PIPESTONE, MINN. – Thirteen years ago, Sara Priester moved back here with her 5-year-old daughter, Chloe Lear, hoping that she would come to love her mother’s hometown.
But for Chloe, whose father is a black immigrant from Barbados and whose mother is white, that dream turned into a nightmare before high school homecoming festivities last fall, when a girl in her senior class painted a racial slur on her truck window.
The incident drove Chloe to transfer to another high school nearly 30 miles away. It also prompted the town’s mayor, a self-described born-again Christian, to speak out and take action, and stimulated some serious soul-searching for many of the 4,150 residents of this predominantly white city 200 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
“The biggest issue that you find with anyone moving into a small town, they’re going to come with a cultural background that they were raised in or lived in, and that cultural background probably is going to be different than what you find out in a small community,” said Mayor Myron Koets, who in the days after the incident wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper saying the community cannot tolerate what happened to Chloe. “If you’re a person of color, you really stand out.”
Pipestone is known as a “place of peace, a place where all people are welcome,” according to a film showing at the Pipestone National Monument on the north edge of town, where American Indians mine red quartzite to make pipes. And while many here say Pipestone is indeed a welcoming community, some say the signs of racism, both subtle and overt, abound.
“I’ve heard racial slurs I haven’t heard in years here — ‘nappy head,’ ‘jigaboo,’ ” said Laron “Ron” Tivis, who moved here from St. Paul nearly four years ago when he bought the town barbershop through an advertisement on Craigslist. Tivis says as the only black business owner in Pipestone County, he must brush off the slurs.
“If you’re not born and raised here, you’re an outsider,” he said. “I’m not only an outsider, but also I’m a black person.”
Tivis said he likes the quality of life in Pipestone and doesn’t want to paint everyone as racist.
“But you can definitely feel the tensions. It bothers me when it affects my kids,” he said as his 4-year-old daughter, Eyla, played in his shop.
Chloe said she was used to hearing comments about her race as she grew up. For instance, an older relative of a friend would refer to her as “that black girl.” She figured it was just a way to describe her because he couldn’t recall her name.
But when she entered high school, things turned ugly. A girl in her freshman class sent her a text message calling her racist names. She points to rebel flags posted by peers on social media and says that after she advised a high school boy to take down a rebel flag from his truck window, he sent her a text message that directed a racial slur at her.
Chloe says she wept after those incidents.
Then, last September, as some boys toilet-papered her house as part of a homecoming prank, a girl who was with them painted a racial slur on Chloe’s truck window.
“I didn’t cry this time,” she said. “I was angry.”
Her mother called the police. Chloe set up a website to collect anonymous tips. It took her nine days to find out who did it. In the end, Chloe said, the school agreed to escort her whenever she felt threatened, but did nothing to punish the other girl.
“Sweeping things under the rug is the way a lot of things get dealt with around here,” Priester said.
Kevin Everson, superintendent of Pipestone Area Schools, noted that the incident took place off campus and was handled by police. “We followed our policies and procedures,” he said, declining to say more because of student confidentiality laws.
“Hopefully, people learn,” Everson said. “There’s no place in our world for this stuff. It needs to end. It’s more than that, too. People need to respect one another.”
Chloe, who had been the president of the senior class committee and manager of the wrestling team, transferred to Russell-Tyler-Ruthton High School in Tyler, 27 miles away. The move to a smaller school meant she had to give up her studies of advanced mathematics and French and had to leave her “second family” — the Pipestone wrestling team.
“I just got so frustrated that nothing was happening, I just gave up,” she said. “It makes me sound like I’m a bit of quitter, but I’m a lot happier now.”
Priester, who served on the board of the Pipestone Area Community Foundation for four years and was chairman in 2014 and 2015, said she had always thought of her hometown as a place where people backed one another and stood up for their beliefs.
“I do not really believe that anymore,” she said. “It’s a different town now than what I grew up in.”
A changing community
The changing demographics that brought more nonwhite workers and their families to larger rural cities such as Austin, Worthington and Owatonna have been slow to arrive in Pipestone, where more than eight out of 10 people are non-Hispanic whites. But Pipestone is making up for lost time. According to the U.S. Census, the city lost 15 percent of its population from 1980 to 2016. The white population dropped 29 percent over the same period, while Hispanics and nonwhites increased sevenfold.
José López, the manager of Los Tulipanes, a Mexican restaurant, moved his family here from St. Louis about seven years ago.
“Trust me, I like this small town,” said López, who is originally from Jalisco, Mexico. He said Pipestone’s economy is strong. It has good schools. And compared to St. Louis, “It’s nice and quiet. I’m not going to the big city any more.”
Bud Johnston, an Ojibewa elder, runs a local gift shop featuring peace pipes and other Indian crafts. He said although the kids in town can be nasty to one another, race relations have improved markedly since he moved here in 1984.
“They’re finally getting that the Indian thing is a big part of our community,” said Johnston, president of the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers.
Mayor Koets said for Pipestone to prosper, it needs workers to fill agricultural and construction jobs, which has largely meant minorities and immigrants. After he wrote his letter to the local newspaper editor, he reached out to the Southwest Regional Development Commission (SWRDC), where’s he’s on the board, and the League of Minnesota Cities for help.
The league launched racial equity training programs in 2015 and formally adopted a “race equity work plan” in February 2017, said Kevin Frazell, director of member services. It began working with the Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE) in St. Paul last year in what Frazell called “very staff intensive” training programs designed to rout institutional racism.
Frazell and Gordon Goodwin, GARE’s Midwest regional manager, attended a meeting on racial equity that Koets put together in January. It drew about 50 people of diverse backgrounds and ages, said Judy Elling Przybilla, a former development planner for the SWRDC who’s now with the Equity Works Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She said those who attended were vocal, with some saying “we don’t have race issues” and others saying “we really have race issues.”
“It’s a very touchy issue out here,” Przybilla said.
Goodwin, who is black, praised Koets for starting a difficult conversation. “But what I always tell people is, people of color have been involved in a lot of conversations,” he said. Goodwin said Pipestone’s response to the harassment of Chloe calls for a sustained effort to review and revise policies and procedures.
Koets said the city’s small staff makes that difficult. But he recently met with members of Pipestone’s Hispanic and black communities to plan a Mexican cultural event in May and to recruit candidates for local government posts.
Chloe said she’s glad that Koets is tackling race relations in Pipestone, “but I’m done with it.” She leaves next fall for Minnesota State University Moorhead to study special education. She said she would return to Pipestone only to visit family and close friends.
“No child should have to go through what Chloe has gone through,” Priester said.