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Different generations, different takes on Kitsap racism
Lillian Walker never knew discrimination until she moved to Bremerton.
When she arrived with her husband in 1941 she was refused service at restaurants, treated poorly at the businesses she was allowed in and faced signs in storefronts that read, “We cater to white trade only.”
“Bremerton at that time was really a prejudiced little town,” said Walker, now 96. “They didn’t treat negroes like people.”
It was worlds away from her Southern Illinois country upbringing.
“We didn’t grow up like that,” she said.
Today, Walker says she is treated the same as anyone else, indicating that blatant racism has disappeared. She is one of several longtime Kitsap residents who took a stand for civil rights, many of whom say the area has come a long way in improving the racial climate. But local teens think Kitsap still has a long way to go in making people of color feel welcome, exposing a rift between how younger and older generations experience racism.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Jasmine Twymon, a 17-year-old senior at Central Kitsap High School. “Usually you don’t hear too many people talk about the issues that are there because they don’t see it.”
Iesha Holt, a 17-year-old junior at Central Kitsap, said despite taking highly-visible positions of power, like President Obama, blacks are still marginalized.
“We’re not at the top just yet because Obama is president,” she said.
Recently, February ended without a Black History Month assembly, something Holt found disappointing.
Instead, she and Twymon joined other students in giving presentations about diversity to classrooms.
Central Kitsap Principal Steve Coons said that the school had guest speakers, student discussions and a library reading challenge last month, but the school could always do more in the future.
“I think we could improve our attention to those,” he said. “But there’s a good cross-section of dedicated kids who were very jazzed about what we had done.”
J.D. Sweet, a Central Kitsap social studies teacher since the late-1970s, said it’s a lack of history knowledge that leads to prejudicial chatter among teens. For example, the racial slurs used in the music teens listen to don’t have the same meaning for them as they do for the generation of Lillian Walker, for whom such words were used to dehumanize.
“A lot of kids just don’t know their history,” Sweet said.
Sylvenus Harris, a 17-year-old senior at Central Kitsap, agrees that many of his black peers don’t fully appreciate the older generation’s work to extend opportunities to future generations, but his own family emphasized to him the importance of earlier civil rights leaders.
“The past helps make us who we are today,” Harris said.
That past also needs a higher profile, said Bremerton City Councilwoman Dianne Robinson, on the Council since 2004.
Robinson is the founder of the Black Historical Society of Kitsap County, established in 1982 to highlight local black history, which dates back to 1857.
“I really think this should be American history, not African-American history,” she said.
Indeed there is no longer the institutional discrimination once found in Kitsap. Walker and her late husband, James, worked to get an anti-discrimination law passed in Washington state, won a lawsuit against a Bremerton drugstore that didn’t let black people eat inside and talked to business owners and teachers whenever they saw racism crop up.
“I’ve always fought for my rights,” Walker said.
Marty Krutcher, 76, was a captain’s steward in the Navy, stationed in Bremerton in the 1950s. Black people like himself didn’t get the same food as the whites, couldn’t sit down to eat and weren’t allowed to bring their families on board the ship. He and a fellow sailor walked out in protest, eventually taking their complaints to the captain and earning equal treatment as their white peers. Krutcher was elected the first black Bremerton City Councilman in 1986, along with the late Tuskegee airman Al Colvin.
In the late 1980s, Krutcher marched in Port Orchard with hundreds of local residents, among them Bishop Larry Robertson of the Emmanuel Apostolic Church and Robinson, protesting a burning cross pitched in the yard of a mixed-race Poulsbo couple.
Since those days, Robertson said Kitsap has become more open-minded.
“I think the thinking has changed, more than anything,” Robertson said. “In the climate that we’re in today, people understand what oppression is.”
Local youth, however, some from military families, say they still face challenges being a person of color in Kitsap County.
Twymon, who grew up in a military family, has lived in Georgia, Florida, New York and Hawaii, but says she felt most out of place in Washington state.
“I run into more racial issues personally here than I ever have before,” she said. “It bothers me. It really does. I feel like I don’t really belong.”
Twymon has suffered racial slurs and been told to “go back where she came from.”
Holt, who has lived in Texas and Guam, said racially-charged banter among her peers is too common.
“Being black, you’re going to feel unwanted,” she said. “They probably don’t even want us here.”
Senior Monterill Anderson and junior Devon Lewis, both 17, said fellow high school students make racist comments all the time as a joke.
Lewis said when he goes shopping, he feels shopkeepers watching him, expecting him to steal something.
“I feel like I have to prove myself to show that I’m not what people picture me to be,” he said.
Anderson, who is being offered academic scholarships by colleges such as Linfield College in Oregon and Hamline University in Minnesota, said he is tired of the stereotype of black people as underachievers.
“I think society is saying that black people act a different way,” he said.
Sweet also pointed out the problems black children still suffer in local schools, such as lagging behind in the achievement gap and disproportionate discipline, and said schools have not done enough to address those issues.
“Because a lot of people feel like the civil rights movement is over, I think a lot of people think that things are better,” Sweet said.
Teachers and administrators need to be trained about cultural differences to prevent students of color from feeling marginalized, he said.
Robertson said that despite the challenges, today’s youth is on the right track.
“You see black people having a healthy appreciation for who they are and their ethnicity,” he said. “I think that our kids are getting it right.”
Twymon says she sees positive changes in many of her friends at school, especially when she gives her diversity presentations. With the right education, racism can be overcome.
“I can fight them back with knowledge,” she said.