By Alyssa Choiniere
Joe and Mary Walbeck of West Wheatfield Township lived peacefully in their predominantly white neighborhood until Nov. 15, 2009, when they found the remnants of a 6-foot cross burned in their yard.
The Walbecks are white parents of an adopted black son, Shaquille Howard, 16, who came to live with the family three years ago, according to Mary Walbeck.
“We just fell in love with him,” said Walbeck from her home in a Feb. 18 phone interview. “We didn’t want him to leave.”
After seeing the cross, she was “dumbfounded” and became fearful, she said. Cross-burning is a hate crime. If a criminal would trespass in her yard, she did not know where the person would stop.
Her foster son responded to the incident with disbelief.
“I thought it was a joke,” Howard said from his home in a phone interview on Feb. 9. “We found out later that it wasn’t a joke. It hurt me, actually.”
Walbeck said her neighbors were equally shocked by the cross burning.
“Everyone thinks it’s terrible, or just wrong, to do something like that to a kid,” Walbeck said.
On Jan. 22, the FBI took over the case. The lead investigator is Special Agent Sonia Bush, who said in a Feb. 18 phone interview that she cannot speak about the ongoing investigation.
The FBI identified a person of interest in the cross burning. Walbeck said that the man is the grandson of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, the organization’s national leader. Walbeck said the investigation is dragging on, and no arrests have been made.
“The longer this goes on, it just gets worse,” Walbeck said.
Walbeck said investigators have released no new information since November. She added that she expressed her concern to Bush.
“She says all the right things,” Walbeck said. “But they don’t make you feel a lot better.”
Walbeck said her adopted son is a caring member of the community.
“He’s athletic, very social, easy to get along with, leader-type kid,” Walbeck said.
She said that news articles portraying Howard as a troubled child are inaccurate, and that Howard makes significant contributions to his community. She said her adopted son’s contributions will affect the country, and that he will be elected president.
“He’ll be somebody someday,” she said.
Racism at IUP
Racism is evident elsewhere in Indiana County, residents say.
Devvon J. Horn, 20, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania sophomore from Philadelphia, said both white and black students “disliked” his relationship with a white student. Students wrote discriminatory remarks on a white board attached to his dorm room door, he said in a Feb. 16 interview in Putt Hall.
Horn also said two of his friends were walking to dinner during the fall 2009 semester when white men shouted racist slurs from a window of the Susan Snell Delaney Hall Suites on Maple Street.
Clifton J. Hardison, 21, a former student and Indiana resident, said he experienced more racism in Indiana than in his hometown, Harrisburg. He said a fight broke out at New Year’s Eve party at IUP.
“A white guy called my boy a n—–,” said Hardison in a Feb. 16 phone interview.
Susan R. Boser, Ph.D., an IUP sociology professor, said she strives to end discrimination on campus.
“I came close to it because I saw a need,” Boser said in her Stouffer Hall office on Feb. 19. “I have strong opinions on equity and social justice.”
Boser spoke of a black Muslim student who wore a head scarf to class.
“In the middle of the night, somebody wrote ‘n—–‘ on her door,” Boser said.
In summer of 2008, one of Boser’s advisees was accused of academic misconduct.
“She said it wasn’t her. I listened to her story, and I believed her,” Boser said. “I had so much respect for her.”
The university judge determined that the wrong student was accused. A different black student was guilty.
“It was, essentially, an act of discrimination, that they all look alike,” Boser said.
Roger Briscoe, Ph.D., a professor and adviser of the NAACP at IUP, said fewer than 30 of 750 IUP faculty members at IUP are black, about 4 percent. Among students, 13 percent are members of racial minority groups.
“In order for there to be a resolve in racism, there has to be a change in attitudes,” Briscoe said in his Stouffer Hall office on Feb. 22. “If there’s going to be a change, it has to start in schools.”
IUP’s Punxsutawney campus
Briscoe said the Klan is active in Punxsutawney and that the majority of students on IUP’s campus there are black.
“Of all the places to put an extension campus,” Briscoe said, “Punxsutawney is the worst.”
Charles M. Simelton, 23, is a black student from Philadelphia who transferred from the Punxsutawney campus to the main campus in Indiana in 2007.
“It was crazy that they would put us there,” Simelton said in the Stapleton Library at IUP.
Simelton compiled a list of his experiences with racism at Punxsutawney. On his first day on campus, he said a young girl pointed at him and said, “Hey, Mommy, there is a n—–!”
“The mom just laughed and acted as if nothing was wrong,” Simelton said. “That was crazy.”
He said he was grocery shopping when a girl turned to her friends and said some black people were hanged a few miles outside of the city and hoped Simelton and his friend would be next.
He said a KKK meeting house was about two miles from campus. One of his friends, a black Muslim, unintentionally signed a lease for an apartment next door to the meeting house. Simelton suspected that the landlord was “trying to set her up.”
He said Punxsutawney students were warned by faculty not to walk around at night. They carried BB guns to protect themselves. He said some of his friends were chased by men in pick-up trucks.
“We honestly walked around scared at night,” Simelton said.
Alyssa Choiniere, a junior majoring in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Gibsonia, Pa.
Sidebar: Criminal Racism
Cross burning is a hate crime. A hate crime is defined by state and federal statutes as a felony or a misdemeanor motivated by a bias against a race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.
Hate crimes include murder, rape, assault, intimidation, robbery, arson and vandalism with a discriminatory motive.
Americans committed 13,690 hate crimes in 2008, the latest year for which data are available, according to the FBI. Of these, 51.3 percent were racially motivated. Of those, 72.6 were committed against blacks.
The number of hate crimes increased nationwide between 2004 and 2008, according to the FBI crime statistics. Incidents increased from 7,649 in 2004 to 7,783 in 2008, an increase of 1.8 percent.
–By Alyssa Choiniere
Sidebar: The Ku Klux Klan in the 21st Century
The Ku Klux Klan experienced membership growth in the mid-Atlantic regions from Maryland to New York in the 2000’s, according to the Anti-Defamation League .
The ADL was founded to fight anti-semitism but now promotes civil rights for all groups. There are 30 offices throughout the country. The ADL, based in Washington, D.C., is funded through donations.
The ADL estimates that 5,000 Klansmen are active in more than 40 Klan groups, many with multiple chapters called “klaverns.”
The World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan originated in Sharpsburg, Md., and spread to Pennsylvania, according to the ADL. The World Knights lead statistically in recruiting new members and organizing racist events. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware comprise Federal District 3 of the KKK, according to the KKK Web site, which describes the organization as “The Official Website of The Knights Party, USA.”
This Web site allows prospective Knights to join for a yearly donation of $35. The site also hosts a store that sells merchandise with slogans such as “The Original Boyz N The Hood: Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” and “Klan Kids Kare.”
The site also links to the a WhitePrideTV.com television show “This is the Klan.”The Black History Month edition for February 2010 opens with sarcastic comments about black contributions to the United States.
“We would not be a nation today if it wasn’t for the black leaders who built this nation in Philadelphia in 1787. They were all black, weren’t they?” says Thomas Robb, national director of the Knight’s Party as he turns to his co-host, Rachel Pendergraft on the Web show.
Pendergraft is the Premier Spokeswoman for The Knights Party. She responds to Robb by asserting that history books soon may say that the nation’s founders were black.
–By Alyssa Choiniere