'My Patience Has Got A Lot Shorter': Being Black In Montana

Jan 16, 2017

Gwen Kircher moved to Montana in 1977; she knew since she was a child that she wanted to uproot from Louisville, Kentucky and make Montana home.
Credit (Brie Ripley)

25-years-ago, a New York Times reporter traveled to Montana to interview Gwen Kircher for a story on race in America.

Based on award winning journalist Dirk Johnson's original article, and in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, YPR's Brie Ripley shares this audio postcard on what life's like, presently, for a black woman in a predominately white state.


*This story has been updated since publication due to an error: Gwen Kircher is the former president of the Black Heritage Foundation of Yellowstone County, not the Billings Boys & Girls Club 1/20/2016

In 1990, Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled from Cape Town, South Africa to Helena for a concert put on by The Montana Logging and Ballet Company.

It was the world figure's only stop in America that year. 
That’s why New York Times reporter Dirk Johnson wrote about the event,
and that’s where he met Gwen Kircher.

"He kept asking, ‘What are you doing here? What are you doing here?’" said Kircher.
"And I kept saying, ‘I live here.’ And then it took me a moment to realize he was asking why a black woman was here."

There weren’t many black folks present for Mr. Tutu’s string quartet attendance or subsequent press conference. At the time, Kircher was one of about 2,000 black folks living in Montana out of a total population of around 800,000.

She gave the reporter her business card, laughed off the encounter,
and forgot about it.

Until about a year later.

"My secretary called," said Kircher, "and she was just all excited,
‘Someone from the Times called!’"

"And I went, which Times?! Because you know, I’m thinking of Time Magazine. But New York Times is even better," said Kircher.

Johnson flew back to the Big Sky State to interview Kircher.

The conversation resulted in a 1992 article about race in America; the beginning focused on a Kentucky-raised woman’s first day in Montana.

I asked Kircher what life's like, presently,
as a black woman in a predominately white state.

Kircher spending time in the Pryor Mountains.
Credit (Courtesy of Gwen Kircher)

Gwen Kircher:

"I’m going tell you that my patience has got a lot shorter than it was when I was younger and it reminded me of my grandmother and I can remember that as she got older she was more angry about the fact that she was not equal yet.

That even though we had these laws it still wasn’t real for her. And her patience was extremely short. And I was young, and I couldn’t understand why she was so upset, but I didn’t understand how little progress had gone on in her life, for her to be equal.

Well now, here I am, and I’m probably at the age she was then, and I can understand now why her patience was short because mine is. In my lifetime, we’re still, in some ways we’re worse than we were in the 60’s, and that is not a good thing to say about this country.

We should be moving forward. But we’re not.
We’re not moving forward. We’re moving backwards.

And I think a lot of it is people putting their heads in the sand and not paying attention because it doesn’t necessarily affect me, ‘if it’s not in my neighborhood it’s not my problem,’ kind of thing.

And everybody is just getting in their own little worlds and maybe it has to do with the digital age, that everybody is looking at their phones and not actually communicating with people, so they feel they can say and do anything, because they’re just doing it on a machine, and not speaking to a real person.

Kircher (left), with a friend, who invited her out to ceremoniously dress a buffalo they captured on a reservation.
Credit (Courtesy of Gwen Kircher)

So rather than having these assumptions or these beliefs that maybe you’ve grown up with because of your family or your neighborhood or just watching T.V. or the movies, or whatever. Get over that! And find out who these people are.

Don’t just take for granted that they are less than, that they’re not worthy, that they’re somehow taking something away from you. It seems to me that the fear that whites have is that somehow people of color or going to come and take away something they already have, it’s like we’re taking something away from more privileged Americans to make us be privileged as well. But that’s not the case at all.

We are all just human beings. We are all children of God. And we are all the same. And we all need to look at each that way. There’s bigotry all the way around. All colors, all people are bigots. But we need to look at each other and stop being racist.

Look at yourself. Examine your own self. I don’t have to look at you and figure out if you’re a bigot. I can just listen to what you say. You should know if you’re a bigot by what you say.

Remember what Martin Luther King said, ‘Judge me by my character.’ Judge me by who I am. Take a good look at yourself. Examine yourself, and then, change if you need to."

Brie Ripley:

"Gwen Kircher is a chairperson for the local chapter of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, serves on the Billings Human Relations Commission, *and she’s the former president, now board member, of the Billings Boys & Girls Club, *​and is the former president of the Black Heritage Foundation of Yellowstone County. I'm Brie Ripley, YPR News."