Amarillo is my favorite city in Texas, and not because it will inherit New Mexico’s whiny Republicans for three days in May.
I like Amarillo because it’s a place that once stood against the nasty Jim Crow system of relegating nonwhites to the back of the bus.
One of my first teachers, a nun who had worked in impoverished parts of the Southwest, told me about Amarillo’s stand for decency. I’ve never forgotten the story.
The year was 1948. Florence Iva Begay had graduated as valedictorian of her class at Flagstaff High School in Arizona.
Florence, 17, had spent most of her life on the Navajo Nation. Her smarts and work ethic were about to open a door to the wider world.
She accepted a $2,000 scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in the idyllic village of Bronxville, N.Y. Traveling across the country would be the first great adventure of Florence’s life.
Coming from modest means, she found the least expensive way to make the trip that was to cover 2,200 miles.
“Bouncing along in a bus through Arizona and New Mexico, it was all sunny skies and schoolgirl daydreams,” Time magazine wrote of the first legs of Florence’s journey.
Then the bus crossed into the Texas Panhandle, near Amarillo. Florence was in her seat, bothering no one.
Two white passengers, a man and a woman, decided to belittle her. The couple said Florence didn’t belong in their section.
“They told her to sit in the back of the bus, reserved for Negroes,” the Associated Press reported.
Stunned and hurt, Florence decided against a confrontation. She moved to the rear.
When the bus reached Oklahoma City, Florence longed for home.
“I felt so discouraged I didn’t feel like going any further,” she told the AP.
Florence boarded another bus bound for Flagstaff. Word of her mistreatment reached Texas newspapers, most notably the Amarillo Globe-News.
Its editors believed bigoted bus riders weren’t representative of most residents of Amarillo. The Globe-News wanted Florence to see the city itself rather than the prejudice inside a bus terminal.
The editors invited her to return to Amarillo for the Tri-State Fair, which began soon after her trouble on the bus. All her expenses would be paid by the newspaper.
Florence accepted. She was accompanied by her father, Julius Begay, on her next trip to Amarillo.
The story made the national news wires — a teenager giving a repentant city a second chance.
In addition to going to the fair, Florence toured Amarillo College. Her guide was the student who had been valedictorian of Amarillo High School the previous spring.
Florence’s counterpart was a white male. The city’s message was clear: Florence didn’t take a back seat to anyone.
These gestures might seem ordinary now. But acceptance of nonwhites by American institutions was rare during Florence’s teenage years.
Many public universities refused to admit Black students until the 1960s, and then only under heavy pressure from the federal government. Segregation on buses continued well into the decade following Florence’s ordeal in Amarillo.
And Native Americans had to battle state by state for their constitutional right to vote. Utah didn’t guarantee Native voting rights until 1962, making it the last state to do so.
Given this historic backdrop, it’s peculiar that New Mexico Republicans are heading to Amarillo next month for their annual convention under the banner of “Operation Freedom.”
They try to spin the story differently.
“Hundreds will be attending Operation Freedom, which is being held in Texas because of COVID-19 restrictions imposed on New Mexicans by Gov. [Michelle] Lujan Grisham,” the Republican Party wrote in a statement.
Republicans under New Mexico party Chairman Steve Pearce have been pummeled in most elections. Pearce himself lost the last governor’s race to Lujan Grisham by a landslide. He’s bitterly criticized all her decisions since.
Pearce and his minions are carrying out a stunt masquerading as a legitimate grievance. Moving their convention to Amarillo will bring the Republicans some publicity, just as a carnival sideshow will attract gawkers.
But New Mexico Republicans will not broaden their base by spending money and time in Texas.
Anyway, I like to think of Amarillo as a progressive town based on what happened to Florence Ivy Begay all those years ago.
Many in Amarillo knew it was wrong for a few white people to bully and belittle a young, shy Navajo woman.
They set out to atone for the cruelty of others. And Florence, of her own free will, gave the city a chance at redemption.