By: Claudia Kolker, Los Angeles Times Source:San Francisco Chronicle, 11 September 2000
Santa Fe, Texas -- The billboards are as yellow as a
lemon pie at the Busy Bee cafe. Along their borders, signatures spell
out familiar names: mayor, fire chief, police chief. And the slogan -- what could be more harmless?
"Santa Fe is no place for hate."
But when local leaders joined Anti-Defamation League officials
earlier this month to unveil the towering signs, residents thought
the signs sent a mixed message.
"A lot of people were concerned (the signs) communicated that
this is a place for hate," school Superintendent Richard Ownby said.
"I had those concerns too -- I think we're being painted with a
Flanking the highway leading into Santa Fe, the billboards form a
hall of mirrors for this town of 10,000 nearly 30 miles south of
Houston. Sponsored by the ADL, they reflect to some a plain reality
--that Santa Fe is struggling with prejudice. But for many others in
this community, the signs are concrete evidence that Santa Fe has
been given a bad rap.
The town made history in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court
rejected school officials' bid to protect student-led prayer before
football games. The ruling capped five years of local activism, most
of it supporting the school district. At the controversy's height
last spring, 4,000 spectators leaped up to cheer when a Santa Fe
student publicly led a pregame prayer.
That passion, many locals say, brought unfriendly scrutiny from
outsiders who have since branded Santa Fe as intolerant. Instead,
residents say, it's simply a country town with a majority of devout
Baptists who are unashamed of their old-fashioned values.
But a handful of people here read the cause and effect
differently. The prayer battle, they say, unleashed an
intolerance -- both racial and religious -- that had churned
here quietly for decades.
Their complaints came to a head just before the Supreme Court's
prayer ruling. Thirteen-year-old Phillip Nevelow, Santa Fe's lone
Jewish student, alleged that schoolmates had threatened to hang him
after two years of anti-Semitic harassment. Police have charged three
boys with making terroristic threats. Last month, Nevelow's parents
filed a federal lawsuit against the school district. The school's
prayer crusade, they argued, had contributed to a climate of
Proposed before the suit was filed, the cheery billboards were
meant to ward off further episodes of intolerance. But public
reaction after the unveiling was cool.
"It may be a good reminder, but I think it gives a bad
perspective of Santa Fe," said Denise Rygaard, picking up her
daughter from the high school's Tribal Belles drill team practice.
"Kids are cruel. I don't care where you are." Any problems in Santa
Fe, she said, were eclipsed by racial and social problems in bigger
Ownby, who helped present the billboards, called the Nevelow
episode overblown. "As with any incident, you've seen one side of
the story," he said.
But other people -- a smattering of locals and considerably more
people in neighboring cities -- see Santa Fe as something darker,
even sinister. Something a sign might acknowledge, but hardly change.
To these critics, the school prayer debate, Nevelow's harassment
and similar complaints by Mormon and Catholic students are linked to
a local culture that welcomed Ku Klux Klan rallies in the 1980s.
"I think it's all related," said Galveston attorney Anthony
Griffin, who successfully argued against Santa Fe in the football
prayer case and who now represents the Nevelows. "Santa Fe is
substantially different from the cities around it, more homogeneous
in terms of race and religion. Santa Fe begged the world to look at
it because of its position on prayer in school. Now Santa Fe is
taking the position they're being picked on."
One white resident in her 20s, sweeping the entrance of a small
business, coughed out an expletive when she heard about the signs.
"Do I think they'll do anything?" she laughed harshly, before
asking that her name not be used. "Are you kidding? I remember the
other sign this town used to have. It said -- I won't use the word --
`If you're black, don't let the sun set on you in Santa Fe."
Although accounts of that sign persist widely in local memory,
it's hard to find someone who saw it or can put a date to it. What
has been documented is the KKK presence here in 1981, when white
supremacists joined in a dispute against Vietnamese shrimpers in the
nearby Gulf of Mexico.
In the 1990 census, Santa Fe had nine black residents, less than
0.2 percent of the 8,628 people living there at the time. And it
maintains a potent reputation for hate in the more diverse
"Everybody knows about Santa Fe," said Anthony Ross, a black oil
field worker who lives in Dickinson. "They just don't care for
anybody that's not white. You're not wanted there, and you will be
But David Fleming, a lifelong resident, said Santa Fe is neither
the hotbed of evil -- or old-fashioned virtue -- that's often
"Yes, there's a lot of people who are going to say they're with
the KKK, at least mentally," said Fleming, 29, who runs a lawn-care
business. "But when you get them alone, you find they're not. It's
just to improve their standing. Kids want to keep the tradition on,
but they are not like that."
Contemplating the noon glare from the cool of the Busy Bee,
Fleming said the key to Santa Fe was not its religious fervor, but
Houston's sprawl -- and big-city culture -- will overtake this
small town soon, he said. The Computer Age will do its work, too.
Fleming recalled how his brother, a devotee of online chat rooms, was
stunned to discover that he was close friends with a black woman.
But Santa Fe remains a haven for people who want homogeneity,
isolation and predictability, Fleming said. And with that, he said,
"It's a small country town," he said. "There's nothing. No
movies, no mall. There's so little to do, people are so bored,
there's nothing to do but harass people."