In late August 2016, about five minutes from my house, Kenneth Walker, the only black volunteer firefighter in North Tonawanda, New York, received a racist threat in the mail. It read:
NIGGERS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BE FIREFIGHTERS. NO ONE WANTS YOU IN THIS CITY. YOU HAVE UNTIL THE END OF THE WEEK TO RESIGN YOUR POSITION OR YOU WILL REGRET IT……..NIGGER.
The following morning, Walker’s house was set on fire—by a neighbor, as it turns out—and he and his family lost everything. Shortly after, incredulous neighbors, the Gratwick Hose Fire Company, and town members collaborated to host a donation drive to help the Walker family. Others started a GoFundMe page.
I did not learn about this until I returned home from college over Thanksgiving. At the time, I assumed wrongly that the fundraiser was minor with only a few attendees. I wondered who participated, who idly watched, and who did nothing. I wondered what their races were, and if others paid attention to their color.
My junior year of college was quickly approaching when I picked my dad up from work one still, humid evening. We reminisced about the past thirteen weeks of summer spent together, and anticipated the thirteen weeks ahead of us on our drive home.
We were stopped at a red light, and I was deep in thought. I looked over at my dad whose grip tightened around the door handle as he stared to his right.
Two men in a red Chevy Silverado were inspecting us. The truck had pulled out of the Key Bank drive thru and slowly eased out onto the road, rolling to a stop next to us. The driver revved the engine, but that’s not what made my stomach hollow. Two Confederate flags thrashed in the wind as the engine revved louder and louder.
I searched my dad’s face. He focused on the rusted-out truck while I silently willed the light to change.
The smell of cigarettes and stale beer suffuse the neighborhood as truckers and motorcycle gangs crawl from bar to bar on Sunday nights. High schoolers sneak out of their houses to test their fake IDs imported from Japan and to pick fights. You can hear middle-class factory workers shouting profanities as they slap their beer bellies together. This is classic North Tonawanda.
Jon, one of my dad’s friends, has lived in North Tonawanda for fifty-two years. At nine years old, Jon and his mother moved into a small white house on Warner Avenue. Although he had moved from one town over, he was startled to see how the Polish people on his new block lived.
He remembers the neighbors standing in their front lawns, yelling down the street to one another, walking in and out of people’s houses, going to parties at night, and stumbling home at six o’clock the morning after.
He tells me how the town has changed and that there are no longer bars on every street corner. He squints as he tries to recall memories. This is when he starts talking about race.
“Oh, there was one black family that lived a couple blocks over. I think their son played football or something.” He continues, “There were a couple Jewish kids in my grade, too.” Jon claims that he recently learned what Jewish means. In fact, he chuckles when he tells me how high school was simply a time for him to run around town to rewire telephone poles to cheat cable companies of free channels.
“It’s no longer a wild town.” He shrugs his shoulders. “It’s boring. But for the most part, the people are really great.”
My dad was washing dishes one night, aimlessly peering out the window, when he overheard our new neighbors, Donald and Dee-Dee, talking. He chuckled when he heard Donald say that North Tonawanda is “going to the dogs.”
Donald and Dee-Dee radiated a pitiful rage next door. They did not care that my family originated outside the United States or that we had spent time traveling the world. They also ignored my parents’ education and jobs. Their only concern was that they were forced to live next to a black family.
That was when we first moved in, and four years later, I have yet to interact with them.
According to a website run by sociologist and historian James Loewen, in New York state alone there were thirty-six suspected sundown towns. This nickname refers to towns where black people were not welcome after sunset, and where they were prevented from living through strict housing ordinances and, in some cases, violence. A sign stating, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In [name of town],” could often be found on the outskirts of these places. Communities with a history of being sundown towns exist across the United States, especially in the Midwest. But Loewen’s list includes places in New York state like Amherst, Orchard Park, and, even, North Tonawanda.
These communities were predominantly white with very few minority households, and I am unsure whether inhabitants think things should be different now. It may be improbable, but I imagine this history still prevents people from integrating fully.
Although towns are no longer legally segregated, all-white towns still exist. And for some historic sundown towns, racial divides still seem present.
This means that my favorite secluded side roads that intersect with the bike path along the Niagara River, near the house that I live in, are in the center of a town where no “Negro” could live from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s.
My mother asks, “How far are you going to run today?”
“Depends on how I feel. I should be back within half an hour, maybe an hour,” I respond.
“Has your dinner digested properly?” My mother’s voice beats into my back. “Do you have your phone on you?”
“I don’t have anywhere to put it.”
My dad interjects, “What if you need me to pick you up?”
“I won’t,” I say, as I start my watch. My mom stands in the doorway as I run down the driveway.
“Run a couple miles for me!” she cries.
Later, returning to the pavement of my driveway, legs burning, lungs heaving, and sweat dripping down my back, I am safe. I have made it. The door is unlocked, and my parents are waiting for me at the kitchen table.
“That was fast,” my mom chirps. “How far did you go?”
“Only five miles,” I reply.
“How was it?” she asks.
I shrug as I reach in the fridge for water. “Same old scene.”
The river was quiet. I passed a few strangers. They are always older than I am. Most people my age are finishing their second drink right around this time. But some strangers say hello. Some even smile. And then there are others who do not acknowledge my presence.
I imagine that some people gawk while I run because I am young, and actively taking responsibility over my health. I assume that others gape because I am black, and uncommon.