White Man's Burden
Robert Cunningham, who is white, remembers when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his yard. Now he has launched a personal crusade: He wants to get fliers apologizing for slavery into the hands of all Colorado slave descendants.
"It's like building a field and getting two teams to play out in the cornfields of Iowa, whatever that movie was," says the 76-year-old. "It's a spiritual thing with me. It breaks the ice. It begins the dialogue between people."
If you can get the people together, that is. There aren't many black folks in Sterling, Colorado, population 12,000 or so. The Klan's most recent rally there was in 1994, and the town has little diversity. There used to be a healthy if small Hispanic population, but with the closing last fall of Sterling's major beef-packing plant, many Hispanics lost their jobs and moved elsewhere. Anna Hagemeier, curator of the Overland Trail Museum, says that for many years there was only one black family in town, a couple who had no children and have since died. The highest concentration of blacks can be found at Northeastern Junior College, where there are 27 black full-time students in a population of 980. According to college spokeswoman Pat Fox, most of these students are recruited from outside the immediate area.
For the last seven years, Cunningham has been a columnist for the weekly South Platte Sentinel, penning articles on everything from the unconstitutionality of Amendment 2 to the Pope's visit to Cuba ("The Pope and Fidel Castro are two of the last actors in a dying century's deadliest drama, the battle between God and a militant, state-sponsored atheistic humanism"). He even wrote about Mike Tyson, arguing that Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear because he had sustained a concussion earlier in the fight "which affected his brain function." He wrote that everyone in America, from Bill Clinton down, and especially members of the news media, should apologize to Iron Mike. He also helped institute an exchange program that brings students from Japan to study at Northeastern Junior College.
Cunningham's apology flier, which features an illustration of people of all colors holding hands, encourages people to be a part of the crusade by calling in or sending letters. His apology reads, in part: "The Chipman Cunningham College for Youth apologizes for slavery to all youth of slave descent: We're Sorry! And we apologize to all their families and friends. We share the shame of slavery at any time or any place in the human experience."
The Chipman Cunningham College for Youth is more concept than center of higher learning. It is two homes, side by side, that have been in Cunningham's family for more than 100 years.
"'Collegial' is a friendly discussion between two or more friendly parties, so 'college' is an effort to promote discussion," he explains. He hopes the "big house," a large brick home his grandfather built in the 1880s, will be a place where kids can come and learn about their heritage. The buildings are filled with artifacts from his travels, including a Turkish prayer rug and copperware from the Middle East. He even has an old KKK robe he bought, and a cross commemorates the one that burned in his front yard more than seventy years ago.
Cunningham's father, Jack, also a newspaperman, "was a Roman Catholic, Jesuit educated and, as a shanty Irishman, wouldn't sit still for the Klan. In a small Western plains community, that was three strikes against you," Cunningham says.
His mother, Ina Chipman, was raised a Southern Baptist by her father, Dr. Jacob C. Chipman, for years Sterling's only doctor. He disapproved of her plans to marry a Catholic, and she and Jack were forced to elope. "Back in the 1920s, you didn't marry outside your faith," Cunningham says. "It happened, but it was a bit of a scandal back in those days."
It also led to action by the Klan. "Back then there were no blacks in Sterling, and the Klan had it in for the Catholics," says Cunningham's brother Paul, a retired journalist living in Maryland.
One night, when the boys were alone in the house, the Klan left its calling card. "I remember looking out the window and seeing that cross burn," says Paul. "It stood out there for a few days, and then it was torn down." He was only three or four then, an age when "that stuff doesn't bother you. They didn't burn the house down."
Cunningham was even younger and doesn't remember the incident firsthand. "I didn't know about this until about the eighth grade," he says. "It wasn't something we discussed."
Yet it left its mark on the young man as he left Sterling for medical school in Denver and later went into the U.S. Navy. He served as chief medical officer aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Palau during the opening moments of the Cold War. He and his shipmates crossed paths briefly with U.N. mediator Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish diplomat assigned to mediate relations between Palestinians and Israelis. Not long after, Bernadotte was assassinated. Evidence points to an Israeli assassin.
"Hate and mistrust is what I've been exposed to," Cunningham says.
He returned to Colorado in 1949, where he spent the next two years earning his residency in pediatrics. From there he spent time in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, studying child psychiatry. In 1975 he was recommissioned into the military, this time as a colonel in the Air Force, and he spent the next ten years traveling the world again.
Though the idea of an apology had been simmering in his head for a while--he had even printed up a flier--Cunningham says the "precipitating event" occurred in September 1997 at the National Baptist Convention in Denver. He was there to write an article for the Sentinel.
The focus of the convention was a plea for forgiveness by president Henry Lyons, who had been indicted on federal theft charges and had been accused of spending convention money to buy a Flordia home for his mistress. "The Baptists, in general, accept apology with forgiveness," Cunningham says. "That's a cornerstone for them."
Something clicked, so he hurried out of the convention center to the nearest copy store and made 500 photocopies of his fliers. People were receptive when he passed them out. One woman gave him a hug. "It was the most interesting experience I've ever had in my life," he says.
Cunningham proceeded to attend an NAACP convention last March in Colorado Springs and the Juneteenth celebration in Five Points this past summer. "I ran into people and told them, 'Please accept my apology, and I'm the guy at the bottom of the page.'"
He says he has been to about a half-dozen locations and has passed out between 1,500 and 2,000 fliers. He passed out fliers at East High School last spring, and three weeks ago, at a speech given by filmmaker Spike Lee, Cunningham was working the lobbies, distributing his fliers and printed copies of his Web page. He says he tried to get one to Lee, but he doubts he'll receive a response.
Those closest to Cunningham question what he is up to. "I don't feel responsible for what happened 300 years ago, and he does," says brother Paul. "It's past history. Why rehash it? Take what you're given today and do the best you can. It eventually should slide into history, if we let it."
"I think he's all right," says Cunningham's friend Joe Cucarola. "He's fighting a lone battle. But he has the resources, the time and the ability." Cucarola says Cunningham "likes his publicity, but he's sincere about the cause. He's been through the world. He always felt the black people got a bad deal out of it."
Cunningham is undaunted by what others say. Once he's finished in Colorado, he plans to take his crusade nationwide. Soon, however, he may be able to start passing out fliers down the street.
In an uncomfortable irony, an influx of black people is on its way to Sterling at last. In November 1996, construction began on a new prison, a "megafacility" that will soon hold up to 2,445 inmates--and 22.9 percent of them will most likely be black, according to the state Department of Corrections (nearly 57 percent of Colorado's incarcerated population is minority). The inmates start arriving this month; the prison should be at full capacity by next May.
"You're damn right it's ironic, and it's our fault. That's a pyramid out there to our failures as a society," Cunningham says of the prison.
But it is the prison staff--hundreds of whom are transferring from other prisons in the state system--that is likely to provide more people of color than Sterling has seen in a long time.
"We want to get the most qualified staff but with an eye to diversify," says Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
Most welcome the economic boost Sterling will get from the prison, but their feelings about the diversity are more mixed. "A lot of people get the idea that we're gonna have more vandalism, more people on the social lines getting money from the local government, more shoplifting and things like that," says Cucarola. "I've never lived in a town with a prison."
And Cunningham continues to do his part. He says he has received between 300 and 500 hits on his Web site; his target date to have an apology in the hands of every black child is the year 2000. "What can one guy do?" Cunningham asks. "He can do a hell of a lot.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.