'The face in Janesville is changing'

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Stacy Vogel
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
— Eric Beck remembers a time when he belonged to one of three black families in Janesville.

It wasn't that long ago. Even when his now 31-year-old daughter attended high school, she was the only black person in Parker High School's graduating class.

Even though Eric and his daughter, Amy, come from two different generations, their experiences weren't too different, they said.

They were, however, starkly different from those of Janesville residents today. Eric and Amy have watched a wave of minorities enter the city in the last 20 years and seen the city struggle to adjust to its new diversity.

"Janesville has gotten more diverse in the years, and it's been great," Amy said. "I think everyone's trying to adjust to all the new ethnicities coming into Janesville."

The experiences of Eric and Amy show where Janesville can improve but also illustrate a community that is, to some extent, accepting of its members.

Eric's story

Eric, 57, never really questioned why his family was one of the only black families in town growing up, he said.

"It wasn't made a big deal of," he said.

He always had lots of friends; his parents owned a riding stable that saw plenty of children, and, as a teenager, he worked for one of the most popular pizza places in town.

If the people around him were prejudiced, he rarely noticed, he said. In fact, he didn't give race much thought until college, when he became friends with several other black young people.

Eric only named two instances when he experienced prejudice personally.

Once, he and his first wife tried to rent a house and were told it was unavailable. Soon after, a white friend of his easily was able to rent the home.

Later, his daughter was dating a man whose relative, unbeknownst to them, belonged to the Klu Klux Klan. The family got harassing phone calls for a while but no violence ever came of them, he said.

Although Eric has had plenty of opportunities to move away from Janesville, he hasn't seriously considered them. He likes the small-town atmosphere in Janesville and thinks he would have a harder time in a big city such as Milwaukee or Chicago.

"You can talk about Janesville being prejudiced, but you're going to find prejudice anywhere," he said.

Eric thinks one reason he didn't experience much prejudice in Janesville is because he grew up here. To his neighbors, he wasn't a black man, he was Eric.

"Some people may see me, not as a black person or an Afro-American, but as their friend," he said.

"They think I'm the exception to the rule."

Amy's story

Amy didn't see much overt racism growing up either, but she said she recognized prejudice in the community when she looked back as an adult.

Once, a teacher told her that "blacks aren't good at math" and she shouldn't bother trying to do well, she said.

But usually the signs were more subtle, such as a friend who just stopped spending time with her.

Years later, the friend told Amy that her mother didn't want her hanging out with a black girl.

"Growing up, I wasn't really frustrated," Amy said. "I never heard anyone call me derogatory (names) to my face, but I've heard people who I thought were my friends using derogatory names for blacks, and that hurts …

"People are always explaining to you that you're different. You feel that."

Amy said she didn't really know what diversity was until she lived in Madison and Chicago.

She currently works part-time in Chicago and lives part-time in Janesville. She plans to buy a home in Beloit soon to shorten her commute.

Into the future

The diversity Amy saw in Chicago and Madison slowly is spreading into Janesville. The city's black families have grown from the three Eric knew to 748 people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census—still just 1.3 percent of the Janesville population, but certainly more than before.

Other minorities have moved in, too: Hispanics now make up 2.6 percent of the population, and 1 percent of the population is Asian, according to the 2000 census.

"The face in Janesville is changing," Eric said.

Eric said he's happy with the community's efforts to embrace diversity, especially through the Diversity Action Team, a county group dedicated to treating all people with respect and dignity.

But Amy said something must be done when it comes to blacks' education.

"The teachers and parents need to get on getting minority graduation numbers up because it's not there," she said.

Bob Baldwin agrees. Baldwin was hired last school year as the Janesville School District's diversity specialist, and he is also part of the Diversity Action Team.

Education isn't Janesville's only problem when it comes to minorities, he said. Baldwin believes Eric and Amy were more accepted in the community than other minorities because they grew up here.

Baldwin, who is black, moved to Janesville six years ago and has had a very different experience.

"Historically, Janesville has not been a very welcoming place of newcomers, both white people and people of color," he said.

The community needs to find ways to make new black residents feel accepted, he said.

"People of color need jobs; they need housing; they need the kind of amenities that make this a welcoming community," he said. "They just really need people to stop staring at us, for crying out loud."


Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision that Americans of every kind could live in harmony remains at the top of the nation's agenda nearly 40 years after his assassination. The Janesville Gazette is examining local aspects of that vision as it marks Martin Luther King Day 2008.

Monday—Lots of schools and businesses take a day off to mark Martin Luther King Day, but not the Janesville School District. Reporter Frank Schultz tells what the local district does instead.

Tuesday—Rock County has done so well in addressing the imbalance of minorities in juvenile detention that it's earned a grant to expand a Beloit-based program to Janesville. Reporter Ann Marie Ames talks to two Beloit boys about how their lives have changed.

Today—Eric Beck remembers when his family was one of three black families in Janesville. Reporter Stacy Vogel tells the story of Eric and his daughter, Amy, and asks them about Janesville's growing diversity.

Thursday—Which Wisconsin school district with the highest concentration of native Spanish speakers? Delavan-Darien. Reporter Kayla Bunge asks how the district has adapted.

Friday—Walworth County is becoming more diverse, but does local government reflect that trend? Reporter Mike Heine takes a look.

Last updated: 1:06 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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