Citizen of the World
Noel, Missouri, in the 1950's was a small tourist community in the Ozarks where people from Kansas City and Tulsa spent their weekends staying in the town's many motels and tourists courts and playing in the beautiful Elk River. Noel was middle America in every sense of the word, and it was very, very white. Actually there was one gentleman of color living in the town, a black man named Earl Brown who went by the nickname of "Brownie." He claimed to be half-Cherokee, which was probably much of the reason that the townspeople were so accepting of him.
Brownie had an old dog named "Boy," and when he would twist Boy's ear just so, the poor creature would make sounds that closely resembled human words. America had talent - even back then!
The motels and tourist courts had collapsed or been turned into low-income housing by the 1990's, and people who came to enjoy the river had to stay in the area campgrounds and canoe parks. It was during the 1990's that the town's ethnicity also underwent a major change as Hispanics poured into Noel and across the Midwest to work in the poultry and meat-packing industries. By the year 2000, approximately half of the children in Noel's elementary school were Hispanic, and mariachi music could be heard emanating from cars cruising Main Street. Our new neighbors were buying houses and some were even starting their own businesses.
Now there is another ethnic minority making its presence felt in Noel. As I explored my hometown this week (my first trip back in nearly a year-and-a-half) I quickly noticed several black people in what appeared to be African garb. Most of the newcomers are apparently Somalis, and they have come for the same jobs that lured their Hispanic predecessors to the area.
Most of the Somali foot traffic on Main Street seemed to center around the old Harmon Hardware Store. That stone, three-story structure was built in 1898 and is the tallest business building in town. Hanging over the front door was this sign: "The African Clothing and Grocery Company of Noel, MO."
I spoke to a few of the locals who were displeased with this development, but some are acknowledging that the Hispanics are good neighbors and an important part of the community. With just a modicum of patience and acceptance, the Somalis will also enrich the town with their unique gifts.
In diversity there is strength.