Florence, Ky. mayor on white supremacist and former resident accused of killing protester
I was going home to see my family and old friends from school days. Something I do every summer.
But this time, it felt different.
My hometown – Florence, Ky. – was in the national news.
“A neo-Nazi’s rage-fueled journey to Charlottesville,” read the headline atop the Washington Post’s Aug. 18 story from Florence – a suburban city of 32,000 at the northern tip of Kentucky, just nine miles south of Cincinnati.
Turns out James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old Nazi enthusiast accused of killing one person and injuring 19 others during that white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., had spent most of his growing-up years in Florence, too.
And the 2010 Dodge Challenger – which driver Fields, his foot on the accelerator, had plowed into a wall of bodies in a pedestrian mall – was purchased about a mile from my old neighborhood.
As I packed my truck for the 500-mile drive to Florence, I realized that this trip home would be more like a working vacation. The reporter in me had questions.
By the time I took the Florence exit onto U.S. 42 – also known as Dixie Highway – I had a plan.
Fields ‘doesn’t define us’
Florence Mayor Diane Whalen learned about Fields’ Florence connection when she got a call at her home the day after the violence in Charlottesville.
It was a Sunday morning, she told me, and the caller was a reporter from National Public Radio.
By 8 a.m. Monday, other reporters started showing up or calling the Florence Government Center, including the Associated Press and the Toledo Blade – Fields and his mother lived in Florence for more than 10 years, starting in 2005, but moved to northwest Ohio in 2016.
They all wanted to know this:
Was there anything about this small city where I was raised that could have possibly led James Alex Fields Jr. to embrace such hateful thoughts – and later act on them?
By Tuesday afternoon, People magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, TV’s “Inside Edition” and more than 10 other news outlets had filed open records requests to get transcripts of 9-1-1 calls from the Fields condo on Mistflower Lane. The calls were made to Florence Police in 2010 and 2011 by Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom, and others. After one call, Fields, then a juvenile, was arrested for allegedly threatening his paraplegic mother with a 12-inch knife.
Not the kind of publicity a city would prefer, Mayor Whalen agreed as I interviewed her a few days into my vacation.
By then, I had heard the same refrain whenever I brought up Fields’ time in Florence.
“Idiots grow up in every city,” one friend responded.
“Just shows you can never be sure what crazy person is living just next door,” said another.
“I see this as more of a mental health issue,” said a third. “It’s more a product of our times than having anything to do with Florence.”
Like me, Mayor Whalen had grown up in Florence. I left in 1977, at age 22, to go off to graduate school in Missouri and a career in journalism. She stayed, married the son of my fourth-grade teacher and eventually followed in the footsteps of her father, C.M. “Hop” Ewing, who served five terms as mayor of Florence.
When he was first elected in 1960, the city was home to about 6,000 people, many of whom worked in factories across the Ohio River in Cincinnati. By the time his daughter became mayor in 1999, Florence had its own factories (some owned by Japanese and German companies), a major mall, and a population of more than 25,000.
Over the years, Florence’s main claim to fame has been its water tower, which greets motorists traveling north and south on I-75 with a spelled-out, Southern-sounding message: “FLORENCE Y’ALL.”
How famous is it? When I met fellow Kentucky native George Clooney at the White House Correspondents Dinner a few years ago and told him I was from Florence, he shot back: “Florence Y’all!”
Mayor Whalen gave me a bobble-head replica of the local landmark. And it was clear that, like any mayor, she would have liked it better if I’d come to interview her about how much our once-sleepy hometown had grown and prospered.
“Now we have one of pretty much anything you’d want and two of some things,” she said. “Our little city is getting ready to open its second Chick-fil-A.”
There’s also a Japanese restaurant, a Thai restaurant, a few Mexican restaurants and even a mosque – signs of diversity that I associated with big cities, not my little town, when I was growing up.
But instead of invitations to toot Florence’s horn, Whalen had mostly been asked lately about Fields, whose neighborhood in the ‘burbs was called Meadows of Farmview – a nod to the fact that it had been built atop what was farmland when I lived in Florence.
And, yes, the mayor said, she had seen those stories about Fields with the Florence dateline and their photos of the “Florence Y’all” water tower and of Randall K. Cooper High, the school in nearby Union, Ky., where Fields had openly professed his admiration for Hitler and Nazi ideology.
“I hope that people who read those stories recognize that it could happen anywhere,” she told me. “I don’t think the majority of people attach that dateline, that location, to our area and say, ‘Everything there must be racist.’ ... What does Charlottesville want the world to think about who they are? An act of violence that occurred in their community doesn’t define them and a man who perpetrated those acts who may have spent time in my community as a young man doesn’t define us, either.”
Growing up ‘in a bubble’
Sounded reasonable, I thought.
And yet, as the week went on, something kept gnawing at me. Maybe because, during this trip home, I was trying to see Florence differently, as an outsider might.
I began with some history – my own and that of Boone County, including Florence, its biggest city.
As for me: I don’t think I knew an African-American until I went off to Catholic high school in Cincinnati. I never met a Jew until college. And growing up, I’m not sure I knew what a Muslim was.
There was some diversity in Florence during the 1960s and ‘70s – Catholics with German and Irish last names, many with roots in Cincinnati – got along, for the most part, with Florence’s Baptists and Methodists.
But my friends and brothers who attended Boone County High School in those years can remember only one black classmate for sure – “he was 6-foot-8 and played on the basketball team,” recalled my younger brother Terry, who played linebacker and offensive lineman on the high school’s football field.
And the mascot for the school’s teams? The Rebels.
Some have argued that the school, established in 1954, picked the name as an homage to James Dean, star of “Rebel Without a Cause,” a film about white middle-class suburban teens that came out in 1955.
But I don’t ever remember seeing a James Dean-lookalike mascot donning a leather jacket on Friday nights and speeding down the school’s football field on a vintage Harley-Davidson.
What I do remember seeing at those games: Confederate flags and gray Johnny Reb caps.
Mayor Whalen and my friend Bo Weaver, then the high school’s star fullback and now a popular evangelical Christian pastor, said one of the school’s teachers would dress up in a gray Confederate uniform, climb onto his horse, and gallop down the field, holding the waving Stars and Bars.
“We did grow up in a bubble,” Bo said. “Race was not an issue when we were growing up because we were so monolithic.”
“And oblivious,” chimed in our friend, Tony Frohlich, a retired Boone Circuit Court judge who also grew up in Florence.
Kentucky – the birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – never joined the Confederacy.
But many Kentuckians, and some Boone Countians, owned slaves – including at least one of my ancestors, Daniel Boone Roberts.
A local official going through old records discovered a few years ago that, in the 1860 presidential election, Republican Lincoln received just one vote in Boone County.
A historical marker on the outskirts of Florence notes that, in 1863, Confederate general John Hunt Morgan escaped the clutches of Union soldiers, thanks to “sympathetic Boone County residents” who gave him food, shelter and supplies.
And in January 1856, five years before the Civil War began, Boone County made national news when slavery was dividing the country.
A Boone County slave, Margaret Garner, escaped, along with her husband and their four children, across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati. There they were apprehended by slave hunters and U.S. Marshals acting under the Fugitive Slave law. Fearing her family would be sent back to slavery, Garner cut the throat of a daughter and tried to kill the other three.
Abolitionist lawyers tried to get Garner tried for murder in Ohio, where empaneling a sympathetic jury was possible. Instead, she was returned to her owner.
I never heard about this case growing up in Florence. I learned about it years later, after reading the award-winning novel that was inspired by Garner’s story – “Beloved,” by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
Exit Mr. Rebel
In June 2015, Akilah Hughes showed up at her 10-year class reunion – at Boone County High School.
Then she wrote about what it was like to be an African-American student at a school with a Confederate general as a mascot.
Her most striking memories, she wrote in an online post that was reprinted on the Cincinnati Enquirer’s website, were of the pep rallies and the football games:
“Black students and athletes had to cheer for Mr. Rebel while wearing shirts that read ‘Rebel Pride.’ The irony. The cruelty. It’s almost too much to think about.”
Hughes, a comedian and writer, wrote her story just days after white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine people during a prayer service at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. That tragedy led S.C. officials to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse, where it had flown since 1962 –when the flag was a symbol of resistance to civil rights for African-Americans.
As I reported my way around Florence in the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville, there was a sign that maybe attitudes were changing in Florence, too.
“New ‘Rebels’ logo replaces Confederate mascot at Boone County High School” read the headline atop the Aug. 24 Florence Recorder.
The phase-out had actually been decided last year by a six-person committee at the school – the principal, three teachers and two parents.
But it didn’t hit the news until local media called Boone County High School to check on the fate of Mr. Rebel at a time when many around the country were calling for the removal of Confederate symbols – from statues to mascots.
I set up an interview with the school’s principal, Timothy Schlotman. Then, 20 minutes before we were to meet, he canceled, saying he didn’t want to talk to me about anything having to do with Fields.
But Schlotman told the Florence Recorder that his heart had grown heavy last year when Boone County High hung flags representing the 37 nationalities of students the Florence school had at that time.
“I felt that the messages the flags sent did not coincide with the message some may think of with the Mr. Rebel logo,” Schlotman told the newspaper. “That logo just did not capture the image portrayed in the school.”
The school’s teams will still be called the Rebels. But Instead of Mr. Rebel, with his feathered cap and 19th century-style mustache, the school’s logo will now be a big blue letter B, with “Rebels” inscribed inside it.
The decision brought some blow-back. “We don’t want a new logo,” one woman in the stands at the Rebels’ football opener told WLW TV news. “We want our Mr. Rebel. Why take it away now? They’re taking our statues, they’re taking everything.”
But I found support, too.
“Times change,” my friend Bo, Boone County High Class of ‘74, told me. “You have to consider what a symbol means to other people.”
Mayor Whalen said the decision was the school’s to make, and that it made no sense to argue over a mascot when educating kids, getting them ready for the workplace or for college, should be the focus.
Still, she acknowledged that issues we may have been blind to growing up, when everybody looked like everybody else, were easier to see in a changing Florence.
The city is still 87 percent white – and Boone County went 68 percent for Republican Donald Trump last year – but there’s a growing number of Latinos, African-Americans and Asians moving to Florence.
“I guess there’s a learning curve that comes with diversity,” the mayor said, “that maybe I didn’t recognize as a child because I wasn’t exposed to it.”
I had only to look at my own family to see that the Florence area is no longer encased in the white bubble I once knew.
Two of my brothers and their wives adopted children from overseas – Liam from China, Bella from Guatemala – who are now in their teens. And another brother, Terry, has been happily married to wife Lorna, an African-American woman, since 1982.
For this article, Lorna, who grew up in Cincinnati, reminded me of the time she first came to my parents’ home in Florence. A neighbor called to ask who that black woman was he saw entering our house.
“It’s a friend of Terry’s,” I told the caller, then hung up, embarrassed at the indignity to her and still embarrassed that I didn’t say she was “Terry’s girlfriend.”
Still, Lorna said it’s been good living in Florence all these years, with no stares like the kind she and Terry used to get when they were first married and living 100 miles away in Louisville.
‘A quiet kid’
On my last day of vacation, before driving back to Charlotte, I found Mistflower Lane, the quiet street where Fields grew up, with a row of condos on one side and single-car garages on the other.
The residents I stopped to talk with – including a guy working on his car and a woman walking her dogs – had moved in after Fields and his mother relocated to the Toledo area.
I did get to talk to Adolph Dunsing, 90, a former neighbor who told me the Fields he knew in Florence was a quiet kid.
“And to me, it looked like he was lonely,” Dunsing said. “We have a swimming pool in the complex. Minors were not allowed unless they were with an adult. I’d just see him at the gate, gazing at the pool, looking like he he would love to go swimming.”
Fields’ father had died in a car crash before he was born. One of his grandfathers had killed his wife and then himself. And Fields’ mother, an IT specialist, had to rely on a wheelchair after a separate car accident.
Still, getting dealt a bad hand in life is no excuse to become a hate-monger.
“I don't know the young man,” Mayor Whalen told me. “I don't know his family. I don't know his background. I don't know his history. I don't know his influences. But wherever he grew up or whatever his life was, the choices he made were his.”
In the America white supremacists like Fields want, there’s no place for my sister-in-law Lorna or for my other brothers’ kids, Liam and Bella.
Ironically, Fields grew up in a more diverse Florence than I did.
He may have cursed that. But, as I drove out of town on Dixie Highway, I celebrated my changing hometown.