Racism Behind the Redwood Curtain Part II: Stars, Bars and the Backs of Cars


Truck parked in front of the Yellow Rose in Petrolia, CA. - LINDA STANSBERRY
  • Linda Stansberry
  • Truck parked in front of the Yellow Rose in Petrolia, CA.

In Part I of this series we explored the hidden, often lonely world of Humboldt County’s online white supremacist community. But, of course, not all intolerance lurks online. We put the call out to the community to share their experiences with racism in Humboldt County, and gathered a lot of comments on one aspect in particular: Why would anyone sport a Confederate flag this far north of the Mason-Dixon line?

Humboldt County has no deep ties to the Deep South. Our lone Confederate notable, brigadier general Gabriel J. Rains, both fought and protected Native Americans from his post at Fort Humboldt before leaving to join the secessionist cause. (He also has the dubious distinction of being one of the first inventors of the modern land mine.) It doesn’t appear that there are any public buildings or monuments named after Rains or other Confederate soldiers in Humboldt County, meaning that we will be unaffected by a proposed bill in the California State Senate that would ban public property from having the names of Confederate leaders. Further down the coast, Fort Bragg (named after Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg), may be in for a dramatic change. While there was a Confederate contingent in Southern California, Humboldt remained loyal to the Union cause.

And yet, the Confederate Flag still appears under the redwoods and fog from time to time, like a Joker card flashing to the surface of a well-shuffled deck. The Hawg Wild Bar in Orick no longer flies it, and it has been mostly exterminated from the parking lot of Ferndale High, but as Journal columnist Marcy Burstiner recently pointed out, it is alive and well on the bumpers of some local vehicles, and even on windows in Eureka's Old Town.

Kintay Johnson, assistant director of the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services department at College of the Redwoods, says that many of the students of color who come into his office feel isolated and unwelcome in Humboldt. Johnson, who spoke about his experience as an African American at a recent TedX event, moved to Humboldt from Pensacola, Florida 12 years ago. He said that the racial atmosphere in Humboldt was a welcome change from his hometown, where profiling was a common police practice. He has seen a few examples of overt racism, including an incident in which a stranger who accosted him and his friends on the Arcata Plaza, spewing racial epithets.

“He did look a little intoxicated,” says Johnson. “ Maybe that made him feel like he had the freedom to say these things. I brought it up in class and someone said there are a lot of those people running around here, it’s just not as overt in the South. That’s when I started seeing Confederate flags, and I just thought ‘Whoa, what is this doing here, 3,000 miles away from the South?’”

Johnson says that the Confederate flag, which was much more prominent where he grew up, is “not a symbol of heritage. It’s hate.” His first reaction when he sees it is to avoid whoever is wearing or displaying it, but because he works with the public this can be difficult. So instead he leans into the conflict, trying to change hearts and minds.

“I try to break down any stereotype they may have heard about black people, to help them see that those negative images they see on TV or whatever, they’re not true,” he says, recalling the time he was called to help a student who had a Confederate Flag tattooed onto the back of his neck. “It took me aback, but then I thought, ‘I’m really going to help this guy. I’m going to make this the best experience he’s ever had, and that’s how I’ll help.’ So I did.”

Michael Ross, a local business owner who moved to Humboldt from Chicago, also says that Eureka has been a welcoming environment for him and his family. Ross says he has had experiences in which he felt he was being racially profiled by the police. He said an officer with the Eureka Police Department was discriminatory and rude towards him during a traffic stop, and that the station did not give him a complaint form. But for the most part, Ross’s experience has been in line with national statistics regarding racial attitudes in the United States, which show Humboldt County as one of the country’s most tolerant regions.

Still, both Ross and Johnson say that they feel safer and more welcome in Eureka and Arcata. Johnson says he was racially profiled and stopped by law enforcement in McKinleyville. Neither men feel totally comfortable in Fortuna, Ferndale or McKinleyville, especially after dark. Ross and his wife, who is white, have occasionally received the “mad eye” from people when they go out in public. Ross says that they respond by “playing up the kissy kissy, lovey dovey,” once moving seats in a restaurant to be closer to some intolerant patrons, who eventually left.

In May of this year, a postal worker in Eureka reported being physically and verbally abused while delivering mail. He says that his assailants called him the n-word before they punched him. The case has been referred to the district attorney’s office, who had not returned our call as of press time. The local chapter of the NAACP has also not returned our calls.

Ross, who cuts an imposing figure, says that he isn’t on the receiving end of a lot of racially-motivated behavior because, ultimately, “most racists are cowards.” He is more concerned about his daughter, who will soon be entering the public school system. His wife is an educator, and she and her colleagues can provide a “safety net” during grade school, but the recent ACLU lawsuit against Eureka City Schools has made him nervous about what will happen when she goes to highschool. The couple talked about it before their daughter was “even conceived,” and they continue to talk about it "constantly."

“I'll be teaching her how to handle herself when she's confronted with some of these stupid ideals,” says Ross, who has already begun talking to his daughter about her African heritage and the aspects of her background he says aren’t taught in history class. “She'll be armed with power. When you know background and when you know the truth, you can look someone in the face when they say something stupid. And then we're definitely going to work on self-defense, because I can't live knowing that someone would hurt my little girl without her knowing how to defend herself.”

Ross and his wife are working to change the school system “from the inside,” preparing the way for their daughter to have a safe experience. He says that he will be teaching his little girl as he was taught, to “defend yourself first and talk politics later.”

Ross’s concerns speak to the hidden side of racism on the Redwood Coast. Confederate flags and other symbols can be painted over or taken down, but the systems that support racism are often both hidden in plain sight and a challenge to uproot. In part III of our series we will look into institutional racism in Humboldt County.

Please add your voice by commenting below or emailing [email protected]

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original post included a reference to a white supremacist symbol on the side of a local truck. The Journal has since spoken to the owner of the truck, who told us we misidentified the symbol. The Journal regrets the error.

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