ROGERS — Dana Ammons was better prepared to live in Rogers than many other black people. He grew up in Omaha and his familiarity with heartland culture didn’t hurt in a part of Arkansas that many believe is more Midwestern than Southern.
Still, there are few places in the region as white as Benton County. The 2000 Census counted 817 people out of a total population of 153,406 who classified themselves as “black or African American alone or in combination with one or more other races.” That amounts to 0.5 percent.
So when Ammons moved there three years ago with his wife, Shanna, and their two children, Jordan and DJ, he had to adjust. (Since then, they have had another daughter, Azana.)
“I never had been to Northwest Arkansas before,” Dana says. “It was quite a change. I didn’t know what to expect, and I thought worse of it than it really is.”
The family relocated to Rogers from Atlanta when Dana was assigned to be the sales manager at Colgate-Palmolive’s Northwest Arkansas office, which deals mainly with Wal-Mart.
“Since we were moving from Atlanta, which is very diverse, our main concern was Jordan,” says Shanna, who is a real estate agent. “How well would she fit in? Would there be discrimination?
“And what about the schools? Will she be treated fairly?”
Shanna grew up in Little Rock, and because Dana’s uncle also lived there, he spent summers in Arkansas and even attended Forest Park and Stephens elementary schools for several grades. That left both of them with preconceived notions about the atmosphere in Northwest Arkansas.
“The reputation within the state is that the area is racist,” Shanna said. “We knew Harrison was the headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan. No one wanted to come here for college, because this area of the state always had bad connotations.”
As it has happened, Dana and Shanna, both 32, have enjoyed their time in Rogers and have experienced few racial problems.
“The first week here, we went to a Cracker Barrel in Springdale,” Dana recalls. “That’s the first time — and the only time — we ever went to a Cracker Barrel. It was the whole family, and we went for lunch on a Sunday. After we had been sitting for 20 minutes without service, we began to notice that the waitress was skipping around us. So we asked the other waitress about the problem, and she went back to talk to our waitress. After a while, she came back and said she would be our server. Clearly she was trying to take care of the situation. But we haven’t had any other problems.”
Shanna, however, remembered an incident at Jordan’s school. Apparently one of her classmates told a joke using a racial epithet to another classmate who, because he was offended by it, shared it with Jordan. (Here’s one for the diversity book: The student who told the joke was Hispanic and the offended student was Asian.)
Also, Dana and Shanna removed Jordan from her first elementary school because the curriculum never mentioned Black History Month during the February she attended.
“We are always the only black couple or only black family in a restaurant, and we get looks,” Dana says. “But they are looks of surprise, not ‘why are you here.’ People are refreshingly honest. They say, ‘We are glad to see you,’ or ‘We have never seen an African-American family here.’ One time an older couple came up to us at AQ and said ‘You are a beautiful family, and we are glad there are black people living in the area. We are happy to have you.’ So it’s more positive than not.”
Both Dana and Shanna have some experience navigating communities with varying racial compositions. He thinks that Little Rock has a more positive environment than Omaha, because it is more racially diverse and less segregated.
“Also, in Little Rock there is a generation of African-Americans who have achieved economically, of middle to upper income,” Dana says. “Lawyers, doctors. They are easy to identify. In Omaha there is not that network.”
He says the biggest difference between the Midwest and the South is that “racism in the South is more overt. You know where not to go, what people not to approach. In the Midwest, it is more covert.”
As for Shanna, she said she experienced “culture shock” when she went to Massachusetts to attend college after graduating from Parkview High School in 1991.
“After growing up in Little Rock, I saw everything as black or white,” Shanna says. “I was not familiar with Asians, Hispanics, or especially different segments of white, like Irish, Italian, or Jewish.
“As a child, I was oblivious to all that. As an adult looking back, I see now how I was shaped by my family. My parents and grandparents did not expect me to have a white friend. Everything was supposed to be maintained: Stay with blacks. You can’t trust white people.”
In contrast, Dana became both aware of racial politics and more comfortable with white people as a result of his childhood experiences in Little Rock.
“The years when I was in Little Rock, I was raised partly by my uncle, Morris Thompson, who was one of the key figures in the civil rights movement,” Dana remembers. “He had white friends and co-workers, and I was encouraged to make white friends at school, go to their sleepovers. My friends were probably 50-50 white and black. My white friends lived in the Heights, and I knew most of my other friends didn’t have networks like that.
“Kids don’t know, and they don’t care,” he continues. “Parents draw lines and make distinctions. It never struck me as an issue.”
Nevertheless, Dana felt like he needed to find some black camaraderie when he moved to Northwest Arkansas.
“You have to seek it out,” he says. “I wanted to have black friends. I immediately contacted my black fraternity, and Shanna pledged a black sorority at the alumni level. I called Little Rock to get connections. We sought out African-American friends, and read the paper looking for any event where black people might be. I would introduce myself to any black person I saw, trying to meet as many as possible. You don’t do that in other cities. But because you know there are not that many, you know you want the interaction, and you seek it out.”
The Northwest Arkansas black community differs from those in many other places. Dana estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the black people there are “middle income or above.”
“There is no economic diversity among blacks here,” he says. “Almost all have full-time jobs, are college educated, and are doing well. The majority are not from the state, or not from this area of the state. All of these factors create a really unique environment.”
This circumstance contributes to the lack of a cohesive black church culture, which is usually a foundation of the life in a black community. The Ammonses know of only one traditional black Baptist church in the area (St. James Baptist, in Fayetteville). Otherwise, there are a few non-denominational churches with mixed congregations, and they worship at one of those.
“We were both raised in black churches,” Shanna says. “Having grown up in Little Rock in a Southern Baptist church, and not knowing about anything else, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. There are definitely things I liked about the way I grew up, and some things I didn’t. Some excesses I have decided I don’t like, like staying in church until 3 p.m.”
“Our kids’ lives are very different,” Dana adds. “We were in church seven days a week in Little Rock. Now we are fortunate to get to Sunday services. That changed when we moved here, and that’s true for almost every black family here. So many professionals work six days a week, and they are burned out. When they are trying to find personal family time, Sunday is that day.”
Northwest Arkansas’s very vibrancy makes it hard to replicate their youthful experience.
“This is a more transient African-American crowd than anywhere I’ve ever been,” Dana says. “They move here for their career, and it’s a two-to-three-year stay and I’m out. They take the opportunity and the experience to get to a bigger city. That’s why the church and the community are not cohesive. There is so much turnover.”
There are other potential problems. For instance, how black families feel about interracial dating. In schools with few black people, the option is to do it or not date at all.
“There is nobody to date,” Shanna says. “It is a controversial schism in the black community. Do you tell kids, any race, any creed or color is fine? Our children’s reality wasn’t ours. The dilemma is if you want to date blacks, the numbers aren’t there.”
Shanna wants her children to understand and appreciate diversity.
“I refuse to have them grow up like me,” Shanna says. “I saw no diversity. How come I didn’t know these things? When I first met someone who was Portuguese, I thought, ‘You look white to me.’ When someone said they were from Puerto Rico, I thought, ‘You look as black as me.’ I just thought of myself as black, period. In bigger cities, people search for their identity, and they are more open to talk about it.”
Northwest Arkansas has other shortcomings — no black radio station, no soul food restaurant. However, there are black barber shops and hair salons, and the cable provider offers Black Entertainment Television.
“That eased my comfort level,” Dana said. “Also seeing the Martin Luther King Day celebrations at the university, as well as the black fraternities. And if we don’t get diversity here, we can get it in Little Rock, Tulsa, or Kansas City. So we might not get it all here, but it’s within a stone’s throw. We’re not isolated.”
Dana sees Northwest Arkansas as a rich opportunity.
“This area represents the biggest potential for growth for blacks,” he says. “Folks in Central Arkansas are naive about what is happening here — not racially, just in general. A lot of people just out of college looking for jobs in Central Arkansas ruled out Northwest Arkansas. But there are jobs here! They can’t find enough people up here. People are always asking, ‘How do we get more diversity in the office?’ And they don’t get talent from in-state, which is a shame, because there are opportunities here. As the area grows, the issue of being a African-American in Northwest Arkansas will minimize.”