(CNN) — The words “welcome to Leith” are etched on two wooden boards, nailed to a pair of poles stuck in the grassy North Dakota prairie. With wildflowers immediately to the front, a dirt road yards away and a few stray buildings and trees in the distance, the sign seems appropriately simple for the tiny town.
Yet in the last few weeks, Leith has become anything but simple.
Paul Craig Cobb wants to transform the town 70 miles southwest of Bismarck into a community that mirrors his white supremacist views. He did so quietly at first, asking residents whether their land was for sale. But recent reports from The New York Times and the Southern Poverty Law Center exposed his mission and turned it into a national story.
In an interview with The New York Times, Cobb said he hoped his plans in Leith would “excite” white people and “give them confidence because we’re being deracinated in our own country.”
“We’ve been very, very tolerant about these major sociological changes,” he said, according to the paper.
Stuck in the middle is Leith’s lone black resident, Bobby Harper. He’s known Leith as a nice, peaceful place where “everybody got along, we basically could leave our doors unlocked, and there was no fear that nobody wanting to harm us.”
Thanks to Cobb, Harper now feels under threat, and he said his townsfolk do, too.
“If he can’t love his fellow man, then we ask God to help him with something,” Harper said Friday about Cobb. “Because I’m not very happy, and the people in this town aren’t very happy.”
Leith is part of Grant County, which according to its official website is North Dakota’s third largest county by land mass at more than 1 million acres. While the communities once buzzed with activity from nearby railroads, nowadays it’s decidedly more quiet.
That certainly was true of Leith. The U.S. Census bureau says it has a population of 16 people, though other estimates run higher — though not beyond 25 residents.
Among them is Harper’s wife, Sherrill. Her mother grew up in Leith and, today, she and her husband call it home.
“I have roots in this town,” she told CNN’s John Berman on Friday night, alongside Bobby. “I have a reason to be here.”
Sherill Harper recalls running into Cobb last yearand he asked her if she had property for sale. She said no.
Bobby Harper said Cobb asked him the same question.
“He has the audacity to even ask me for information to buy land, and his intentions were to harm my way of life?” he said. “… That’s very, very uncomfortable for me.”
How successful was Cobb, who is wanted in Canada on hate speech charges, in buying up the town? The Harpers say that residents have been overwhelmingly supportive of them.
But the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that white nationalist April Gaede and her husband claimed, on an online message board, to haveproperty in the town. So, too, has Jeff Schoep — commander of the Nationalist Socialist Movement, which he describes as the “largest pro-white organization” in the United States “involved in the struggle for white civil rights.”
In an open letter to Leith Mayor Ryan Schock, Schoep announced that he and members of his group would be heading to Leith on September 22 and 23 with “a simple message that Craig Cobb will NOT be ousted from the community.”
“Craig is not breaking any laws or ordinances, and has a right to reside in Leith just as any other American does,” Schoep writes, just before mentioning how he owns an old meat packing/creamery building in town.
He adds later, “If anything, you should see this for what it is, a chance at revitalizing a community.”
These comments have been echoed on white nationalist online message boards such as WhiteNations.com and Stormfront. Posters there have applauded Cobb for “doing a great job” and jibing critics as “laughable, pathetic what this country has come to.”
The Harpers have felt their wrath, including a letter they received Friday that read, in part: “I want you to leave your “husband” and go join Mr. Cobb’s movement. Do it now! Separation of the races forever!”
The target of that missive, Sherrill Harper, says that’s just one of many she’s received calling her a “filthy, race-mixing white woman” and “pea-brained.”
“It made me afraid,” she said. “If his goal is to just have only white people here, where do my husband and I go?”
Sherrill has nothing but kind words for her neighbors, but that doesn’t mean she knows what to do or how this story will end.
She admits, “I think we’re unsure as to what to do. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Cobb said his friends have bought or acquired some of his plots, but he does now know when they will move to the town.
By Greg Botelho