In the devastation after Hurricane Katrina, this Minnesota story appeared to epitomize how disasters bring out the best in people.
Stunned by the evacuees’ desperation, a white Montevideo family of five opened its hearts and home to an impoverished, three-generation black family of eight from Louisiana.
The Singleton family—a mother, grandmother and six children who had never left the South—arrived in September to a red-carpet welcome in the western Minnesota city of 5,300 residents. But the best of intentions weren’t enough to bridge differences in background and the strain of having 13 under one roof.
Barely a month after arriving in Montevideo, Nicole and Dorothy (Dot) Singleton, the mother and grandmother of the Louisiana family, broke ties with their hosts, Tracey and Tanya Thornbury, and moved to the Twin Cities.
In the first few weeks, the newness of the situation and the excitement of having the town rally around them helped things run smoothly. Donations of clothes, toys, furniture and money arrived every day for a time.
At night, Ryan Thornbury, 12, and Esaw Singleton, 11, would sneak out of bed and gleefully play video games.
But goodwill gave way to tension.
About a week after the Singleton kids arrived, there was a dispute over Tanya’s computer.
Having given up her office so Dot could have a bedroom, Tanya had tucked her desktop away in the laundry room so she’d have space of her own to cruise eBay, the online auction site.
After finding that the area didn’t have radio stations playing the hip hop and rap that they liked, Nicole and Helen wanted to download music from the Internet. Tanya said no, partly to protect the computer from viruses and partly to preserve a teeny area of private space. Nicole and Helen didn’t understand.
In the crowded house, which has five bedrooms but limited space in the living room and dining room, tensions built.
There were charges that the Singletons weren’t doing their fair share of the chores. There were differences over what types of movies the kids could watch.
Then there were letters from Nicole’s boyfriend, in jail for felony burglary in Louisiana. The Thornburys worried that the boyfriend would get out on parole and come to Montevideo, so they read the letters.
Things came to a head on Oct. 16 when Montevideo police were called in to check out a domestic situation.
On that night, Tracey and Dot acknowledge, Dot had been drinking. The women got into an argument about the donated money. Tracey took offense, feeling that Dot was implying that the Thornburys weren’t sharing the money.
The women said that they yelled at each other and that Dot encouraged 16-year-old Brittany to begin hitting Tracey.
After getting Brittany under control, Tracey angrily searched Dot’s room. She found an odd-shaped cigarette, thought it was marijuana and called police, who determined it was a regular cigarette.
Dot acknowledges that she did start drinking again in the Thornburys’ home.
The domestic violence that happened also was the result of strain, she said. “It just had got to that point. And the Devil, he just got in there between everybody with a match and set things off.”