The Life of Brian Herron

Brian Herron has battled racism, hatred, and self-doubt. But none of that prepared him for the Minneapolis city council.

Meanwhile, he was getting angry himself. Having graduated from Washburn High School, he enrolled at historically black Clark Atlanta University in Georgia; he quit after two years and came back to Minneapolis to marry a young woman who had a child from a previous relationship and was pregnant with his daughter Nicole. The couple later had a son, Brian Jr.

Herron is vague about the specifics but says that during this time of his life he hurt a lot of people, many of them "strangers who didn't deserve what I did." Hennepin County courts have no records of anything but traffic violations under his name, but he says that at 22 he spent a night in jail on assault charges that were eventually dismissed. Herron says he was arrested after instigating a fist fight with a group of young white men who had been taunting him and his friends.

"There was a time when I had a deep-seated hatred for white people," he says. "My sick mind had made me hateful to white people. I used to get angry when someone would say something to me."

Wing Young Huie

For years after he left college, Herron drifted from job to job, working briefly for firms like North Star Steel, where he was the only African American in the billet-handling department, feeding hot steel into giant machines. "Most of the guys weren't friendly; they were very hard-core white men," he says. "They were badasses and we got along just fine after a while." Eventually he was sidelined by an injury.

After his recovery, someone at Zion told Herron about an open job at Sperry Corp., the former defense contractor and precursor to Unisys. He ended up as a computer operator and, as he puts it, "really began to discover I had a brain." He was quickly promoted to a different department where he tested PCs.

Things weren't going so well at home, however. His marriage was breaking up, and the friction following the separation from his wife (they didn't actually divorce for 10 years) along with a job transfer to Houston kept him from seeing much of the kids. "That started my downhill spiral," he says. "I missed my kids; my life was just not right. I was still working long hours, but it got to a point where my boss was accusing me of things I hadn't done. I ended up quitting. I thought I could just go get another job."

During the next year--a time he spent without any job prospects or unemployment benefits--Herron's mind often became clouded with what he calls "the madness." Then 32, he had constant thoughts of illicit ways out of his jam. He tried crack cocaine once ("I inhaled," he quips now). "I climbed in and out of garbage cans, collecting cans. I would sell the cans and put gas in the car and go look for a job. And then the madness would come. I would think, 'You could sell drugs, you could stop that lady with the purse.' Every time I heard voices, I would stop at the nearest church. I wanted to be a good father, and I wanted my parents to be proud of me. I did a lot of soul-searching and agonizing. I thought I'd end up dead or in jail."

One day, the madness raging in his brain, Herron cruised past Pleasant Greater Baptist Church in one of Houston's dilapidated neighborhoods. If he could get inside and pray, he thought, maybe he could vanquish the menacing thoughts. "I ran to the door. It was locked. I kept trying doors, but they were all locked. I said, 'God, have I been so bad you'd lock me out?'" It was, he was sure, the end.

As he prepared to drive off, he noticed a back door he hadn't tried. It opened into the sanctuary. "I lay there on the floor with my face pressed into the carpet. I was crying and pleading." He asked God what he wanted of him.

Instead of a celestial response came a tap on the shoulder from an old man who asked what was wrong. Herron says he just kept blubbering. "The man looked at me and said, 'Son, stop running. God has something that he wants you to do, and you're not going to have any peace until you do it.' Then he said, 'How did you get in here?' And I said, 'Through that door.' And he said, 'I just used my key to come through that door.'"

Shortly after that, Herron got a job dismantling a steel mill. The three black men already on the job were cowed by the foreman, he says; they would shuffle and call every white man "boss man."

One day the supervisor came up to him: "Boy, get your ass over there and..." Herron didn't hear the rest of the instructions. "I said, 'Sir, I'll do whatever you want me to do, but I'm not your child. My name is Brian Herron and all you have to do is tell me what you want.' He said, 'Brian, would you go over there and help so-and-so,' and then he gave me a dollar raise." Herron lasted longer on that job than the foreman, not leaving until the mill had been completely disassembled.

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