Being Black in a Small Town
What's it like to be a minority in an overwhelmingly white community?
by Julie Halpert
Published in September, 2019
When Dwight Brown and Karen Thomas-Brown needed to relocate from Farmington Hills to be closer to Dwight's new electrical engineering job in Jackson, the Jamaica natives considered houses in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. They liked the cities' racial diversity, but Ann Arbor was expensive, and they were concerned about the caliber of the Ypsilanti schools.
Saline was equidistant between their jobs (Karen is an associate professor at the U-M Dearborn) and they found an ample house with a roomy backyard for far less than they'd have paid in Ann Arbor. And the schools were excellent.
They are also overwhelmingly white--just 2 percent of the students in the Saline schools are African American. But Karen was wowed when she interviewed the principal of the elementary school their child would be attending, so they went ahead and purchased the home in 2013. Karen says she was accustomed to advocating for herself and her children--now thirteen and six--and felt they could handle whatever adversity came their way.
But sitting in their living room overlooking a grassy lot across the street, the couple say it hasn't always been easy. When their older son was in second grade, Karen says, his teacher placed him in a lower-level reading group without assessing him. "She made assumptions," says Karen. When Karen pointed out that he read comfortably with a reading buddy who was placed at an advanced level, the teacher moved him up. In fourth grade, he complained that his teacher consistently yelled at him and another black student. Karen notes these situations as exceptions and calls most of their children's teachers "fantastic" and culturally sensitive.
Two years later, when he was practicing with his sixth-grade football team, someone drove by and shouted the "N" word. Though everyone heard the racial slur, Dwight says, "the coach said nothing."
The family is staying put, because they've been extremely impressed with the school system. "We have the skills and abilities to navigate the schools so
the kids can be successful," Karen says. "I won't walk away from an excellent school district just because you don't like the color of my skin."
According to the 2017 American Community Survey, fewer than 1 percent of the residents of Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline are black. As community leaders grow concerned about the perception that they're not welcoming to people of color, a variety of initiatives are underway to help promote diversity and inclusion.
Dexter's founder, Samuel Dexter, was a staunch abolitionist and the stately Gordon Hall, which he built, was most likely a stop on the underground railroad. But city trustee Paul Cousins recalls that in the late 1970s, an African American basketball coach at Dexter High was stopped twice by police and asked what he was doing in Dexter. In the early 1990s, a white teacher told Cousins that a janitor offered to walk her to her car because he'd seen a black man in it. She told the janitor, "Thanks. That's my husband."
"That was definitely the culture," Cousins says. Though the town is not like that anymore, he suspects its reputation and high housing costs have contributed to keeping it overwhelmingly white.
Rebecca Groeb, cultural arts specialist and theater manager at the Saline Area schools, says people recognize the lack of African Americans residents, but "are super sensitive" about discussing it. Groeb grew up in Saline, but moved to New York City after college "because I was curious about the rest of the larger world and meeting people who were different than myself." Now that she's back in her hometown, she sees how a lack of minority students makes it difficult to consider certain artistic projects.
One student suggested staging the musical Hairspray, despite the obvious obstacle: a lack of African Americans to play pivotal roles. "It doesn't occur to them right away," Groeb says.
For Ryann Felton, twenty-two, the memories of being one of the few African Americans in her Saline classes are still fresh. In kindergarten, she was called the "N" word by classmates; others said her skin "looked like poop." But even then, she says, the school addressed the incidents immediately: the girls had to write her a card and explain why what they did was wrong.
"If I had to do it again, I wouldn't change a thing," Felton says. "It made me realize my place in the world and taught me how to reach out to others who feel different or misplaced. I had to learn how to advocate for myself--which is a great life skill--and be comfortable in my own skin."
Dominic Dorset, who is nineteen and biracial, emails that he never felt out of place in Saline, where he's lived since he was four years old. It was only when he headed to the U-M last year and was "suddenly surrounded by many people of color" that he really connected to his African heritage.
Though he appreciates Saline as a safe and family-friendly place, Dorset writes, he would like to see people "be aware of what you are not being exposed to--and that is perspective" about other people's lives.
Saline mayor Brian Marl acknowledges that there was a time when "everyone in town had a German surname. If you weren't part of that ethnicity, I can see why this would appear to be an off-putting place."
But, he adds, "that's an image I've worked really hard to change." He's made it a goal to communicate that Saline is a welcoming community that embraces people of different backgrounds, races, and perspectives. Seeing job creation as a path to increased diversity, he's encouraged international companies with diverse workforces to locate there.
The minority experience in white communities came to the forefront at a May meeting of the Dexter Forum. Ed Francis, an African American who has lived in Dexter since 2005 and is a manager at a wine store in Dundee, described a recent incident in the parking lot at Cabela's. A white man wearing a holster stared at him and put his hand on the holster. Francis couldn't see what was in it, but it seemed like he was threatening to draw a weapon.
"No one at our meetings has ever talked about race," says John Hansen, one of the forum's organizers. But after Francis spoke, he says, road commissioner Doug Fuller, who is white, described how when he was conducting a road inspection in Manchester with a black road commissioner, they were confronted by two white men holding guns.
Francis and his wife moved to Dexter in 2005 to be closer to her job. He characterizes his rare racist encounters there as "microaggressive" and "accidental"--like the person who told him that he's the whitest black person they know. Other white people told him that's because he's lived in Europe and speaks other languages--as if only white people did those things.
Chelsea activist Joanne Ladio says that historically, there have been discriminatory attitudes in her community as well. But the founding member of One World, One Family, which promotes diversity, says more people in Chelsea are supporting their cause in recent years.
"We want to ensure any racist issues are addressed," says Ladio, and "to let folks know it's a great small town to be a part of."
In 1869, a black barber, Ben Roper, opened a shop in Dexter. Historical society treasurer Carol Jones says he served white customers and his wife, Mary, carried on the business after his death. Jones says records also show a black farmer in Webster Twp.
But the county's small towns never developed significant black populations. In contrast, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti had "small but vibrant and internally reliant" black communities in the nineteenth century, emails Ronald Woods, an EMU professor of Africology and African American Studies.
Those were soon hemmed in by deed restrictions prohibiting the sale of homes to blacks. They were "all over Washtenaw County" by the 1920s, says county clerk and register of deeds Larry Kestenbaum. There's even one on the deed to the Observer's Ann Arbor office.
But while new subdivisions barred nonwhite residents, the old black neighborhoods in Ann Arbor and Ypsi gradually expanded to house workers drawn by the growing auto industry and construction on the U-M and EMU campuses. Smaller towns, Woods suspects, lacked those job-generating engines.
The U.S. Supreme Court declared deed restrictions unenforceable in 1948, and twenty years later, the federal Fair Housing Act made discrimination illegal. But by then, the county's racial divide was set.
African Americans Tamala Bell and Lequel Moore, who live in Ypsilanti, say they are happy to frequent Saline's new Emagine theater or the town's restaurants. But given the town's demographics, neither would want to live there.
Moore, a social worker, says in an overwhelmingly white community, "you do wonder how you'll be viewed in a store and [whether] they will watch you closer or follow you around."
"I didn't feel it would be welcoming," says Bell, an Ann Arbor teacher. "The history of the lack of diversity makes me feel it would not be a place that would appreciate us if my husband and I decided to buy a home there."
Still, just because a town is more diverse doesn't mean minorities always feel welcome. Margaret Hicken, an assistant professor at the U-M Institute of Social Research, says that Ann Arbor faces many of the same issues. She has been involved in building a diverse group of scholars there and says it's taken work, since the U-M has a reputation for not being a very inclusive place.
In Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline, leaders are sending out a positive message. Chelsea mayor Melissa Johnson says hers strives to be a welcoming community. In 2016, it adopted a nondiscrimination ordinance broader than state law, including a human rights commission.
"We're aware the community here is primarily white, which makes the school district primarily white," says Chelsea School District superintendent Julie Helber. "But we want to ensure our students have the information they need historically and culturally, so when they leave Chelsea, they can apply their skills and abilities to other communities." That includes programs bringing together singers and instrumentalists from Chelsea High with choirs from Dearborn's Fordson High and the National Arab Orchestra for performances in each community.
Dexter superintendent Chris Timmis also is working to increase students' exposure to people of all cultures. "We have been purposeful in social justice and equity work," he says, "not focusing on just race, but on people."
This year, second graders at Anchor Elementary School in Dexter will partner with students in an Ypsilanti classroom through a "book swap" organized by the Children's Literacy Network. The classrooms will exchange videos and then meet at the end of the school year.
"We want to do more here at the schools to show students that even though we're all different, we have similarities," says Anchor principal Craig McCalla. "We all need to respect and take care of and support each other."
Saline Area Schools superintendent Scot Graden says that in his eleven years on the job, he's seen more minorities moving to the district and the community becoming more diverse--largely, he suspects, because the strong schools are drawing families of all ethnicities. But each year he encounters students at the elementary school level using racial slurs. "We deal with it severely and ensure we won't stand for it," he says.
Saline's school board recently established a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee following an incident when a black student who had just moved to Saline was called the "N" word.
Karen Thomas-Brown, whose academic specialty is diversity and inclusion, doubts the committee will make much difference. "It feels like a political checkbox," she says. "It doesn't fix the problem."
But another black parent, Channon Washington, agreed to serve on the committee. "When you're a black kid in America, it's not if you're going to be called the 'N' word, it's when," Washington says. Last fall, it happened to her own son at a school football game.
As long as such incidents happen, "it's critical that the school system be prepared and discuss an appropriate response," Washington says. And it comforts her to know "that someone is paying attention to what it will be like for my kids to be in this school."
Washington's family moved to Saline three years ago when her husband, Saddi Washington, took a job as an assistant U-M men's basketball coach. Since he works for a celebrated institution and is highly identifiable, the family was warmly welcomed.
Yet when she's walking around town without white friends, or without her husband in his maize-and-blue attire, Washington feels like people are staring.
"My heart races a bit," she says. "Do I feel it's my town? The answer is no."
But she doesn't regret her family's decision to move there. "As many bad things have happened to my son and other kids of color, the response has always been one of support and affirmation in this community," Washington says. "I chose to be here, and I choose to stay here."
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