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.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at or 505-986-3080.

(15) comments

Josh Rappaport

Hi Jim, I welcome your thoughts, and I wish I could agree, but I fear you are painting Amarillo in rainbow colors with too broad a brush. I was a newspaper reporter with the Amarillo Globe-News in the 1980s, covering the federal beat, U.S. District Court (the Hon. Judge Mary Lou Robinson presiding), the U.S. Rep (Beau Boulter at the time) and so forth. I also took it upon myself to cover the African-American community because that community had absolutely no coverage in our newspaper. This minority community, by the way, lived entirely "on the other side of the tracks," and I mean that literally. The African-Americans lived on the other side of the RAILROAD tracks that sliced through the city. The town was still that segregated in the 1980s, and may still be that way today; I wouldn't be surprised. When it came time for Juneteenth, the celebration of the news of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, came around, I proposed a story on the holiday for the paper. My editor said, Sure, go cover it. I moseyed over to the main black church to attend their service and celebration, wrote up a 20-column inch story replete with quotes reminiscing on the Juneteenth memories of ancestors, philosophical reflections by the preacher of the Baptist Church (who had become a friend of mine), and colorful description of the spread at the various community get-togethers. The same editor who told me to go cover the event cut my story down to 3 column inches and nixed the photo I'd taken. The message was clear. The Globe-News was not interested in the local African-American community. I also would say that in the entire time I lived in Amarillo, I didn't see a single bumper sticker with a liberal message. Amarillo citizens who were progressive kept their views hidden or shared them only with a select group of friends. Don't get me completely wrong. I did find the people of Amarillo generally extremely friendly, but open-mindedness was not the strongest suit of the people I met during my time there.

Kirk Holmes

Apparently by the comments, it was a nice article. I stopped reading after the first sentence ...... "whinny" republicans? Talk about continued divisive rhetoric. For the record, I'm Libertarian.

Jim Klukkert

Your loss Kirk Holmes. Time is at hand to take a stand. "The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms!" Indeed, that is the lesson of January 6. A party that suppresses the vote of American citizens, that continues to deny the outcome of the 202o Electoral College, is a party that defies our experiment in Democracy.

If you find yourself more comfortable defying this reality by refusing to read on, I think your repose may be short lived, as the next gale that sweeps from the north may bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! As to myself, though I know not what choice you will take, "for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

Prince Michael Jauregui

Jim, you're far wiser than your word-drool above. Put down the Blue Kool-Aid and step away from the keyboard.

"One man with Courage makes a majority" - President Thomas Jefferson

Jim Klukkert

And you, my friend, Prince Michael Jauregui, are far better than the insult "word-drool" might lead one to believe.

Prince Michael Jauregui

O.K., O.K. James. I merely utilized the term for purely descriptive purposes, never meant to insult you. Beside, I only bring out "word-drool" for special occasions and you have my permission to use sparingly. Be good to you, Klukk.

Jim Klukkert

Thank you my friend, for your indulgence of my sensitive ways. Admittedly, the comment I wrote last night was not my finest. Oh well...

Have a wonder filled day, Prince!

Prince Michael Jauregui

Be sure Mr. Holmes, for decades I've maintained a unyielding antipathy for both wholly-corrupted, utterly ineffective, special-agenda Political parties. Their impact upon the demise of our republic was vast and vital - it cannot be understated.

"Whiny Republicans"? "Whiny Democrats"? In the words of the late, George Carlin: "Democrats? Republicans? Remember ladies and gentleman, it's one big party and we're not invited."

Khal Spencer

Beautiful story, Milan. All I ever knew about Amarillo was that it was in the Route 66 song and home of the Pantex plant. Now I know a bit of history.

Mr. Spence's comment notwithstanding. Every village has its idiots. Being a New Yorker with a nose as long as my arm, travelling with a van full of other grad students, I got a lot of unhelpful stares during a road trip down though the deep south on the way to Florida once for a geology conference. But my food tasted just like everyone else's. I think the local folks just thought we were weird looking.

Prince Michael Jauregui

Mr. Simonich, I'll fast-forward past the political aspects of your piece to advise: Sir, that was one the best stories I've read all year. A lasting example, and a memorable victory for We, The People.

In the fall of 1963, My late, beloved Pop and Mom, along with their seven children traveled in a brand-new station wagon from Dover AFB, Delaware to Norton AFB, San Bernardino, California. Already days on road, Pop pulled into a small-diner, somewhere in Texas. While in uniform, My Pop was told by the proprietor, "We don't serve your kind here". As he explained, he angrily questioned their Americanism before living. Knowing My Pop, he must've been really tired - or some Wall-to-Wall Counseling would've been provided. For years, I held a grudge against Texas -especially since their beloved LBJ led the Coup of '63 in The City of Hate (Read: Dallas). Later, I would understand the deplorable treatment of my Hispano/Latino-American sister and brothers who lived their - and their vast, ignored contributions to the state. Decades after the cafe incident, the good people of Texas treating the infant from the station-wagon, like Royalty. !Asi!

Cleve Spence

Milan should have been with in 1969, a returning Vietnam vet, when I was refused service at a HoJo’s in Amarillo for being from New York State and wearing sandals

Prince Michael Jauregui

Mr. Spence, I salute You and All my Vietnam-veteran sisters and brothers. Be blessed, brother.

Stefanie Beninato

Pearce is a politician. The story is not belittling him for his race or ethnicity. It is pointing out the lack of science that the GOP regularly follow and the hypocrisy and general lack of concern for the public welfare that the GOP regularly endorses and follows.

Khal Spencer

I think what Milan was pointing out is that whatever the GOP is doing in New Mexico, it has only amounted to drilling more holes in the bottom of its political boat. One only need look at the relative size of the Dem and GOP contingents in the legislature to get the point.

Richard Reinders

I agree with your story, it isn't right to belittle a group or individual, you should heed your own words, but you took the opportunity to belittle Pearce and the Republican Party they are people too. I have learned in these last few years it is acceptable to "do as I say not as I do" by our Politicians and Journalist.

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