Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Dreaming About Nature...and Race: "Friendly Town" Comes to Grinnell

As I write these words twenty-first-century America is deeply engaged in yet another intense conversation about race. On the heels of numerous deadly interactions with police, African Americans and increasing numbers of white Americans have attacked the "systemic racism" of contemporary America, and proposed a fundamental reordering of American social and political institutions.
Friendly Town guest Charlie Epting and host family member Brian Smith just after Charlie arrived in Grinnell, July 1966
(photo courtesy of Marcy Smith Keyser)
Similarly radical proposals were always visible, but in the 1960s liberal advocates of racial justice saw the issue differently. Embracing liberal politics and religion, 1960s reformers imagined ways by which to reconcile social and racial differences between white and black Americans without dismantling the system. Dan Rohr, for instance, an Iowa State University student who spent his 1965 spring break living in what the Mason City Globe-Gazette called "an all-Negro slum" of Chicago, told the newspaper that "if more [white] people took an interest in the Negro in the North, it would increase our understanding [of one another]" (March 20, 1965). In Chicago Rohr learned about the "Friendly Town" program of the Chicago Missionary Society (later renamed Community Renewal Society) that placed inner-city children with suburban and rural host families for two weeks every summer. Rohr told his 1965 Mason City interviewer that this program taught host families that "under the skin, all little boys and girls are pretty much alike" (ibid.).
Daniel Rohr, 1963 St. Ansgar High School Yearbook
Grinnell first participated in the "Friendly Town" program in 1965. With the help of local churches (especially the United Church of Christ-Congregational and St. John's Lutheran, which ran its own program), Grinnell families applied to host young, inner-city visitors for two weeks in July. This meant that at least briefly each summer very white Grinnell gained a small population of mostly black and brown kids who ate, slept, and socialized with their white host families. Today's post looks at Grinnell's experience with "Friendly Town," and how that history affected the understanding of race in central Iowa.
Book jacket of Tobin Miller Shearer's Two Weeks Every Summer (Cornell University Press, 2017)
As Tobin Miller Shearer points out in the introduction to Two Weeks Every Summer, since the late nineteenth century Fresh Air programs in the United States have sent hundreds of thousands of city children into the country for a week or two every summer. A driving force behind these projects was the idea that rural nature was an essential "good" denied to urban children. As one Iowa newspaper observed while introducing Friendly Town, "Iowa's fields, towns and streams will replace sweltering summer streets and sidewalks this July as a vacation place.... [Visiting children] are getting the opportunity for a two-week escape from their usual surroundings" (Mason City Globe-Gazette, May 1, 1965).

Chicago's version of the Fresh Air program, dubbed Friendly Town, was launched in 1960, sending children to host families either in suburban Chicago or to families in more distant locations, such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana. The Iowa Friendly Town project, begun in 1965 largely through the efforts of Dan Rohr, saw about 250 Chicago youngsters visit Iowa that summer; the second year brought to Iowa some 500 Chicago children, who were joined by another hundred from Des Moines (Mason City Globe-Gazette, July 21, 1966). In 1969 some 300 children took part, all from Iowa (Des Moines Register, August 3, 1969). Restricting participation to Iowa children, organizers said, would allow better connections between host families and guests, now geographically close enough to encourage mutual visits after the Friendly Town experience (Des Moines Tribune, April 24, 1968).
Letterhead on paper identifying 1965 Iowa Friendly Town hosts and guests
(Congregational Library and Archives, Chicago Theological Seminary collection of Community Renewal Society records, 1881-1978, Series IV [Vertical Files], Box B15/II.44; many thanks to William McCarthy for scans of this material)
Iowa's Friendly Town program had its headquarters in Ames, and local Lutherans staffed the first office there. Initially organizers required host-family applicants to express interest through their local churches. Indeed, at first applications had to include the signature of the applicant's pastor or priest, although I have yet to find evidence that this requirement was ever observed in Grinnell. Families with children were preferred as hosts so as to give guests some playmates of approximately their own age. The inner-city visitors were young—usually between 6 and 11 years of age (although later some 'tweens took part). Hosts were told they could specify "age and sex, but not race, of the guest child" (Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1967; Mason City Globe-Gazette, May 19, 1967). In soliciting hosts for the 1966 visits to Iowa, officials predicted that "seven of 10 [visiting guests] will be Negro, another 15 per cent will be Spanish-speaking" (Des Moines Register, May 1, 1966). With few exceptions, therefore, white rural and suburban hosts provided "vacations" to black and brown urban guests.
May 7, 1965 Letter from Harry Reynolds of UCC Social Action Committee
(Congregational Library and Archives, Chicago Theological Seminary collection of Community Renewal Society records, 1881-1978, Series IV [Vertical Files], Box B15/II.44; many thanks to William McCarthy for scans of this material)
In Grinnell, the UCC Church's Social Action Committee coordinated the visits; Harry Reynolds (1903-1977) headed the initial effort, but later Ted Mueller, Mrs. C. Edwin Gilmour, Mrs. Tom Mattausch, Mrs. John Steger, and others took over administering the Grinnell visits. All the arrangements in Chicago—selecting the children; arranging for medical exams (!) in Chicago; coordinating transportation—passed through the Chicago Missionary Society. When the emphasis shifted to Iowa children, Des Moines volunteers organized the visits.
Ted Mueller (right) helping organize the arrival of Friendly Town visitors to Grinnell, 1967
(photo courtesy of Berneil Mueller)
Iowa's Friendly Town hosts, when interviewed by journalists, often explained their participation by articulating goals of racial justice. For example, a Dubuque host family told the Des Moines Register: "We are living in a white ghetto here. We need this project. Our children must have contact with other races" (July 16, 1967). The Mason City Globe-Gazette heard something similar from a central Iowa host: "Friendly Town...provides just the right kind of opportunity for those families who can and would like to help overcome the barriers of class, race and income..." (June 13, 1970). Newspaper reports did not often seek comment from parents of the guest children, but one newspaper did cite the "mother of a ghetto child," who seemed to validate the racial ambitions of white hosts. Speaking just days after the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., she said, "During these days of strife and hatred, all Negroes need to know at least one white person they can never hate" (Des Moines Tribune, April 24, 1968).
To begin, Grinnell barely dipped its toe into the Friendly Town experience: in 1965, Grinnell's first year of participation, just three Grinnell families hosted three Chicago children, all from the same African American family. But in 1966 thirty-two Grinnell families hosted a total of thirty-four Chicago guests. Subsequently numbers of hosts and visiting children fell off: in 1967, when organizers admitted that they were having trouble recruiting hosts, twenty-one Grinnell families entertained twenty-three children; in 1968 twenty-two families volunteered, but with only sixteen children available, several families shared children, each hosting a child for one week. I could not find the names or numbers of hosts and guests for the next several years, as the newspaper seems to have lost interest in the project, perhaps a reflection of diminished interest among the hosts as well. If local records survive, we may learn more once the pandemic relents.
St. John's Lutheran Church (undated photo)
St. John's Lutheran Church began its own Summer Rural Program in 1968, bringing eight Chicago children to town to spend two weeks with nine host families. The visitors all came to Grinnell via Chicago's Community Lutheran Church, then situated at 1701 W. Monroe Street. St. John's helped support Community Lutheran, and provided tuition for two young African American men to attend Chicago's Luther North High School.
For the first couple of years of Iowa's Friendly Town, the Chicago visitors traveled by train, with the hosts paying $10 to help offset the expense. Once the Iowa program shifted its orientation to Iowa cities, Grinnell hosts paid only $5, and they met their guests by driving to the homes of the children they would host—mostly in Des Moines. In this way, organizers figured, inner-city parents would have a stake in the program, and rural hosts would gain insight into the families and homes from which their summer visitors came.
Chicago Friendly Town Visitors Disembark from the Train at the Grinnell Depot, July 15, 1967
(Grinnell Herald Register, July 17, 1967)
I had hoped to hear how Grinnell's visitors looked back on their experiences here, but I have succeeded in identifying only a handful of the many children who came to Grinnell via Friendly Town and the Lutheran Summer Rural Program.
Jerry Anderson, Gerald Sykes, Chris Anderson, and Reginald Sykes (Grinnell Herald-Register, July 21, 1966)
During Grinnell's first year hosting children, JoAnn and Bill Weeks welcomed Steve Sneed, then 12 years old. Steve's brother, Charlie, 9 years of age, stayed with the C. Edwin Gilmour family, and their youngest brother, William, 8 years old, was a guest at the Grinnell Dunham farm. In 1966 two brothers, Gerald and Reginald Sykes of Chicago, were guests in the Richard Anderson home. That same year Bob and Bette Smith welcomed into their home Brenda Simpson, one of the few Friendly Town guests who was neither African American nor Latina. Eugene and Darlene Smith in successive years hosted Charlie Epting and David Klein, both from Chicago.
Kim and LuGene Mueller with Virginia Torres (1967) (Photo courtesy of Berneil Mueller)
Jim and Nancy Kissane, in 1966 only recently settled into a new home and still adjusting to the arrival of a baby daughter, hosted Joseph "Ike" Perkins, an African American from Chicago; that same year the Morris and Michèle Parslow family entertained Mary Lee, also African American from Chicago.
Ike Perkins riding a horse at the Maynard Raffety farm (Alan and John Kissane in front) (1966 photo courtesy Jim Kissane)
In 1967 Ted and Berneil Mueller and their three daughters hosted Chicagoan Virginia Torres, a Hispanic girl who spoke little English; that year the Parslows were hosts for Michael, a Chicago African American. Three years later the Mueller family received Toni Keyes, an African American from Des Moines.
LuGene Mueller, Toni Keyes, Melanne and Kim Mueller (photo courtesy of Berneil Mueller)
In 1968 Tommy and Dennis Haas and their children welcomed to Grinnell a young Des Moines boy—Mark Langford.
Mark Langford, 1976 Des Moines Technical High School Yearbook
Among the hosts at St. John's Lutheran in 1968 were Don and Opal Rikansrud, who provided a two-week-long home to Chicago's David Maggitt.
David Maggitt, 1969 Luther North High School Yearbook
Maggitt's friend and schoolmate was Harry Ratliff, who spent a week each with the Oda and Wayne Callison family and with the Dorothy and Paul Pedersen family.
Harry Ratliff, 1969 Luther North High School Yearbook
By and large, children who participated in Iowa's Friendly Town found the experience fun. "I had a wonderful time," said Dorothy Evans, who spent her 1967 Friendly Town visit with Mr. and Mrs. Grant Clark near Swea City, Iowa. Interviewed in Chicago after getting off the train from Iowa, Dorothy said, "We rode horses and played with the cows" (Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1967). Pamela Burch gave the experience a similarly warm review: Having stayed with Mr. and Mrs. John Lane on a farm near Ames, Pamela told the newspaper that her hosts "had four children, and we had a lot of fun because they were very friendly" (ibid.). Donny and Danny Alvarez, who, on returning from Iowa were not able to recall the names of their hosts, nevertheless also came away with good impressions. "When we left to go on the trip," Donny said, "it was the first time we had ever been on a train. At the farm, we played with the horses, pigs, and cows, and even got to feed a calf with a baby bottle" (ibid.).
Gerald Sykes rides a horse on the Andy Tone farm (Grinnell Herald-Register, July 25, 1966)
In Grinnell, too, the kids seem to have had fun. According to the newspaper, in 1966 all the visitors received a free pass to the Municipal swimming pool, and many children enrolled in swimming lessons at either the Municipal or Grinnell Country Club pool. The local miniature golf business of  Bernard Hotchkin gave each child a free game, and many town hosts took their visitors out to neighboring farms to see the animals and drive tractors or combines. Some families took their guests further afield, as the Muellers did when they packed up their VW camper to visit Backbone State  Park and Nordic Fest in Decorah. Others, like Joan and Don Milburn, who had at their doorstep an open field on East Street, saw their out-of-town visitors fit into baseball games and other pick-up fun with Grinnell neighborhood kids.
Brian Smith and Charlie Epting showing the results of fishing at Grinnell Country Club pond
(1966 photo courtesy of Marcy Smith Keyser)
In a recent email, David Maggitt told me that, looking back on his 1968 visit, he viewed the "experience in Grinnell as positive and rewarding... I had the chance to learn how to drive a tractor, attend town baseball games, and observe hill climbs being done by dirt bike fans" (personal communication, July 9, 2020). Reginald and Gerald Sykes, who stayed with the Andersons in 1966, told the Grinnell Herald-Register that Grinnell was "all right" (July 21, 1966). Charlie Epting, who spent two weeks with the Gene and Darlene Smith family in 1966, reported to his mother and friends that he had enjoyed his time in Grinnell, and hoped to return.
Eugene and Darlene Smith, Martha, Marcy, Mindy, and Brian Smith with Charlie Epting
(photo courtesy of Marcy Smith Keyser)
Offhand comments from children do not, perhaps, adequately summarize the complexity of these brief encounters. Finest Hatcher, Jr., however, who went from Chicago to North Dakota in the 1970s, was interviewed at length in 2012. Asked to reflect on his Friendly Town experience of forty years earlier, Hatcher admitted to having had plenty of fun. But he also pointed out how important the visit was to understanding race:
it was just about having fun and just being around different people. This area [in Chicago where I lived] is just all black and I haven't been around white people or any other color. The schools I went to were all black; no Hispanics, no nothing. But [the white North Dakota hosts] treated me nice and once we got to know each other the color just left; there was no color; everything was OK (https://marillacfriendlytown.wordpress.com/oral-history).
Perhaps most Grinnell hosts felt the same, hoping that their two-week experiment of domestic integration had brought their guests some fun, but had also improved race relations, even if only by a small amount. Kim Mueller, now a Chief United States District Judge in Sacramento but in the 1960s a child in the Ted and Berneil Mueller family, wrote me to say that she thought that Friendly Town had had a big impact on her, helping open her eyes to racial difference in a town that was overwhelmingly white (personal communication, August 27, 2020). It seems likely that other Grinnell kids also broadened their understanding of race, and appreciated the experience.
1987 photograph of the Ben Franklin store on Main Street (Digital Grinnell)
As might be expected, however, this feeling was not unanimous. When one Grinnell guest was discovered to have shoplifted from the local Ben Franklin store, the encounter convinced the hosts not to volunteer for Friendly Town again. Even worse, a child of another host family reported the suspicion that their Friendly Town guest had later taken part in the robbery and murder of a relative in Chicago. Other hosts did not deal with situations this dire, but nevertheless reported disappointment. For instance, one told me that her family had had a great experience one year, but the following year's guest had proven to be manipulative, brazenly giving them lists of things he'd like them to give him on his birthday or at Christmas. In other words, Grinnell's Friendly Town hosts did not enjoy universally favorable experiences, even if most did.

What about the guests? Recently Toni Keyes wrote Berneil Mueller to say that Friendly Town visits had given her and her siblings (who visited in other Iowa communities) "a fresh outlook on people who looked different than us...We learned...that all people are basically the same..." (personal communication from Berneil Mueller, August 27, 2020). Charlie Epting, who had seen the world with the US Army after growing up in Chicago, remembered Grinnell very happily when recently I found him by telephone in Florida; he expressed his appreciation for the friendship that he and his mother had had with members of the Smith family. Perhaps many other Friendly Town visitors to Grinnell took away similar experiences, but my inability to find them or to coax replies out of those I did find makes it hard to know what the visitors absorbed from their experience in Grinnell.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have asked the kids about problems with their hosts, but it would not be surprising if some local hosts, most of whom had had little contact with persons of African American or Latino descent, had unthinkingly deployed in the presence of their guests some then-common, impolite epithets to describe African Americans or Hispanics. The kids themselves might have been even less careful, giving expression to racial stereotypes in the heat of play. Indeed, one Grinnell host family member recalled that a neighborhood boy had shouted the n-word at their Friendly Town African American guest, indicating that at least occasionally reminders of racial difference were mixed with the fun and farm animals.
Grinnell's experience with Friendly Town took place at a critical time for American race relations. If 1964 saw enactment of the U.S. Civil Rights Act and 1965 witnessed passage of the Voting Rights Act, these same years produced widespread unrest in American urban, black communities. While civil rights activists participated in sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches across the U.S. South, racial tension within northern American cities exploded several times, most notably in the 1965 race riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and again in 1967 in Detroit and Newark. The following year brought the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had long argued for a peaceful resolution of racial and economic inequities. Meanwhile, third-party candidate George Wallace pursued the presidency on a blatantly segregationist platform.

As a result of these and many other moments of racial strife, more radical agendas gained greater followings among the country's African Americans. The Nation of Islam, for instance, which had been founded decades before to advance racial separation, occupied an increasingly prominent place in the nation's consciousness, as hopes for peaceful integration waned. The Black Panthers, often depicted in the press fully armed, advanced a militant struggle against white American racial and economic dominance.
Undated image of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, armed with Colt .45 and a shotgun at Oakland Black Panthers HQ
This charged climate and the ambient political and social forces provided a difficult background for the 1960s Friendly Town project, which championed a liberal program of inter-racial cooperation and understanding. It is no surprise, therefore, that African Americans themselves criticized the Friendly Town project. Some of these objections emerged in a 1968 report that proposed freeing Chicago's Community Renewal Society of its connection to the project. Among the complaints lodged by African Americans, the report noted, was the charge that
Friendly Town does not lead to structural change. Black children are tolerated in white communities for two weeks, but the communities [themselves] remain unchanged...Nor does Friendly Town address itself to the institutional racism that produced and sustains black poverty (https://marillacfriendlytown.wordpress.com/). 
Sandra Bates (1968 Cyclone)
The same year that Friendly Town was absorbing these criticisms, Sandra Bates, a Grinnell College African American who hailed from Virginia and would soon graduate and enter medical school, addressed a group at Grinnell's Mayflower Community. Her subject was "The Progress of the Negro," an apt theme for Grinnell and its 1960s ambitions for Friendly Town. Perhaps surprising her audience, Bates argued that in fact there had been no progress for America's black citizens. "Nearly 350 years after Jamestown," Bates said,
Negro Americans are still strangers in their own house. More than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation they are still exceptions to the melting pot theory... [M]ost white Americans are determined that [Negroes] shall not even get in the pot. To put it bluntly, the full privileges of citizens of the United States do not apply to Negroes—and they never have (Grinnell Herald Register, May 20, 1968).
Within a few weeks of Bates's address, another group of inner-city kids arrived in Iowa to enjoy a brief "vacation" in Grinnell. No doubt most had fun, did things they had never done, and spent more time with white Americans than they ever had before. But for all its liberal ambition and good intentions, did Friendly Town prove, as Dan Rohr had hoped it would, that "under the skin all little boys and girls are pretty much alike?" Did the Friendly Town visits change Grinnell or help demolish institutional racism?

Members of Grinnell's host families offer contrasting views. Some visits seem to have gone off splendidly, host families maintaining contact with their visitors long after the Friendly Town visit ended. For example, the Robert Smith family traveled to Chicago to visit their former guest as well as their neighbor's Friendly Town guest who lived in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. Similarly, Darlene Smith exchanged correspondence with Charlie Epting's mother for years after Charlie's 1966 visit (thanks to Mindy Smith Heine for sharing with me copies of these letters). And Berneil Mueller recalls that her family became friends with Toni Keyes's Des Moines family, maintaining contact until the Keyes family moved out of state. In very white Grinnell, these on-going connections with African Americans certainly helped erode the sense of racial difference.

Other Grinnell hosts offered less encouraging recollections, reflected perhaps in the gradual demise of the program. One host told me that their family's guest spent most of his two weeks on a bicycle, away from their home and all on his own, interacting minimally with hosts. Hosts to the guest caught shop-lifting learned that their Chicago visitor had encouraged other kids to try it, thereby implicating them in the theft. The fact that the offender was white did nothing to undermine perceptions of difference. Still other Friendly Town hosts could find little to recall about this experiment in social relations; those two weeks long ago spent in the company of an inner-city child had simply disappeared from memory, and therefore could not have had much effect on local opinions on race and class.
Undated photo of some of the Robert Taylor Homes on South State Street, Chicago
Many of the former guests I tracked down proved reluctant to comment or offer any reflections on how their Grinnell Friendly Town experience might have changed their views on race; my letters and emails asking their impressions went unanswered. Of course, everyone nowadays lives busy lives, and the covid-19 pandemic has made life even more complicated. I suspect, however, that at least some of the reluctance to comment upon Friendly Town owes something to the present-day revival of racial tensions in America. If I am right, then this reluctance to speak is regrettable, and implies the failure of the liberal hopes that undergirded Friendly Town. If fifty-some years later Friendly Town participants themselves find it impossible or awkward to discuss race openly, then there seems little hope for the rest of America to engage in this conversation.

Even Dan Rohr, who, more than anyone, was responsible for bringing Friendly Town to Iowa, seems to have left it firmly in the past. When interviewed in 1966 after having seen two years of Friendly Town visits to Iowa, Rohr—who left college after his second year to help organize the program, and only completed his education some years later—thought that his Friendly Town work had been important, telling a newspaper reporter that "This [Friendly Town] and the past year in Chicago have changed my life considerably and I am sure it has been all for the good" (Mason City Globe Gazette, September 24, 1966).

Now living in California and retired from a career as a public-school teacher and an information technology specialist, Rohr seemed surprised when I found him by telephone and asked what he now thought about Friendly Town and his role in bringing it to Iowa. After a pause, he told me that these days he did not think about it at all; he had only a single folder of newspaper articles as a memento. He did not explain, but I wondered whether the enthusiasm with which he had originally embraced Friendly Town and its liberal vision of reform had succumbed to the enduring problems of racial conflict in America.

1 comment:

  1. 2 weeks, it would take 2 years to really get to know another person of a different race....