The Spirit of America


By Brantley Thompson Elkins


This is a story of black and Hispanic drug dealers from Chicago who tried to help 200 white farmers and factory workers save their town. They lost, but in the fight against the river they found each other.

So began an article by Sara Rimer, published July 29, 1993, in The New York Times. It is one of the most inspiring stories IÕve ever read. I kept a clipping of it for years, but eventually lost it. Like much else, however, it has been archived on the Internet, where I recovered it recently.

The town Rimer wrote about 15 years ago was Niota, Illinois. That town is flooded again now, even worse than in 1993, despite the efforts of volunteers laying sandbags. A local news report doesnÕt say anything about the volunteers; I presume they are local people. But 15 years ago, they were prisoners from a boot camp in Greene County. According to Rimer, they werenÕt exactly expecting a warm welcome:

"When we first got there, I was telling my friends, 'Watch this – how long before someone calls us nigger?' " said Greg Yance, 23, who grew up in Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project. "We was waiting, but it never happened. I felt like I was in a movie. In the city it's, 'Look at John, he's trying to save his house.' But here everyone was helping each other."

Their efforts were futile. And yet the residents of Niota signed a card expressing their gratitude: "With warmest thanks to each of you, from your Niota family. You'll never be forgotten." One of those residents was Neoma Farr, Òyour orange drink lady,Ó who had served orange drink to the inmates every day. She ran a beauty salon that was flooded to the roof, but that wasnÕt what saddened her most.

"I felt sorry for them," she told Rimer over the phone. "They worked so hard. The last night some of the women made supper for them at the church, but they wouldn't eat because they didn't save our town. As upset as we were, I think they were even more upset."

Yance, who was a dealer with the Vice Lords gang in Chicago before he was caught and opted for boot camp over prison, said he cried the day the levee broke. "I'm still hurt," he told Rimer. "A lot of people lost their homes. They were thanking us. We were confused. Thank you for what? It didn't help. Maybe we should've worked harder, or faster."

From a Google search, IÕve learned that Yance went back to Chicago, where he couldnÕt get a job – at least not at first. Four years later, somebody made an uplifting docudrama about him, First Time Felon. I have no idea what happened to him after that, nor do I know whether Neoma Farr was ever able to reopen her beauty salon (A phone listing shows she still lives in Niota.).

ItÕs easy to imagine the lives of people like the rural whites of Niota and urban blacks and Hispanics of YanceÕs neighborhood having intersected differently – as criminals and crime victims. But most likely, theyÕd never have encountered each other at all but for an extraordinary event like that flood — and neither they nor we would ever have known that they could rise above their supposed stereotypes.

Pundits could argue that Neoma Farr and Greg Yance defied deep-seated prejudices – seeing any and all blacks and Hispanics as incorrigible criminals (something universally denounced in liberal circles), or any and all Middle American whites as rabid racists (widely embraced in liberal circles). Yet the truth must be that whatever stereotypes they might have held were not deep-seated; otherwise they could never have come to see each other as people right from the get-go.

What happened in Niota should make us proud, for it belies the cynicism of those who can see only the worst in us. Although they didnÕt express it that way, what Farr and Yance and others like them discovered in that terrible summer of 1993 was what it means to be American. Not white or black, not rich or poor, not urban or rural, not liberal or conservative, just American. ItÕs something we ought to think about every day, but especially on the Fourth of July.