Vermont Reads: Bellows Falls Deals With Race Issues

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(Host) Each year VPR collaborates with the Vermont Humanities Council’s statewide reading program, Vermont Reads. As part of this year’s exploration of Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird" we’ll be exploring race in Vermont all this week.

Vermonters pride themselves on being tolerant of differences, more interested in a person’s character than in status, race, or personal beliefs.

But every so often something in the news puts that claim of tolerance in doubt.  In Hartford, a black businessman is mistaken for a burglar and dragged in handcuffs from his home.

An Arlington parent is cited into court for losing his temper at some kids allegedly taunting his adopted African-American daughter.

Is Vermont more prejudiced than we think? VPR’s Susan Keese begins her search for answers in a Bellows Falls barber shop.

(Keese) Mike Aldrich has been cutting hair in Bellows Falls for fifty years.

(Aldrich) ‘Trim your eye brows a little bit? "

(Customer) " If you would please…"

(Keese) For years Aldrich and his card-playing "regulars" have kept tabs on Main Street from Mike’s storefront window.

But an encounter last fall turned the spotlight the other way.

(Aldrich) "I was playing cards here at the table where we’re sitting The fellow was coming up the stairs , he was well-dressed and what not- a black man. .. So he opened the door and asks if the barber’s in. I said, No the barber’s not in, I’m sorry. That was my mistake.’

(Keese) Aldrich says the man left.

(Aldrich) "But then, later while I was cuttin hair, I saw him walk by and look in."

(Keese) Aldrich wishes now he’d told the man that he didn’t know how to cut "black" hair.  He says he’s tried (add "without success? Or "doesn’t know how?")

Soon after, a letter appeared in the local paper from the would-be customer– a out-of-state physician who was thinking about moving to Vermont.

The doctor said his experience with the barber convinced him that Bellows Falls wasn’t a place where he’d want to set up a practice.

The story sparked national press coverage – and an anti-racism protest in the Bellows Falls Square.

Aldrich watched the protest from his shop, bristling at his neighbors’ accusations of prejudice.

(Aldrich) "You don’t even see black people. How can it be prejudiced? Months, a week you might see a black person in town."

(Keese) Curtiss Reed is a black Vermonter and the director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

Reed sees incidents like these as ‘teachable moments’ -opportunities for growth, as a once-monochromatic culture changes into a diverse one.

(Reed) "And what we hope as those incidences take place,  that people take pause and re examine what their assumptions are and what they have inherited out of no fault of their own in terms of attitudes and behaviors."

(Keese)  Thirty-nine year old Curtis Green, who is also African-American, is a parts specialist for a local auto dealer. He hopes the doctor will see beyond his bad first impression.

(Green) " That barber doesn’t represent Bellows Falls Vermont. What represents Bellows Falls Vermont are the people who protested afterwards, who were upset at his actions."

Greene first came to the area from Brooklyn as a 10-year-old fresh air kid.  

He’s stayed close to the families and friends he met during his summers in the area which is one reason he moved to Bellows Falls permanently after college.

(Green) "It’s a white-dominated area but they’ll open their arms to anybody if you give them a chance."

Not that he hasn’t had some bad experiences -But Green says they’ve are small compared to the good things.

Among his own and younger generations, Green says television and music – especially hip hop –have bred an understanding and eagerness to know people of color.

Green is glad to be raising his children here.

(Green) "I am more at ease being up here with my kids than I think I would ever be in Brooklyn. Besides the safety factor, it’s a beautiful place. Whether you hike Fall Mountain or go fishing."

(Keese) He says he likes the fact that people know each other here, that his children have had the same friends since kindergarten – a rainbow of faces, that Green sees as a good thing.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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