterans issues. (Photo by Bobby Caina Calvan, The Heartland Project)

Norfolk’s population is overwhelmingly white. There aren’t many African-Americans in town – the 2010 U.S. Census lists only about 400. But like everywhere else in the Cornhusker state, the town’s Latino population is growing, now accounting for one in every 10 residents in Norfolk.

German homesteaders from Wisconsin established the town in 1866. Others would soon join. More people came with the arrival of the railroad a couple decades later.  More than 24,000 residents now live in Norfolk.

There have been some tensions through the years.

In the fall of 2002, robbers shot and killed four employees and a customer at a Norfolk branch of U.S. Bank. Four Hispanic men were arrested and convicted of the crime.

“That was a setback,” said Leticia Rodriguez, a community liaison for the school district in nearby Madison.

Rodriguez remembers the tragedy and the harassing phone calls her family received because they shared the surname of one of the suspects. She says other Latinos at the time felt unfairly under suspicion, even after authorities apprehended the suspects.

“Just because somebody makes a poor choice, I don’t think that our group or our culture should be assumed that everybody’s like that,” Rodriguez said. “We all -- I don’t care if he’s black, Chinese, Mexican or Anglo, whatever – we all have people in jail, and we’re not proud of them.”

Dale Remmich is the man who entered the float in the parade. He insists the outhouse had nothing to do with race. He now calls his float a poorly-designed statement about President Obama’s handling of veteran’s issues.

He says the zombie-like figure dressed in overalls and posed in front of the outhouse was not of Obama, but a depiction of himself.

Remmich is 71, and he served in the U.S. Air Force. He says an uncle died after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and a brother died during the war in Vietnam.

“Anybody who knows me knows I’m not a racist, at all. I’m not a hatemonger, at all,” Remmich said.

And something else he says he’s not: “I’m not very good at making floats.”

This report is made possible by The Heartland Project, an initiative to broaden news coverage of Nebraska's communities of color, as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.  The project is funded by the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.




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