Conversations About Race And Racism: Clarence Brewer And John Tepiew

Sep 15, 2020

Clarence Brewer and John Tepiew.
Credit Randy Stewart

This week, we bring you our Sense of Community series, Conversations on Race and Racism.  These conversations feature first-person perspectives, memories, and opinions of people in our community whose lives have been impacted by race and racism.   You can hear the audio below.

This conversation was between two close friends, Clarence Brewer and John Tepiew, both Springfield residents and both people of color.                                                             

JOHN: Hello, my name is John Tepiew. I live in Springfield, Missouri. I'm 100 percent Native American blood. And we are here today doing some conversation with a friend, Clarence Brewer. He's been a friend of mine, for how long, Clarence? 20 years at least?

CLARENCE: At least 20. I'm Native American [and] African-American.

JOHN: We're going to talk about some stuff, I guess, our perspective on what's happening in this world, in this climate. In what ways does a predominantly white culture in the Ozarks impact your life today?

CLARENCE: Well, I was born in Springfield. I was born in the old Alberta Hotel. Before it was the Alberta Hotel, it was the city hospital on the corner of Tampa and Kimbrough. I grew up in Springfield. My grandfather dug the basement to Campbell School, Jarrett Junior High School and the federal penitentiary. I played guitar in all three of those.

But the truth is that it's very impactful. The cultural environment in Springfield is, to say the least, predominantly white—and politics, business, religion, follow suit. So coming along in 1949, I have been able to witness a lot of changes through the years. I'm 71 now if anybody didn't do the math. So, yes, it's very impactful. And it doesn't come without a few observations about what's actually happening now, with the Black Lives Matter movement and exactly how Springfield and the nation is responding to this self-same movement.

JOHN: As a student of color growing up, did you feel equally loved and important in school? Why or why not?

CLARENCE: Well, early on, starting elementary school, my instructors were very, very… how can we say… serious about integration. Because I was in the first or second year of integrated schools in 1956. I started Cambell School and I'm just proud to say that I'm still close to my third grade teacher. She came to one of my gigs—I'm a musician—and let me know that she was still around and still as sprightly as ever at 86.

But as we went on through school, middle school and high school, things began to get a little more dicey because of, you know, competition for females, everything that a single person of color in an all-white environment would go through. So it's a mixed bag. Yes, it was good early on. It became a little bit more difficult in Middle school. It became almost impossible by high school. So I went to vocational school to learn how to weld, and ended up being the state champion welder in 1967, largely because of Mr. Otis Letterman and his instruction in welding.

So I was able to graduate with no college prep. And Mr. Letterman, Mr. John Bell and Beecher Sheeley signed off on me to come to college in industrial technology in 1967.

Well, in 1967, the head of the Industrial Technology Department said that no [“n-words”] would ever graduate from his department. And so my brother, who was a junior at that time, encouraged me to go into fine art here at the university. So I became an art student pretty quickly after that. And all the other African-American students left the Department of Industrial Technology at that time, because of obvious reasons. And most of them went on into art. So it's a mixed bag.

JOHN: Can you tell me about a time you experienced racism here in our community?

CLARENCE: Oh, I don't know if I could tell you of a time when I DIDN’T experience racism in the community! Four years ago, on the day that Prince died, the police were in my yard with a knife at my throat, my hands cuffed behind my back, trying to get me to guess what was in the contents of a box that they had brought up that had my address on it. I said, I really can't guess. I was afraid to guess. And so I wound up going through the ‘system.’ Well, I'm an anthropology research assistant here at the university, so I thought maybe it might be interesting if I just went through the process to see how it all played out. I found more African-Americans per capita in the judicial system, in the courts, than were in the general population of Springfield!  And I think it would really do somebody some good to see how many African-Americans are in jail per capita (compared) to the population of the city proper. I've long since believed that the way that Springfield wound up with a three percent or less population of African-Americans was due to the police after dark. I've seen this. I went to the Art Department some years after I graduated, to bring a sculpture to the campus, because there was no sculpture—‘Graven images.,’ that's how they claimed it—in Springfield or even on the campus. So the head of the department said, ‘you'll never put a sculpture on our campus, Clarence—I hate [“n-words”]!’ So you know, you find four people that are really nice, open minded, and then you'll find five more that are very closed minded. So it's a stuttered kind of progress.

JOHN: When you think of our community and its needs to understand and address racism, inequality, what do you think we can do better?

CLARENCE: Well, it's really kind of a money, ideas, energy and emotions issue. You know, if you've got a lot of White folks who hate Black folks or just people of color, they need to be educated. If the banks don't loan African-Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, money for businesses or housing, then you're always going to have an underclass. And it's going to take work. I'm so proud of Jimmy Carter, who left office and began building homes with Habitat for Humanity. No president after that has ever displayed that much humanism. And, you know, I'm proud of that, that he did that. I thought he was an all around great guy. But what could be done? The banks could loan more money to families. City Council, not just the city council in Springfield, but in Nixa and Willard and all over, could acknowledge that there's a deadly virus going around and not send those kids back to school. Paradoxically, the Black Lives movement is populated with a lot of voting-age people who recognize the inequities in government, religion, business, commerce, and they see that this is something that will impact them, basically.

JOHN: Being African-American, does it make daily decisions tougher on trying to survive around here?

CLARENCE: Absolutely. You have to really pick and choose those people who would be friendly to your efforts. And I have done that with the help of my parents in their passing. They left me a community of people who would give me employment, help me with my vehicles, move the issue of living in some place forward.

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Next, Clarence Brewer asked his friend John Tepiew many of the same questions.

CLARENCE: Hello, my name is Clarence Brewer, I'm a Native American/African-American living in Springfield. I have John Tepiew here, a full blooded Native American living here in Springfield, and I'm here to just ask him a few questions about his experiences here as a native from the reservation in Wisconsin. Is that right, John?

JOHN: Yes, yes. I'm from Neopit, Wisconsin, originally. That's the Menomine Indian reservation in Wisconsin, yes.

CLARENCE: In what way does a predominantly white culture in the Ozarks impact you day to day?

JOHN: You know, I could say it doesn't have a lot of impact on me, because basically I'm disabled, so I don't go anywhere. And I see very little of people, if you want to be honest about this. I see YOU quite often! I don't have a whole lot of white friends, to be honest with you. You know, most of my friends are African-American, or if I can find other Native Americans in the Ozarks here, which I've found a few of true Native American ancestry where, you know, you can just look at them and tell instantly. So I guess I'd have to say that is my answer-- I don't have a lot of interaction with (white people). I never have really.

CLARENCE: Is that by design? Did you understand that when you first got here that that was going to be your course, or did you over time begin to realize that you were going to have to kind of segregate yourself to your own ethnic community? Did it take time or was it something instantly that you figured out?

JOHN: Well, you know, I guess a lot of my interaction—I came from the reservation. After I joined the military, I went back to the reservation. I grew up on there, and there was no work up there. So I ended up coming through here, finding out that Springfield had some work. And that was my—besides the military and some of my high school days of growing up in a white culture. And it took a little adjustment, I would say, because things are different when you when you work on a reservation, the people's attitudes, the way they are, you know.

CLARENCE: And growing up, did you feel loved or important in school? Why or why not?

JOHN: I'll tell you, back in 1972, we moved from Wisconsin reservation. We were part of the Native American Relocation Act, almost like a Trail of Tears on a voluntary basis. I ended up going from the reservation, where we had no electricity, no water in our house--we had an indoor pump, you know, and outdoor toilet. And we went to Chicago. And from there was culture shock, becoming a feral young man from the reservation and knowing everybody, and (then) going there. And we felt differently. You know, even growing up on the rez, I was a little bit lighter skinned than everybody, you know, so I never really fit up there, it seemed as though, you know?  I was too light skinned to live on the reservation, but yet too dark skinned to live off the reservation in a white community as a kid. So I grew up tough, you know? Fighting for me and my sisters. People were coming up, just because we were Native Americans and different skin, and they were picking at us, you know. So as a kid, I didn't put up with that. Well, nor do I today.

CLARENCE: Locally, have you ever had extensive conversations with people about the bias that they may not see—(an) invidious kind of racism?

JOHN: Well, I think an example would be that of myself being Native American, how many people would find out I was Native American, and if I wasn't a Cherokee and I told them I was Menominee and Oneida and Stockbridge, they would say, ‘are those real natives?’ You know what I mean? And it continues today. People, because I'm not a Cherokee or from Oklahoma, they suddenly feel that, you know, am I less native than they really are? And these are people who are like four- and five-G natives who were taken away, four or five generations of being a native, you know, and they've intermingled their entire life with the Anglo-Saxon, the white people. So I find that… you know.

CLARENCE: Well, have you ever experienced, like, an incident of racism?

JOHN: Well, I guess where I really felt it was after September 11th. Because my skin was darker, I would get people questioning my, you know, what nationality I was. Was I American, you know? That was after September 11th… and, you know, you can see my skin is….

CLARENCE: You’re a vet, aren’t you?

JOHN: Yes, I am. Yes. American veteran. Yeah. United States Army.

CLARENCE: So how did that make you feel?

(John hesitates, and Clarence says, “You can say ‘bad!’”)

JOHN: Wow. You know, it is painful to think that, you know, I joined the military at 17 years old. You know, I was just a kid. I wasn't even old enough to vote yet. But I wanted my family and those around me, as an American citizen, to have the freedom to vote to not live under a communist regime or fascism. You know, that's why I became a soldier, to fight for that, for that freedom to know that you could be there, and everybody who's around would have that freedom to do the things that we have, as American citizens, that we do take for granted.

CLARENCE: Well, what do you think we can do to give reality to that situation? Because obviously, with thousands of people in the street, we have a way to go to where equity is everybody's birthright. So what can we do?

JOHN: Well, we deal a lot with this in this current political climate, where wearing a mask is now a political statement, you know. I have a granddaughter who is African-American and Native American as well, you know, and when they say ‘all lives matter….’ If ‘all lives matter,’ we'd all wear a mask, and we'd all take care of each other and not be fighting in the streets, you know, to have these peaceful demonstrations. And it is shown that there are agitators out there, these ‘Boogaloo’ freaks, you know, that are going out there and doing their… who are instigators of this, which is causing this. And we have a person in the White House who is just fanning the flames of hate with this.

CLARENCE: Well, would you think that a regime change would actually really change very much going forward? Everybody's looking forward to the election, of course.

JOHN: You know, this is a Band-Aid that has been festering forever. And to say that it's going to be solved with an election is just a foolish pipe dream. It takes everybody to work at this. You know, everybody has to put down their differences. And, you know, we're Americans. We band together. That's the way it is. You know, everybody in this country who fought through thick and thin here, we've all had our hard times in our time, you know. And, you know, if all lives matter, prove it!

Clarence Brewer interviewing his friend of more than 20 years, John TPE, on the subject of race and racism in the Ozarks for the KSMU Sense of Community series.