Growing Up Black in Tucson

What's it like to go to school as part of a 3 percent minority?

Kyley Gibson is growing up in one of the whitest cities in America.

Maybe "whitest" isn't the most accurate term, but it's less clumsy than "non-blackest." She says she's never seen the hard numbers before, but she had an idea, seeing as how she attends a high school (Tucson High School) that has one of the largest black student populations in Tucson--and that percentage is only around 6 percent.

It's a bracing set of numbers that show just how out of whack Tucson is with the rest of the United States. Although our Hispanic population is higher than that of most other cities (although not remarkably so), Tucson's low black population is something of a head-scratcher. One out of every eight people in the United States is black. In Tucson (depending on your source material), it's one out of 30, or even one out of 40.

Indeed, the dearth of blacks in Tucson (in terms of percentage) is amazing. For example, Tucson is less black than Minneapolis or San Antonio, Texas. We're even whiter than Des Moines, Iowa. And this is with an Air Force base and a large university in town, both of which bring significant numbers of black people into the area.

While some major cities have huge black populations (Detroit and Washington, D.C., have black majorities, and Boston is fully one-quarter black), Tucson's black population is tiny and really hasn't shown much growth over the past few decades. Here's how non-black we are: The spokesman for the soul oldies radio station sounds like an aging vato loco, like he's the father of Cheech Marin's Pedro de Pacas character. "Orale! Here's Marvin Gaaaye ..."

It should be noted that Tucson does have a higher percentage of blacks than does Salt Lake City. Yes, we have The City That Whiteness Built beat.

Here's the most shocking number of all: Pima County has a lower percentage of blacks than does Maricopa County, that bastion of sprawling subdivisions and an endless supply of generic white folks.

Kyley nods when she hears the numbers and says, "That sounds about right." She and her twin brother, Kelly, live with their parents in a quiet subdivision on Tucson's northwest side. Dad, Phil, is a captain with the Tucson Fire Department, and mom, Pat, is a teacher in the Tucson Unified School District. Over the years, the 500-or-so-house subdivision in which they live has seen the number of black families living there fluctuate back and forth between one and three.

"It's a nice neighborhood and all, kinda quiet, but I have to admit I prefer the environment at school, where you have to learn to get along with all different kinds of people," Kyley says.

At Tucson High, the black population is much lower than it would be at a midtown school in other similarly sized U.S. cities. And it's not much higher elsewhere in the district that sprawls across most of Tucson. On the somewhat economically depressed westside of town, Pueblo High School has a black population of 3.4 percent, second-lowest in the district, ahead of only Sabino (2.8 percent), which is up in the foothills. The other westside school, Cholla, has only 3.9 percent of blacks in its student body.

Kelly Gibson, a junior, is a returning starter on a basketball team that is a co-favorite to win the Southern Region big-school title this coming season. Quiet and introspective, while his cheerleader sister is outgoing and aggressive, a-a-a-ggressive, Kelly is attempting to follow in the footsteps of his cousin Eric Langford, who was all-state at Tucson High in the 1990s and went on to become the state Junior College Player of the Year at Eastern Arizona College. He is aware of and comfortable with his surroundings, but his travels for basketball have opened his eyes.

"I see teams from (other parts of the country) where every kid on the team is black. I wonder what that would be like. I mean, I've never experienced any bad discrimination here, but I just wonder what I would be like in that situation."

Would he have to "act blacker" to fit in?

"Maybe. I don't know."

Does he act black now?

"You know, I don't even know that."

He wonders how the pecking order is established in such an environment. Is the alpha male the one who displays the most blackness, and how would that even be defined?

Kelly and his sister are tight. (She stopped our conversation cold when, asked where she wants to go to college, she responded, "Wherever he goes. We have to stick together.") About the only thing they disagree on is music. Kelly likes Notorious B.I.G., while Kyley listens to Tupac Shakur. I didn't have the heart to tell them that they've both been dead for about 10 years now.

Their mother, the former Patricia Langford, attended Tucson High in the 1970s. I wrote an article about her once in which she told of watching Soul Train on TV to learn how to dance, because nobody in Tucson knew how. She also related a poignant story of attending a reunion of her husband's family in Detroit, finding herself in a park with nothing but black people for as far as the eye could see, and realizing that she was physically uncomfortable in such a setting.

I told that story to the twins, and they winced. "I kinda know that feeling," Kyley says. "We have a lot of relatives in other cities, and when we're in big family gatherings, it feels strange to not see any white people or Hispanics around. I'm just so used to seeing non-black people everywhere."

So how do they find their music?

"On the computer, mostly," says Kelly. "But there's really not that much good rap out these days. It's all, you know, kinda lame. Other than OutKast, it all pretty much sounds the same. There's no originality. That's why I listen to Biggie. He was the best, and nobody's improved on his stuff."

They both say that the hip-hop radio station (Hot 98.3, aka KOHT-FM) is OK, but its fans are more often than not suburban white kids trying to be down, or Hispanics who lean that way.

What about BET (Black Entertainment Television)? They both shriek in unison, "Oh no!" Kelly continues, "That's for ... old people. It used to be OK, but now, if we want to see new videos, we'll go to MTV Jams."

Both of the Gibson kids realize that they walk a fine line. Kyley is an honors student who is taking AP classes and is, as mentioned, a cheerleader. She knows that some kids will see her and think "sellout," whatever that means.

"I have black friends who are serious students, and I have black friends who are ... "

She searches for a word, and I finally offer "knucklehead."

"Yeah, knuckleheads. But I get along with everybody, and I don't have to change the way I act according to the group I'm with."

What would happen if they were suddenly transported to an inner-city school in another part of the country? "I don't know," says Kelly. "I mean, I can play ball, so that might help. But I haven't had to deal with any hard-core people here. My neighborhood's almost all-white; my school's mostly Hispanic. It'd be interesting to see how I'd do."

Kyley chimes in: "We have relatives from other parts of the country who think we're cowboys or something. I try to explain that we have black people here, but I don't know if I'm very convincing."

What it comes down to is that they understand that whatever black culture they've absorbed comes mostly from their family (which is all good) and from the media (which is mostly bad). They live in a town with few black landmarks. There's Al's Barber Shop on Grant Road, a handful of black churches and Jack's Original Barbecue over by the Air Force base.

When asked where they would want to go to school if they couldn't go to Tucson High, Kelly immediately said Palo Verde. When asked why, he said it was because it had a significant black population (a whopping 13 percent!). Kyley said Salpointe Catholic, because they have a good cheerleading squad. Kelly wins that round.

They both plan to go out of state for college and hope to go someplace where there is a large black population. "I don't think we've been deprived," explains Kyley. "It's just that I think it would be nice to be in an environment where blacks are in the majority. I've read stories of people who grew up in all-black environments and then struggled (to adapt) when they got out into the world. It'd be interesting to see what it would be like for me, if it would be just the opposite."

Rob Tatum occupies a spot in that ever-growing demographic of mixed-race people. The son of a black father and white mother, Tatum laughs when asked if anybody ever considered him white.

"There's no way. If you're half-white and half-black, you're black. I read that in Louisiana, for a long time, if a person was 1/32 black, he was legally black. That means that if your great-great-great-grandfather had a fling with one of his slaves, and everybody else after that married Nicole Kidman clones, you're still black. It's stupid, but a lot of things about race are stupid."

Tatum is an adult probation officer for Pima County and a workout freak. He attended Tucson High back in the early '90s, where he played football, basketball and hookie. After high school, he was involved with the University of Texas at El Paso basketball program for a time, but eventually came home and graduated from the UA.

He grew up playing street ball and occasionally running with the '90s version of the aforementioned knuckleheads. "I had friends in school who felt that they had to act all hard, that since they were black, they had to pretend they were in a rap video or something. I've wondered whether the small amount of black people in Tucson caused these guys to feel the need to ... you know, 'represent.'"

He says that he has encountered a relatively small amount of bigotry in his years in Tucson, and most of it comes from an unlikely source. "I would say that, unequivocally, most of the prejudice I've experienced in Tucson comes from Hispanics. A friend of mine said that it might be because, over the years, neither group wanted to be at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, but it's more than that.

"You try to date a white girl, you might run into some apprehension or even resistance. With Hispanics, it's all-out hostility, with Daddy holding a shotgun and yelling, 'Stay away from my daughter!" I don't care what race somebody is, but a whole lot of people do."

For a time, Tatum hung out with a multi-ethnic group of athletes and realized that he didn't have to act a certain way. "I think, looking back, that the small number of black people in Tucson allowed me to just grow up to be me. I didn't feel the need to conform to peer pressure and to 'act black.' But, you know, some of my friends did. It's weird how two people can react to the same thing in different ways. If I had gone to an all- or mostly black school, I might have felt the need to defend or hide my whiteness. But that didn't happen. There weren't all-black schools. There wasn't even such a thing as a black neighborhood."

Ah, but there was.

Heading out of town on Interstate 10 toward Phoenix, one can't help but notice the Portland Cement Plant on the west side of the road. Big and ugly and operating at full capacity almost all of the time, the plant appears to those zooming by at 80 mph or so to have originally been built far away from the now-encroaching Tucson to the south, and the farm community of Marana to the north and west. However, driving north (at a more reasonable speed) past that same plant on the frontage road, suddenly there appears Rillito, a ghost town in the making that was once a vibrant, all-black enclave. It is a bleak place, with boarded-up houses and lazy graffiti, but at one time it was wondrously alive and all black.

Rillito was founded by two families--the Campbells and the Rodgerses--in the 1930s. Driven west by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the founding families were cotton-pickers from Texas. And it wasn't just the patriarchs who toiled in the brutal Arizona sun; entire families would pick the cotton at the sprawling Pacheco farm, or maybe for Mr. Glover farther down the road. The work was hot and nasty, but it put food on the table, and the families put down roots. Soon, more followed, and Rillito became more than a collection of thrown-together houses. It became a place.

While a handful of blacks lived in Tucson proper, Rillito was the center of black life in the valley. There were churches and nightlife, kids playing ball and adults gathering for social and civic pursuits. Black entertainers and others passing through Tucson would find their way to Rillito for a good meal and maybe a good time, dancing and drinking and whatever comes after. It was a place full of life and, despite the general ugliness of the times, full of hope.

Rillito had a sister city of sorts in Coolidge, some 50 miles up the road that was still decades away from becoming part of the interstate highway system. There were a few family ties between the two places and an occasional athletic competition, but mostly just a shared sense of being.

After World War II, things began to change all over the country. In Tucson, school Superintendent Robert Morrow (for whom the Tucson Unified School District's headquarters building is named) unilaterally decided to integrate the city's schools, closing down the all-black Dunbar School in the process. This was actually done three years before the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling and only about 200 years after it should have been.

Employment opportunities opened up for local people who had previously been denied, and that included blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Residents of Rillito branched away from the cotton farms, but many of those who found work elsewhere still lived in Rillito, choosing family over convenience, identity over assimilation.

Sean Roebuck was born and raised in Rillito, and he knows and appreciates its allure. "It was a good place to grow up," he says. "Even if you were poor, you didn't notice it that much. There was always something to do and lots of other kids to play with. Everybody knew each other. You could walk down the street at any time of the day or night and feel safe. People walking by or sitting on the porch would say, 'Hey Sean, how's your family?' That feeling stays with you."

Like a lot of people who grew up in similar neighborhoods, Roebuck felt as though he had 100 mothers. "Oh yeah, if you messed up, you could definitely get a smackin' on every corner."

Roebuck is one of a long string of outstanding athletes from Rillito who went through Marana High School, a truly desolate outpost that some genius decided to build at the geographic center of a sprawling and mostly empty district and one that is, to this day, several miles away from anything that can even remotely be referred to as civilization.

There was Cleveland Colter and the duo of Mark Robinson and Fleet Phillips, who led Marana to the final four in the state basketball tournament in the late 1970s. A decade later, George Banks had Marana undefeated and top-ranked in the state heading into the tournament. But an argument with the coach got Banks benched for the first-round state game, and Marana suffered a devastating home-court loss to Page, which had endured an eight-hour bus ride to get to the game. Banks went on to star at UTEP and would later play professionally.

Playing ball at Marana was an occasionally uneasy experience, as the black kids from Rillito mixed with white farm kids from Marana. For a time, there were city kids out there as well (the Marana School District extends down to the northwest corner of Ina and Thornydale roads, and kids in that area were bused to the school until Marana Mountain View High was built in the mid-1980s). After Mountain View opened up, the kids from Rillito had a choice as to which school to attend in the district, but most stayed with Marana.

When Sean Roebuck entered Marana High in the early 1990s, his community had passed the tipping point. "My mom told me she could see it slipping away. Alcohol had always been a problem in Rillito, like it is in a lot of places, but the crack came along, and it was bad. You'd see people you'd known all your life, and you'd say, 'Man! What's going on?' I knew that as much as I liked the place and the people, I had to get out.

"A lot of my black friends who grew up in parts of Tucson basically grew up in a white and (Hispanic) city. I was able to grow up in the Tucson area and attend a (racially diverse) high school, but go home to an all-black neighborhood. I feel blessed for that."

After being a multi-sport star at Marana, Roebuck accepted a basketball scholarship at Central Arizona College. He had been recruited there by Norm Patton, who had coached Marana to a state championship in the early 1970s. When Roebuck went off to college, his mother moved out of Rillito and got a place in Avra Valley, off to the west. He played two years at Central, then went to school at the University of Montana Western. ("A true culture shock," he recalls.)

"Going to Montana taught me that you have to be able to get along with all kinds of people in this world. Growing up where I did was nice, but going to the schools I did probably helped me more. Sometimes you need to challenge yourself. Living in a place like Rillito, with all the family and friends, can be too ... comfortable."

The way he tells it, it's like a velvet prison, one that offers soothing familiarity but at a steep cost of ambition. Tough choices are avoided and eventually eliminated, only to be replaced by no choice.

"I see people talking about getting out, and then I see them a year later, and they're still talking about it. It's hard to turn your back on where you grew up, but sometimes, it's for the best."

He is married to the former Monica Flores, who played soccer at Mountain View. The couple had their third child, Desmond Sean Roebuck, just last week. Employed by the Jim Click Automotive Group, he lives in Continental Ranch, a few miles and a couple hundred thousand dollars in house value from Rillito. He keeps in close contact with friends and relatives who still live in Rillito, playing on basketball teams with them and attending family functions, but he can't shake the despair he feels for what he once called home.

"You drive through there, and you see the boarded-up houses and the abandoned buildings with all the windows broken out; it just breaks your heart. You think, 'That's where so-and-so lived, and we used to play ball in that yard over there, the one with all the weeds and the junk cars on it now.' It's tough to see."

When told that Pima County is one of the least-black metropolitan areas in the entire country, he shrugs. "See, I never knew that. I always thought I lived in a nice black neighborhood and community. I'm glad I used to live there (in Rillito). And I'm also glad I don't live there anymore."

Sean Roebuck, born and raised in Rillito:"It was a good place to grow up," he says. "Even if you were poor, you didn't notice it that much."

The Rillito home where Sean Roebuck grew up has since fallen into disrepair. Rob Tatum: "With Hispanics, it's all-out hostility, with Daddy holding a shotgun and yelling, 'Stay away from my daughter!'"