Carson City a testament to how far the fight against bias has come | NevadaAppeal.com

Carson City a testament to how far the fight against bias has come

Colleen O'Callaghan-Miele
Special to the Appeal

Just as February sluggishly ushers in March and springs beautiful bouquets, Nevada’s historical progression against discrimination continues to blossom, although slowly.

February is Black History Month and March highlights women’s suffrage. In light of Nevada being a young state – one of the later states to allow women to vote – her ability to confront and deal with racism has come about during my lifetime. That work is still in progress and blooming daily.

I grew up in Carson City, a quiet small town where nearly all of the population was white. There were things about this town that today I find hard to imagine. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I became aware of certain facts, such as that American Indians were allowed off the reservation and into town only on Saturdays and that was with a curfew. Another form of discrimination affected two of the most beautiful people that I have had the privilege to know and love. John and Maria Calhoun, a black couple, were allowed to live only outside the city limits.

It is inconceivable to me that people in our town were treated differently and segregated. John Calhoun, affectionately referred to as Mr. John, has a special place in my heart and childhood memories.

I was not the only Carson City child who felt the positive influence of Mr. John.

I would like to share with you segments of a tribute from the July 4, 2006, issue of the Nevada Appeal by Carolyn Tate and Maizie Harris Jesse, who also shared childhood memories of this wonderful man.

“It’s the Fourth of July, our nation’s 230th birthday, a time of celebration, frivolity, picnics, and most importantly, a tribute to our nation’s founders and those who keep us free. And, in that vein, we would like to salute a great man who passed away on June 24, 2006, John C. Calhoun.

“John had fought in the Normandy invasion at Utah Beach in World War II, which made him a bona fide hero in anyone’s estimation. But his real worth was shown in the way he treated his fellow man. For more than 25 years, John was the custodian at St. Teresa’s school in Carson City. He treated all the children, their parents and the parish with the utmost joy and respect, and, in return was given the love of the community. John was African-American in a time when that was a rarity in Carson City, but, because he was secure in himself, he was loved for the man that he was, and his color was not an issue. Although he had no children of his own, his children were the children of St. Teresa’s.”

I felt that Mr. John loved and respected me as much as I did him.

It was an era in this state when people of color were discriminated against not only as to where they could live, but also where they could eat, drink and even spend their money. Imagine in a small quiet town this one man was able to change the world of discrimination by displaying his love for all of mankind. He made a positive impact as great as any Nevadan by teaching children for several generations not to view a man by his color, but for the man himself.

My exposure to slavery and discrimination was through reading history books and movies that reinforced the stereotyping of people by color, race and nationality. For instance, the Irish are depicted as potato-picking, cigarette smoking, whiskey-drinking (that’s Irish whiskey) barroom brawlers. That’s what they have to say about Irish men. I will save what they say about us Irish women for another time.

A more personal experience with racism for me occurred when my husband, Matt, took me to New Jersey to meet my future Italian in-laws – or should I say at that time my future out-laws. To this day I remind Mom and Dad, though Dad denies it, about the walk around the block that each one independently engaged me in. Although they said it was not their intention, the message that I took from this walk was that I was not Italian and by marrying their son I was responsible for breaking the family lineage. In all seriousness, I hadn’t a clue that there was prejudice and dislike among different nationalities such as the Irish and Italians. What a wake-up call!

It was one call that I take pride in answering. I took it on, like a challenge, a call to action, to show that regardless of one’s color, race, creed or nationality, all mankind comes from one place and that, my dear reader, is where each one of us chooses to stand.

In my father’s house, there was no such thing as discrimination against color, creed or race. Now, if you were of a different political affiliation in his earlier years, you may have experienced some interrogation. In fact it was shortly after my grandmother’s passing that I learned that when my mother brought my father home for the first time, my grandmother didn’t hesitate for a moment before making it very clear that she didn’t like the fact that he was Catholic, had one leg and on top of it all was a Democrat.

The bottom line is we all have experienced and displayed acts of prejudice and discrimination on different levels, whether we are overweight, poor, rich, ugly, beautiful, the list is endless and pointless.

I have learned that with time, which eliminates fear of the unknown, that love, compassion and understanding evolve, and this is what my father taught his children and those whose lives he touched. We learned to judge a candidate by his character, and not by his party affiliation. My grandmother respected and loved my father until the day she died.

Mom and Dad Miele are no longer the out-laws and continue to progress in adjusting to their independent and free-thinking Irish daughter-in-law. More importantly, I know that I am appreciated and loved for the person that I am and not judged by my nationality.

The truth is man must accept man, and acknowledge that there is only one man – and that man is mankind.

• Colleen O’Callaghan-Miele, 50, is co-publisher of the Henderson Home News. She grew up in Carson City, the daughter of two-term Gov. Mike O’Callaghan. She is the mother of six children.