Early Years, by Daniel N. Clark
For over 35 years, Race Unity Day had been observed by Baha’is and their friends in the United States and in other countries on the second Sunday in June. In 1992, a small article appeared in our local paper about a Race Unity Day celebration in Walla Walla’s Jefferson Park in the west end, for which a handful of people turned out to eat watermelon and play a game of volleyball. The next year a similar article appeared for the event featuring a Mexican folkloric dance group and local Mariachi singer Salvador Hernandez, and around 500 Hispanics and a dozen or so Anglos attended where they enjoyed watermelon and pizza at the same park.
The Multi-Cultural Arts Festival
In early 1994 Burl Barer of the local Baha’is contacted Walla Walla Friends of Acoustic Music about participating in a 1994 Race Unity Day event at Pioneer Park in the center of the city. Burl’s vision was to make Race Unity Day a festival as big or bigger than Pioneer Park’s community Fourth of July celebration. As a result we formed the Walla Walla Race Unity Coalition composed of members of:
- The Baha’is
- The Walla Walla Friends Meeting
- Pioneer United Methodist Church
- First Congregational Church
- Congregation Beth Israel
- Children’s Home Society
- The Blue Mountain Arts Alliance
- Walla Walla Community College
which presented the first Race Unity Day Multicultural Arts Festival at Pioneer Park that year.
The 1994 event drew several thousand people of all backgrounds to the city’s central park to enjoy a variety of food, craft and information booths, along with entertainment featuring jazz, Mexican song and dance, German and Middle Eastern dancers, Native American drummers and dancers, and Irish music and dance.
In later years, we added Scottish bagpipes, German music, Chinese, Italian, and Pacific Island dancers, blues, reggae, and gospel groups, international folk dancers, break dancers, and story tellers from Jewish, African, Native American, Mexican, Italian, and other traditions, as well as a chess tournament, hands-on art projects, ping-pong, a soccer clinic, and a popular ethnic heritage map of the world on which people put pins to show where their grandparents were born.
While it didn’t rival the Fourth of July Celebration in size, the annual festival became many people’s favorite community event and continued to draw a wonderful mix of people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds as well as quality entertainment from a variety of traditions during its 23 year history. In the city’s official vision set out in its comprehensive plan, the festival is described as a characteristic of the community’s future.
Freedom from Discrimination Month
Following the Coalition’s first Multicultural Arts Festival in 1994, since Walla Walla didn’t have a human relations commission, instead of limiting itself simply to planning an annual event in the Spring, the Coalition became a year round organization dedicated to improving human relations in the Walla Walla area.
In 1995, we were impressed In 1995, we were impressed the visiting Anne Frank Exhibit in La Grande which was on display at Eastern Oregon University. We wanted more people in our area to see it, and decided to bring it to Walla Walla for the month of November, 1995.
In addition, we decided to combine the exhibit with a month-long series of supporting events and we called “Freedom from Discrimination Month.”
The cosponsors we enlisted as well as the events we presented that year were also impressive. The cosponsors included:
- The City of Walla Walla,
- The City of Milton-Freewater
- The City of College Place
(All whose mayors all declared September Freedom from Discrimination Month)
- The Walla Walla and College Place public schools
- Walla Walla College
- Walla Walla Community College
- Whitman College
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
- The Baha’i Community
- Congregation Beth Israe
- The Walla Walla Friends Meeting
- The Walla Walla College Seventh Day Adventist Church
- The Valley Cultural Awareness Committee
- The YWCA
- Image of Walla Walla
- Shalom Student Organization
- Cellular One
The focal point of the month was the Anne Frank Exhibit together with an Oregon State exhibit called Differences & Discrimination, which showed at Walla Walla Community College for two weeks followed by a week in the Milton-Freewater Community Building. Other events during the month included an opening ceremony and reception at the community college featuring talks by WWCC President Steve VanAusdle, Whitman President Tom Cronin, and WWC President W.G. Nelson and by local survivors and liberators, as well as an opening ceremony and reception later in the month in Milton-Freewater, a three-part film series at Whitman’s Maxey Auditorium, a talk by the research director of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles, a klezmer band concert at Whitman’s Chisholm Hall and MacGloughlin High School in Milton-Freewater, a visiting theatrical performance at both WWC and WWCC, an art exhibit at Carnegie Center and the YWCA, a holocaust survivor’s talk at Whitman and WWC, and a talk at WWCC by an educator from Heritage College, and an exhibit-closing celebration of cross-cultural music at WWCC.
For 1996, we moved our Freedom from Discrimination Month celebration to October, and decided to focus on religious harmony. The keynote address for our opening ceremony, again at WWCC, was Bill Wasmuth, a former Catholic priest from Couer d’Alene, Idaho whose home had been bombed by the white supremacists after he organized a local human relations task force in response to activities of the Aryan Nations and who had become executive director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harrassment.
During the month which among other events included a talk by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, also a Catholic priest, we held a public discussion in the foyer of Cordiner Hall on “How Do We Accommodate Religious Diversity in Our Public Institutions—What has been the Experience of Members of the Various Religious Groups in the Walla Walla Valley?” Special guests and participants in the discussion included people from the Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American, Baha’i, Quaker, Baptist, Adventist and Catholic traditions, among others. Later in the month, we sponsored a first-of-its-kind Celebration of Religious Diversity at the Walla Walla High School Commons, in which the various religious groups and traditions were invited to display materials on their customs and practices and to give presentations of their music and dance. This was a great success and will be remembered by many as the most harmonious religious gathering in their experience.
At the end of the month, we held a Youth Forum on Discrimination in the City Council Chambers, where we presented the winners of our high school essay contest on the topic, “In view of the religious diversity present in the United States, should public schools sponsor prayer at graduation ceremonies?” The forum was led by students from Whitman College who had been a part of a delegation we had organized to attend the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harrassment’s Youth Summit and Annual Conference in Spokane earlier in the month, where we heard Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center give the keynote speech.
In 1997, we focused on African-Americans, and moved our opening ceremonies to the Blue Mountain Mall, where we presented a three-week exhibit Northwest Black Pioneers and its archivist, along with other events during the month including problems with English as a second language and a second city hall Youth Forum on Discrimination addressing the question, “How does the Walla Walla Valley accommodate racial, ethnic, and other diversity—what has been the experience of youth, and what role do you think public bodies should play?”
We had invited public school and local government officials to listen and respond to the youth statements, which were quite energetic from a variety of perspectives, including dropouts, skaters, ethnic minorities, non-Christians, and non-athletic types. A specific result of the forum was the formation of a Youth Council, which played a role in the eventual establishment of a Community Center for Youth in 1999.
For each Freedom from Discrimination Month, in addition to organizing one or more events ourselves, the planning committee put out a calendar listing all of the relevant events put on by any of our sponsoring organizations or others in the community.
Since October is a Gay/Lesbian focus month at Whitman College, we began including homophobia events sponsored by the college on our calendars, despite some initial criticism.
In 1998, we presented a month-long Syracuse University exhibit at the mall questioning the biological authenticity of racial differences. Our 1999 keynote speaker was Antonio Sanchez on “Fruits of Our Labor: The Accomplishments and Contributions of Hispanics in Washington State, 1794 to the present.” In 2000, the focus was “Honoring our Elders” emphasizing aging and elder rights, and in 2001 the theme was "Teaching Tolerance" with Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama as our featured speaker, an event which packed 1400-seat Cordiner Hall at Whitman College and initiated a series of high-profile speakers sponsored by the coalition and the three local colleges.
When we put up our Freedom from Discrimination Month banner across Main Street each October, it made so much sense to visitors and others in our community that they assumed it was a national event, which we hope someday it will be.
Beyond our annual Race Unity Day, later called Diversity Day, and Freedom from Discrimination Month activities, the Coalition for several years had an annual entry in the Walla Walla Fair Parade on Labor Day Weekend, and served as well as a general sounding board for human relations problems in the community. Our parade entries organized by Virginia Harrison were times of celebration with children of all backgrounds riding Phil Monfort’s ponies or carousel, and the rest of us the leadership becoming clowns.
Some of our activities have been more serious. In the fall of 1995, a Walla Walla Community College instructor alerted us that a student of his from Milton-Freewater had been approached by members of a racist militia training in the Blue Mountains for the coming war with the “Muds,” by which they meant Hispanics. As a result, we called a joint meeting of the Race Unity Coalition and the Valley Cultural Awareness Committee along with law enforcement, which was attended by both Milton-Freewater and Walla Walla police chiefs. Following their investigation we heard no more about it.
After our public discussion on accommodating religious diversity in public institutions, in 1996 we wrote to the Walla Walla mayor and city council passing on comments that were made during that forum on the invocations or prayers offered at the beginning of council meetings. In our letter, the Coalition’s founding president, Britt Barer, wrote,
"We support the positive purpose behind the invocation, which as we understand it is to inspire those present in a spirit of common unity. We believe that this purpose can best be achieved at City Council meetings by inviting members of the public from a variety of traditions to present brief inspirational readings. These readings should speak to all citizens, rather than speaking to or in the name of a particular religious faith….
In view of the many different beliefs held by the citizens of Walla Walla, and the greatly varying practices of the various faiths, we do not believe it is practical for a member of any particular faith to attempt to lead our citizens in common prayer, nor do we believe it to be the role of government to organize or sponsor prayers.
We do, however, believe it is an appropriate role of government to inspire citizens to act for the common good, and that it is worthwhile for it to do so.
If the Council does desire to continue to sponsor or offer inspirational messages at Council meetings, we propose that the process be open to all citizens. We further propose that an advisory committee be established to assist the Council in this process, composed of representatives of all of the religious or inspirational viewpoints represented in the Walla Walla area, including freethinkers, and that the committee review readings for their general inspirational value for all our citizens, and otherwise assist with the process. By establishing such a process, the City Council will be demonstrating its respect for the beliefs of all of the citizens of Walla Walla."
Others were also expressing concern with the current arrangements, and soon afterwards the council decided to open its meetings with an inclusive moment of silence rather than a spoken invocation.
Another project we addressed early on but which has taken quite a different form in a different forum was the possibility of creating an ethnic history walking tour of Walla Walla. The original idea came from Phil Monfort who was impressed by the Unity Walk held annually in Richmond, Virginia past historic sites of racial oppression as a healing experience, and suggested we consider something similar here.
We invited a key member of each ethnic group present in our area to prepare a history of their members in the valley, and that we create a walk through the downtown beginning at the site of the 1855 Treaty Council on the grounds of Whitman College, along which we would tell the story of each ethnic group which in turn entered the valley at some location significant to that group.
For the inauguration of the walking tour, we hoped to invite the entire community to hear the stories told by representatives of each group, as well as other special activities at the various sites, including music and food. Afterwards, we hoped to make available a tape recording of the voices and music of each group, as well as audio equipment, a brochure and site plaques to create a permanent self-guided Ethnic History Walking Tour of Downtown Walla Walla.
To accomplish this, in early 1997 we asked key members of ten ethnic groups to help with the gathering and writing of the story of their group, including an account of the reasons members of each group originally came to the Walla Walla Valley, each group’s experiences here, including their joys and sorrows, contributions made by members of the group to the Walla Walla Valley, early families who are still here, and places or buildings in the area of special significance to their group, both in the downtown and throughout the community.
The ten groups we specifically focused on in addition to the British and general immigrants from Germany were:
- Native American
- Germans from Russia
Out of the ten ethnic representatives who agreed to help with the initial work on the project, however, by 1998 no one had followed through, and another avenue, and the formation of a Living History Company at Fort Walla Walla Museum presented itself as an alternative forum to begin to tell ethnic histories to the community.
While the Diversity Coalition has suspended many of its activities the last several years, in 2022 it cosponsored the Juneteenth Celebration in Pioneer Park, and also became a founding member of the Walla Walla Civility Project with whom it has offered joint information booths at several community events. The Coalition is now seeking to once again expand its current membership and activities.