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"The Heads Turn, Even in Church"
By Tom Robertson
May 6, 1999
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Travel through rural northern Minnesota and, while you'll come across some Native Americans, what you'll see are mostly white faces - people who trace their roots to Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. But things are changing. A small - but growing - number of African Americans are calling Northern Minnesota home. Some are attracted to education or job opportunities, others seek relief from urban strife, but many find it a challenge to settle into a rural culture where black faces are rarely seen.

50-YEAR-OLD LAVORIA BODIEN is an African-American, originally from Mississippi, who moved to rural Blackduck, Minnesota 25 years ago.
Bodien: I was like an ink spot in the middle of a white-linen tablecloth, and so ,yes, heads did turn, but people would be cordial, but still, you could feel something.
Lavoria Bodien
Photo: Tom Robertson
She came to marry a white man she met at a southern college. Lavoria says she was the first black woman to live in the small northern town.
Bodien: Everybody's eyes just, it was so different. At that time, I wore a short little Afro and I was skinny and cute , but I could not believe how everyone looked at me. I was so different for them. So obviously, they had not seen any blacks except perhaps on TV.
Lavoria says most people in the community were friendly, but she occasionally felt the barbs of racism, usually subtle, sometimes direct, but always painful. The incident that sticks out most in her mind is the loss of a job in 1981.
Bodien: I was dismissed as a result of my color. I found this out later. So instead of taking this to court, and I was going to - I was a fighter - my father-in-law encouraged me not to do that. He said, "You have to live in this community, so don't pursue it." It took the fight out of me, you know, and for a long time I was angry over it. Very hurt.
Lavoria says her four children had a difficult time in school because of their mixed race. She says they had few friends and were treated as outcasts. Troubles began early for her son, Chris, now 21.
Chris: First grade, little white girl ran up to me: "nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger," which upset me. I don't know, I knocked her out. She made me mad, so I cocked her one, you know. I've been getting it in school since then, and it's always been the same. It's always been the same. It never changes.
Chris Bodien
Photo: Tom Robertson
Chris got fed up with school, and quit in the ninth grade. He says he not only has a hard time with racism, but also feels like something is missing - like he's been deprived of his heritage. Chris says he'd like to go down south, to his mother's Mississippi home, to learn what it means to be black.
Chris: I don't even know what my black side is about. I've lived around white people all my life, so that's all I really know. I don't even know that much about my black culture. Except for what I've read in books. That's about all. My skin color might be different, but I'm a white boy underneath, which is the truth. I don't even know what it's like.
Lavoria Bodien's granddaughter, Victoria, appears to be a typical 10-year-old; inquisitive, but shy around strangers. Victoria also comes from mixed parentage. Her dad is black and her mom is white. Victoria is one of only a few elementary-school students in Blackduck with African-American heritage, and she's having a hard time.
Victoria: I get kind of frustrated here sometimes.
Victoria's mother, Donna, says her daughter is struggling to fit in in school, but she's sometimes picked on.
Donna: She's made comments to me that if it wasn't for her grandmother, she wouldn't want to be up here at all. She just hasn't seen enough black people. There really isn't a whole lot right up here, I mean, and she's made comments where she says, "You know, Mom, I feel so out of place. I don't feel like I'm, this isn't the place where I should be living," she says. I should be down there amongst the other black people.
Twenty-five miles south of Blackduck, there is a somewhat larger black community. There are 33 African American kids in the Bemidji School District, and last semester, there were 23 African-American students at Bemidji State University. Kerry Woods graduated a few years ago from BSU and decided to stay in the area to teach school. Originally from Rockford, Illinois, Woods says the biggest draw for African Americans to come to Bemidji State is sports scholarships, but he says many don't stay around long enough to graduate, and of those who do, very few decide to stay in northern Minnesota.
Woods: Because a lot of blacks come up here and can't make it. Because they're not used to surviving in a non-black neighborhood . For a lot of people, they need to go where there are a lot of blacks there so they can survive. I mean, it's like taking a white person, and throwing them in Watts, and say, "Okay, you survive." Not that it's the same kind of hostility, but they don't know the rules, and they don't want to know the rules.
Another former BSU student, Eltwan Fuqua, also chose to stay in Bemidji. He came from Detroit, Michigan to play sports, and stuck around to avoid returning to his crime-ridden neighborhood.
Fuqua: It's like you come here and you can let your guard down. You ain't got to worry about double-locking your door at night, or worry about somebody trying to steal your car, or something like that. So when I lay down at night, I don't hear no cars going by with boomer systems. I don't hear no gunshots. I don't hear no police sirens. I don't hear no ambulances. I don't hear none of that.
No one has done more to develop greater awareness of the African-American experience in the local community than Dr. Annie Henry, one of the few black professors at BSU and the force behind local Black History Month celebrations.

The Jacksonville, Florida native arrived in Bemidji 12 years ago and at first shed a lot of tears, she says, because she felt isolated and experienced some racism. But once she overcame the culture shock, she made it a personal crusade to educate the community about black culture.
Henry: I think when you come to a different culture, we have to share and get to know each other, but don't ever treat another human being as a stranger. It could be your sister, it could be Christ in a different form.
Annie Henry
The 57-year-old Henry says she doesn't get nearly the support she feels should be given to Black History Month. She says many in the rural white community are politely indifferent to the black experience and are unaware of the loneliness African Americans feel living away from larger black populations.

But Henry takes constant inspiration from the late civil-rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. She spent time with King at his Atlanta home in 1967, and has maintained a friendship with the King family ever since.
Henry: I have lived to see everything Martin said to me come true. And he told me there would come a time in my life when I say "Oh my God, why me?" He said, "Always remember, there will be a little bird over your shoulder, saying, 'if not you, then who?'" The issue of race is still a problem and it will be a problem until we the people of our great country really sit down and honestly do gut-wrenching dialogue about the racism in our country. Cruelty exists in Bemidji, Minnesota. You don't have to go to Miami, Florida. You don't have to go to inner-city St. Paul. It is here.
"Cruelty exists in Bemidji, Minnesota. You don't have to go to Miami, Florida. You don't have to go to inner-city St. Paul. It is here."

- Dr. Annie Henry
Annie Henry is considering a new project. She'd like to plan an event gathering African Americans in northern Minnesota together to begin creating a support network.
Henry: We are so isolated and there are probably many others up here and we don't know how to go to get the connection with the other one, to say, you know, "I'm having some concern, can you help me?" I think it would be so great. I would like to see how many of us here. So I can say, "My God, quite a few of us are here." And I could begin to feel I got some more brothers and sisters here that I don't know anything about.
Henry says soul food and lutefisk can exist side-by-side. But networking and education will open more hearts and minds to the black experience in rural Minnesota.