FREE SPEECH: Wendell’s Jackson
What it was like to be the only black man in the valley.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – When he enters a room, Wendell Brown isn’t surprised to see heads turn. Growing up, he was among the few black students in his school. Then, at 23, he moved to Jackson Hole. The year was 1976. “There were no people of color,” he remembered. “And I mean none.”
The valley was his home for 25 years. Now, he is the first African American mountain host at Deer Valley ski resort in Park City, Utah. His life has been a practice in dismantling stereotypes and the embedded lies of racism: “You break down so many barriers by being one of the few … you dispel the mythology.”
Still, Brown has witnessed racism take form everywhere. In fact, he was the victim of two life-threatening attacks in Jackson Hole. But he refuses to let racism define his life.
“It takes patience and time and wisdom,” he said. “Think about the ocean raging with a storm on the surface, but a foot below there’s calm … I can’t arrange my life in such a way that keeps [racism] from happening, but it impacts me less when I have a focused and purposeful way of looking at my life.”
Brown has been married to his wife, Anne, who is white, for more than 30 years. Yet he was born at a time when partnerships like his were illegal. He lived through the Civil Rights Movement in one of the most segregated parts of the country. After so much exposure to systemic and personal prejudice, he’s learned to develop something his parents taught him: “an innate foundation of self-respect.”
His life is “a living history of how to live together, how to achieve equality by learning to understand each other.”
“I wouldn’t leave this community I love.”
For Brown, Indianapolis, Indiana, his hometown, was a daunting place to grow up. Once, an elementary school teacher told Brown, “white kids were taken out of the oven at just the right time while black kids were dark and black and ruined.”
Many in the white community saw him only as a categorization: “It was so much acculturated that blacks were not equal and they were not capable of learning. …Basically, they were at the servant level,” Brown said.
When Brown started high school in 1966, government mandated busing programs began to desegregate schools. Brown was among those bused to primarily white schools. White students across the country revolted in response.
Brown’s escape was biking, but his territory was limited. The best rural roads were dangerous. “You got cans thrown at you, cars running you off the road,” he said. “Jim Crow laws were enforced by the police—you had to make sure you weren’t riding your bike through these small towns at night because you could be legally harassed.”
However, moving to Jackson changed everything for Brown. Here, he could be himself. Brown says he became an adult in the shadow of the Tetons, where he found open spaces, “open minds, and open hearts … people were curious, they weren’t indoctrinated generation upon generation with all these myths about black people.”
He moved for familiar reasons—the promise of deep snow and empty roads. With a friend, he opened Teton Cyclery, a bike shop with “an incredible following in town.” To him, Jackson Hole was “nirvana, perfection … it was the American Dream, I was living it.”
But even in this American Dream, he still encountered people who called him “the n-word every once in awhile,” as well as two instances of physical violence, both while he was biking.
The first was in 1980 when Brown was biking north of town. A truck of four men passed. “I felt something hit me,” Brown remembered, “and I look down and there’s a lariat rope that had been thrown out, a noose, it went around my handlebars but they’d been trying to get it around my body, like they were roping a calf.”
As an experienced rider, Brown was able to keep his bike upright. Eventually, the truck stopped, and a man got out to retrieve the rope. Witnesses pulled over, everyone was “yelling and screaming and getting the license number.”
When confronted, the man replied, “Somebody had to do it.” The men were convicted of assault and battery with a deadly weapon. They had attempted to rope other cyclists too. Though some applauded them, the majority of Jacksonites did not appreciate or accept that philosophy of hate, Brown said.
Thirteen years later, he saw an eerily similar situation. Brown was cresting Teton Pass when a pickup approached him. The driver slowed to a creep in front of him. Each time Brown tried to pass, the driver cut him off. Noticing a rack with a gun and rope attached, Brown thought, “I don’t want to die today, I’m going to stay behind.” This continued for miles—the truck creeping along, Brown giving it distance. Suddenly, Brown noticed the rope had disappeared from the gun rack, and the passenger was waving for him to pass. He refused, and called the police when he arrived in Wilson. When the police confronted the driver, he said the “n*gger” had been at fault.
In a 1995 article in the Jackson Hole Guide, the driver’s lawyer argued he’d “never even met a black person, and therefore has no basis for racism.” Two years later, after the case landed in the Wyoming Supreme Court, the driver was convicted of harassment.
Brown’s family and friends feared for his safety, asked him not to ride alone, and to carry a gun. But he did not see Jackson as a hateful place, a place he had to protect himself against.
“I couldn’t give into it,” he said. “I wouldn’t leave this community that I love. I can’t say other people of color or women or anyone who’s harassed should take the same tactic, but it’s what I chose.”
Brown does not describe himself as a “change maker,” but his rejection of fear and his commitment to community is his legacy.
“I just live it every day. The West gives you an opportunity to do that … you change people’s minds one at a time, just by talking about it, creating a dialogue … knowledge dispels this idea that people of color are so different.” PJH