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Barista Frankie Crego helps customers in the Bestslope Coffee shop near downtown Fruita on April 4, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Fruita City Council member Ken Kreie was driving home on Election Day in November when he saw a shocking flutter of red and black outside a house down the street from his: a Nazi flag.

“Not here. Not in Fruita,” he remembers thinking. “This is such a loving and welcoming community.”

By the time Kreie reached his home, the flag had sparked turmoil, especially on social media. Townspeople were asking what they could do to combat the display of bigotry. White supremacist internet trolls were offering up congratulations: “The Swastika is the symbol of a great Empire” and “America is becoming great again. Hail Trump!”

A flag bearing the Nazi swastika symbol flew outside of a house in Fruita in November 2018. The resident of the home says the banner is gone for good. But some of the people who live in Fruita say they are working hard to make sure the sentiment behind the flag isn’t allowed to overshadow the image of inclusiveness the funky Western Slope community has embraced since 1952. (Grand Junction Sentinel photo)

The flag, very near a grade school with a marquee message reading “We do our best together,” would come down later that day, only to reappear a few days later. Even though the flag then vanished, the shock continued to reverberate through and beyond this Mayberryish Western Slope town of 13,000. The offending flag would be featured in media across the state, on CNN, and in the pages of the New York Post. Fruita, widely known as the quirky birthplace of Mike the Headless Chicken, and the scrappy town that turned the profane acronym “WTF” into a “Welcome to Fruita” tourism draw, now was in an ugly spotlight.

“I am not that surprised by the state of racism on the Western Slope, but this was honestly just horrifying in a place like Fruita,” said Jon Williams, co-founder of the local Black Lives Matter group.

A surge of in-your-face bigotry

Fruita was added to the growing list of communities where the surging trend of incidents of outright, in-your-face bigotry had cropped up. That didn’t sit well with a contingent of Fruita officials and residents in this town with a population that the Census estimates is 94.2 percent white. They jumped to action to counteract the hateful message, a transforming effort that continues to this day.

Within a week of the flag’s appearance, a group of 70 or so peaceful protesters met in a town park and marched a few blocks to stand across the street from the flag display (a Confederate flag, a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and the Stars and Stripes had been added to the swastika banner.) The protesters waved rainbow flags and “No Hate” signs and chanted “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.” A few strummed ukuleles.

They faced off with a small, menacing knot of people in head-to-toe camouflage who stood near the flag display with sidearms in full view. The scene carried a whiff of Bundyville.

Before two weeks was up, the Fruita City Council had drafted and passed an Inclusivity Proclamation stating, among other things, that “We hereby affirm our commitment to ensure that all members of our community are free from acts that are rooted in fear, ignorance, prejudice, and hate, and we urge all our citizens to judge one another only by the strength and qualities of their character.”

Lithic Bookstore manager and Fruita City Councilman Kyle Harvey talks about hate and recent actions by the City of Fruita to respond to the issue at the bookstore on April 5, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“This was a wake-up call for us,” said Kyle Harvey, a 38-year-old council member in his first term in office. He collaborated with Kreie to write the proclamation and to have it passed as quickly as possible.

The City of Fruita didn’t stop there. The council is currently working to incorporate inclusivity into every part of a new comprehensive plan that lays out a vision for what the town will be in 20 to 30 years.

A “Livability Commission” is being organized to weigh in on local issues pertaining to lifestyle, including transportation, housing, social participation and cultural diversity.

Fruita businesses have helped spread the anti-hate message.

The Lithic Bookstore & Gallery has been holding readings and discussions related to inclusivity. A recent Lithic event billed as A Legacy of Color featured talks by local black writers and activists. The selection for the store’s most recent book-club gathering was a novel by black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde.

A poster promoting Black History Month readings sits on display at the Lithic Bookstore on April 5, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Cavalcade, Fruita’s funky, non-profit communal performance space located in an old Masonic Temple, has continued to promote inclusivity by giving space to everyone from a black male singer in drag to country-western crooners to grade-school dancers.

At Bestslope Coffee Company, a barista with pink hair and black lipstick raved about Fruita’s open nature. Frankie Crego had no plans to return when she left what she viewed as the somewhat red-necky town where she was born and reared. But she did come back after college, and Nazi flag aside, she said she discovered a changed place — “a totally different world, totally welcoming.”

“The flag isn’t here anymore”

A chalkboard in the coffee shop lists reasons why. Under the heading, “I live in Fruita because…” patrons have written items like, “connectivity,” “small-town atmosphere,” and “the people are the best.”

“It (the flag incident) was not a reflection of what this community is,” Fruita City Manager Mike Bennett said.

Rumors persist around Fruita that the offending flags are still hanging inside the garage at the home where they were displayed; they could come out again at any time. But a woman who answered the door at the home of the man who displayed the flags, said they won’t appear again.

“I’m his mother, and I am not going to let that happen,” she said. “The flag isn’t here anymore.”

City Councilor Ken Kreie, center, talks with fellow Fruita residents at Bestslope Coffee Co. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Townspeople know that doesn’t mean Fruita is done with hate. It simmers here while open displays of bigotry have exploded across the country and around the globe. The Anti-Defamation League has recorded a rise in extremist incidents nationwide, with swastikas painted on and burned into properties and Ku Klux Klan fliers distributed in an increasing number of neighborhoods. The ADL recently ranked Colorado third in the nation for the spread of white supremacist propaganda.

A mix of racism and inclusivity

If there was any tracking of the flip-side of that — examples of utmost tolerance — Fruita would also be noted. The town has an interesting history that mixes racism with inclusivity,

Most recently, in 2016, Fruita had another publicized brush with extremism when a student at Fruita Monument High School showed up in the school parking lot with a Confederate flag flapping from his pickup. School administrators responded by banning flags outside the school. Students protested by displaying dozens and dozens of American flags. The brief controversy died out.

In the 1910s and ‘20s, when the KKK held sway across the Western Slope and was viewed as a men’s club akin to the Elks and the Masons, Fruita allowed public displays of bigotry. There were very few black or Jewish people in the area then so the Klan targeted mainly Catholics and Hispanics. The KKK held marches and burned crosses in downtown Fruita as townspeople cheered.

The town of Fruita rescinded its Sundown Law, which said that all black people had to be gone from the city limits before dusk, in 1952, after the Minter family had a devastating truck accident that stranded them on the way to Yakima, Washington, from Alabama. A daughter was killed and the mother, Mertie Minter, suffered a neck injury. The family was cared for by townspeople and they lived in Fruita for two years before moving to Louisiana. (Historical Photos of Fruita and Western Colorado)

Fruita, like many rural towns, had a Sundown Law that stayed on the books until the 1950s. The law mandated that all black people had to be gone from the city limits before dusk.

The story of how that law was struck down by an emergency council action highlights Fruita’s early underpinnings of inclusion.

It came about in 1952, after a black family of 12 was traveling to Washington state from Alabama in a loaded pickup when their rig skidded and overturned outside Fruita. The story, researched and written in a blog by local historians Denise and Steve Hight, relates that nine of the Minters suffered relatively minor injuries. But the mother had a broken neck. And 14-year-old Margaret Minter died at the scene.

Fruita residents rushed out to the horrific accident and hauled family members to the local hospital. One Fruita woman gave the family the use of an empty house. Locals brought the Minters furniture, food and clothing. They helped the grieving family with cooking and housecleaning and found a job for the father. They paid the Minters’ hospital bills, the cost of the truck repairs, and the bill for Margaret’s burial. Town officials served as pallbearers at Margaret’s funeral. They buried her in the town cemetery.

Judge literally ripped the law from rule

In the wake of the crash, when a town official discovered the Sundown Law was still on the books and the Minters couldn’t legally remain in Fruita, an emergency meeting was held to do away with the law. The Hights wrote that a local judge was so angry about the offensive law that he ripped it from the ordinance book.

Prior to sheltering the Minters, Fruita had also embraced a legendary black cowboy Charlie Glass, who wrangled cattle and worked various jobs for local ranch families in the 1920s and ‘30s. He was a popular and respected figure in Fruita. When he died in 1937, there was still a ban on black burials in the town cemetery. But instead of consigning Glass to some segregated burial plot, he was laid to rest in a prime spot in the New Elmwood Cemetery among the graves of a white ranching family he worked with.

Today, where the white-robed racists once marched and where Charlie Glass and the Minter family were warmly welcomed, tables and chairs and flower pots invite all visitors to relax outside businesses. One of Colorado’s most famous pizza emporiums, the Hot Tomato, has a steady line that regularly strings out the door of a business owned by well-known and respected lesbian entrepreneurs. The iconic Over the Edge bike store still presides over a main street with as many bicycles as cars. Artsy metal dinosaurs have sprung up everywhere like goofy offspring of the iconic green plaster Tyrannosaurus Rex that shows his teeth at the entrance to downtown.

A man enjoys coffee near a metal effigy of Mike the Headless Chicken on Aspen Avenue in downtown Fruita. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A statue of Mike the Headless Chicken stands in a corner flower bed, a must-have photo op for visitors who read the accompanying plaque describing how a chicken that retained enough brain stem to hop up from the chopping block and keep living after his head was lopped off. Mike has more hits on social media than the Nazi flag, by far.

The flag incident has not been forgotten. It lingers with a kind of PTSD persistence for those who felt a gut punch when they saw it. And internet trolls still applaud it.

But Fruita is continuing to make the incident a catalyst to be even more welcoming and more inclusive.

City Councilor Ken Kreie holds a inclusivity proclamation signed by Mayor Joel Kincaid. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Ultimately, so much has seemed like a positive outcome of that flag,” noted Danny Rosen, a local poet and the owner of the Lithic Bookstore.

Rosen said he and others in Fruita have taken to heart a description of the town in the Inclusivity Proclamation: “Fruita strives to be a community based on mutual respect and understanding; a community that welcomes and values all residents, treating everyone with human dignity and respect.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm