I have a charge to keep.
Cherie Buckner-Webb is a 5th-generation Idahoan who has worked for several corporations in Boise and now has a consulting business specializing in helping companies with diversity issues and doing motivational speaking. In 2010, Buckner-Webb was elected to represent District 19 in Boise in the state House of Representatives. It appears that she is the first African-American to be elected to the Statehouse in Idaho's history. She is also well known for her gospel singing.
Marcia Franklin - Is it a stereotype or does it have some reality to it that Idaho has been a haven for racists?
Cherie Buckner-Webb: It is a reality. There's a reality that is not as overt as there was in northern Idaho. I can remember - if I can be so direct - John Birchers being here in the 70's. I can remember folks being very concerned about gathering together when they were working on the civil rights legislation. I was a youngster then but I remember this very well, hearing about John Birchers. I remember at age seven or eight having a cross on the front yard and hearing who might be responsible for that.
So, is it a stereotype? It is probably a stereotype to those that haven't experienced the results of people filled with hate based on religion and race and ethnicity, but for those of us that have felt the sting of it, yeah, I'd say it's a reality.
Franklin: What happened when you were seven or eight?
Buckner-Webb: Sitting down to dinner my mother got up for no conceivable reason, went to the front door, opened the door, hollered to my dad that the people across the street that their house was on fire. She could see a blaze in their window. Dad ran down the front stairs and went oh. The cross was burning in our front yard.
Franklin: Were you scared?
Buckner-Webb: I was young. I didn't know better. I really didn't know much. My mother - my dad put it out of course, he put it out and my dad was ready to take it to the alley and my mother said "No, put it here on the front porch. Put it here and make it visible."
And of course my dad called the police. I don't remember many details about it, but I remember what happened afterward and there was a hue and cry from our family saying we needed to move.
My father wanted to get rid of it, put it away. My mom wanted it out there visible. Ultimately my mom moved it into the mantle, on the mantle in the dining room and kept it forever.
My mother's family (and) my father's family were very worried for us as kids. There were three of us at that time - I had a younger sister and older brother. Mom said you're still walking to school - that was Central School for my brother and I. And we were careful. There were phone calls and hang ups and things like that but my mom really tried to make it business as usual for us but it was probably never business as usual after that.
Franklin: Where is the cross?
Buckner-Webb: It's gone now. It was forever in our front room and then it was in the garage forever and ever and I think finally my father....covertly took it out and dumped it. My mom was very distressed when she found out it was gone. My mom said this is a talisman to keep us in the fray and the fight, to know it's not to take things for granted.
Buckner-Webb, upper left, with her sister and brother when
Franklin: Was there was a vibrant African American community here?
Buckner-Webb: You know; it's really interesting. The River Street area was always thought of as to be the predominantly African American. It never was. There were a lot of African Americans living there but the percentage of African Americans was still less than the white population in that area. But there was a concentration - if you will. When it's a very small number it doesn't take very much to be a concentration.
There were also a number of black folks that lived in the 800 block of Bannock street. My great-grandfather lived there and then also my grandmother and grandfather and there was like four or five people right along that street - maybe six on that one 800 block.
I found out later - I live on 23rd and Bella Street - I found out that three or four black people lived on that street. Then also on Harrison Boulevard there was a woman that we talk about often that owned property. Two lots, two houses on Harrison Boulevard. She's Mamie Green. She was a cook. That's like probably 19 - early 50's. Amazing.
Franklin: What is the history of your family here?
Buckner-Webb: In 1908 my paternal great-grandfather moved to Idaho. Well, let's see, actually it was 1905. He came immediately from Colorado to Boise. He was born in St. Louis, as was his wife. My great-grandfather Hardy.
He said he was sent to Idaho to found a church. The Lord sent him so he established St. Paul Baptist church and he was the first pastor and the actual builder, physical builder because he was a carpenter of this church. (It's the) Idaho Black History Museum now.
His father-in-law, Louis Stokes came to help him in the physical building of the building so that's when it started.
Franklin: So your family dates back much further than I would imagine some of the white supremacists.
Buckner-Webb: They'd be surprised. I always want to say, "You're in my house." You know, that's what I say often. My father's father's family came in the 20's to homestead in Homedale and Nampa. Then they ultimately came to Boise.
My mother's family came with the railroad and none of them worked for the railroad but a couple of the girls married guys of the railroad later then ultimately to Boise from Minidoka and Pocatello to Boise.
Franklin: Did you experience much discrimination or harassment growing up?
Buckner-Webb: There have been a few things like the cross burning in your front yard, finding out from a wonderful girl that was a great friend of mine that I walked to school with every day, the fifth grade, that she loved me very much but we'd never be able to be too close because she couldn't send the missionaries to be with me. That was one of the first times that I realized that a religion would discriminate on people. She was LDS. And we were great friends, we really were, but she was just so hurt. And I remember going to my mom and said, "What's the deal? This is a God thing?"
My brother probably got a little more than I did. He was an athlete, he was very popular but you know, athletics can be rough.
Franklin: So there wasn't much?
Buckner-Webb: And I think part of that is related to the fact that there were so few (of us.)There were so few and I think that makes a real difference. You're just under the radar you know, in a way.
Now my mother was quite a civil rights activist so I got some attention because of her, and I think some of that was because they may have thought that she was impossible and they'd be careful. On the other hand my father was an athlete - or he had been an athlete. He refereed ball and he was very amiable and well known in the community, went to Boise Junior College and had been around here for a long time so that helped mitigate in my favor. So no, I really didn't experience a lot of racism.
But I do vividly remember the civil rights legislation. I do vividly remember going with someone to knock on doors for fair housing to see who would rent to whom and finding out that you call and the house is available and when you get there "No it's not available," because I took part in that and I enjoyed that with my mother.
I remember the Watts riots and folks being very distressed with black people in general...I remember when Martin Luther King passed away, the fight to be able to have a demonstration or anything in support of his death. I remember that very well.
So maybe not overt. Covert would be more what I would call the discrimination and racism.
Franklin: Were you ever worried because of the Aryan Nations compound?
Buckner-Webb: In my business I travel all over the United States and I work with people and whenever I introduce myself and say I'm from Boise, Idaho I don't know who is most shocked and surprised - white folks or black folks.
I don't know which one because black folks say, "Oh you poor child. I'm so sorry for you," and white folks tend to say, "I didn't know there were any black people in Idaho."
Franklin: But the Aryan Nations didn't worry you personally?
Buckner-Webb: I am of the mind that the Aryan Nations had a compound but I'm not of the mind that they were exclusively in northern Idaho..... and the way my mother raised me was to be vigilant and to be aware. Not suspicious and crazy but to be vigilant and aware and not to assume that hate only resides someplace with a sign over it.
Franklin: So do we still see that?
Buckner-Webb: I absolutely see it. In Boise, Idaho we now have 102 different languages spoken in the schools. I see parents of good intent who love their children saying absolutely abysmal things about children in their schools that are not dominant culture children.
I see stereotypes about their physicality, what they eat, drink, think. All kinds of things even with children in the school systems.
I see the same thing happening when an athlete at Boise State University is like a hero and then on television invites a white girl to become his wife. Ian Johnson. And I remember the hate - the mail, the letters, the things in the newspaper. Those kids caught it. They got a bad time because she was marrying this black guy. He was called a monkey, he was called all kinds of things. She was called all kinds of things. Her parents had to deal with backlash. Yeah, yeah, it's still here.
I see members of the gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgender community continually being victimized. I see those that are perceived to be part of that community being victimized - physically, emotionally, professionally. I mean the list goes on and on and on and on.
I see people persecuted for their religion in this state. It goes on and on.
We're unconsciously incompetent. We don't even know what we don't know in many instances, particularly when it has to do with bigotry or discrimination or even hate sometimes. We're not even sure what the source is. We don't even realize we're doing it sometimes and then up it pops.
Franklin: I've heard that some black students at Boise State wear athletic clothes when they walk around downtown, even if they're not athletes, just so they don't get harassed.
Buckner-Webb: There's a saying and I even say this in corporate American when I'm doing it and I've found it to be true no matter where I go in the United States. You see two or three white people together it's a meeting. You see two or three black people together it's a revolution.
I mean, that's one of the perceptions. In corporate America and that's who I work with on a day to day basis. We find people of color, not just black. I'm talking about all kinds - Hispanic, others, finding that the rules of the road are very different.
Franklin: Why did you want to work for the legislature, which is a very white body?
Buckner-Webb: Well I've been operating in a very white body my whole life.
I will tell you that I was invited to run or asked to run for the legislature probably three or four times over my lifetime and I think that I had to get to this stage in my life to be able to do that. And some of that is to have just lived long enough. Some of it is to have raised my children to be adults so they won't get the backlash of whether I do well or do poorly or I offend someone or align with someone that maybe is not acceptable to one or another group.
Actually what made me run is I was really upset about education funding. I was furious. I was out of town working and I kept reading this stuff in the newspaper getting madder and madder. And as I came to make the decision, I was out of town, came back to town two days before you had to file and I went to an event at Boise State University. It was a film that Sonja Rosario had produced. I think it's called "Idaho's Forgotten War," and the woman in question, Amy Trice was there, and I was asked to do the invocation and let me tell you, I agonized over the invocation because I wanted it to be - oh my gosh, I just felt emotion. I don't know where that came from.
Anyway, the film was very powerful to me. One little woman who had six kids said "You know, this isn't right and I've got to do something about it." I went up to her on the break and just shook her hand. She just touched me in such a powerful way....she was so grounded in what she was doing.
And somehow or another that little lady gave me so much encouragement. I went up to her, shook her hand and she said "One woman can make a difference," and I went, "Oh my." Went back to my seat and I said "I'm on."
Another thing I believe is that everything that happens in your life prepares you if you're alert to it. I worked for Boise Cascade for ten years in timber wood products and I experienced a different part of Idaho than I would in Boise. I worked in Council, Cascade... rural Idaho, sawmill communities. Different sensibilities, different kind of culture.
I remember the first time that I went to the sawmill up north to get my tour and the wonderful manager was walking me through and this is where the log comes here and then we put it on the green chain and we do this and this and we got to one point and he stopped talking and he said "We need to go back in."
And I said well, what is it? And (he) said "Well, I didn't know how to say this, but we call the next piece of the equipment the nigger."
I said, "Oh yeah? We'll be calling it the log turner now won't we?" I think we'll be doing that - because I was a purchasing manager then. It was the nigger. So things pop up, pop up, pop up. It was kind of interesting.
So, again that helped prepare me for a different sensibility and there I would imagine was probably never any overt - it had been so much a part of the vernacular that folks didn't realize how it might be perceived. It's real interesting how things happen.
Franklin: Your campaign - did you receive any discrimination?
Buckner-Webb: I went to this wonderful training to prepare you to run for office and they were telling you how when you knock on the door you just walk right up to the door and stand right as close as you can to the front door and I said "I don't think I'll be doing that."
And they talked about you could knock on doors until probably close to 8:30, 9:00 - don't think I'll be going that late unless it is in my neighborhood.
So there are a lot of really interesting things that came to bear - but no, I didn't feel any slamming your door because you're whatever. It was a wonderful, amazing experience.
Franklin: When I asked the Democratic Party chair if you were the first black elected to the legislature he said he didn't know, said he hadn't even thought about it.
Buckner-Webb: It was funny, neither did I. By all indications I'm the first black to be elected to the legislature. And as I went down the walls and looked just to make sure once I got there I didn't see anybody that looked like me. I was double checking. Or - it's a secret, you know what I'm saying? You never know. You know, a drop of blood? You know what that does!
Franklin: And that makes you feel....?
Buckner-Webb: It makes me feel I have a charge to keep. That's a term that I use all the time and when I was young I heard it in the church. There's a song that says "A charge to keep a charge to keep I have, a God to glorify."
When you're the first--- and I've been the first of many things in my life -- the black student body officer, the first this or the first black on the Junior League - check that action--I think that you have a responsibility because ....you're kind of the representative for all.
I don't want to perpetuate that, but I'm conscious of that, so I'm proud to be the first and I know that I have a responsibility to represent, represent my folks - women of a certain age, black folks and women too.
Franklin: If Reverend Butler had heard you sing maybe something would have-
Buckner-Webb: Don't know. You know I would have loved to have met him. Isn't that crazy? I would love to have met him. I'm always amazed by the psyche that creates greatness and depravity too. I'm just interested to know that.
Franklin: Does your election mean that Idaho is changing or is it just the district you're in?
Buckner-Webb: Well I've got to tell you - people have asked me is it because of the district you're in and I'm going to tell you, I don't believe that. I don't believe that. The district I'm in is probably one of the best in the state of course for progressives and that kind of thing, but great things happen across this state too. We've seen people doing great things from a variety of locations and when I even think about Vernon Baker living where he lived. Well, heck. He was right up there in northern Idaho doing his thing and lived a peaceful wonderful rich life - that from his lips.
I hope Idaho is changing. I hope Idaho is improving. There are a lot of good things about us historically. I don't think that it is by accident that I ended up here or that my family ended up here. 25:45 I want to stay here. It's contingent on a lot of things. My intention is to be here till the end. I hope my kids feel that way. So there's some work to do so that it will be the place that we want it to be to draw and attract and retain people.
Franklin: Why did you feel that it was important to stand up last year in the rotunda on Human Rights Day in front of the governor and his wife and remind people of what was going on with the human rights commission potentially being defunded?
Buckner-Webb: It was a non-issue to me. It was intuitive. We were there to celebrate Human Rights Day and Martin Luther King Day and the travesty was that there was the risk of the human rights commission being eliminated. And so perhaps I was invoking my great grandfather.
I had a charge to keep. It was important to bring to people's attention - this is just not a day of celebration and coming together in a room and listening to the echo and listening to the music and patting ourselves on the back. This is about action. It's about action. We are compelled and committed to make this a better place than the one we arrived to.
We need to leave a legacy that we can be proud of. It's not enough to come together for the joy of it. There's a charge to keep.
Franklin: So even at the risk of offending -
Buckner-Webb: You know what? I don't think I gave thought to offending him. I didn't think he'd be thrilled, but it was the right thing at the right time and there was a group of people that were like- minded just by virtue of why they were there, to say this is an opportunity for you to take action
Franklin: You did have one experience during your campaign that was racist.
Buckner-Webb: It was some of my yard signs that were defaced. As they were picking up the yard signs at the end of the election....a wonderful young man that came from Arkansas to be my intern saw, I think it said if I recall correctly, it said "Kill the nigger bitch, signed KKK" and he was very much upset by that.
Franklin: So we have room to grow.
Buckner-Webb: We have much room and still there is time and still there is work.