Actions to support ‘Black Lives Matter’ have taken place recently in small towns in Massachusetts.
ATHOL, Massachusetts — A rejuvenated movement for racial justice is sweeping the nation, and it has arrived somewhat surprisingly in the area where I live, a little-known section of North Central Massachusetts where very few people of color reside.
Rallies and vigils to support “Black Lives Matter” and affirm a belief in diversity and racial justice have taken place recently in the towns of Athol (population 11,500) and Orange (population 7,500), where no more than one percent of the people are Black (2010 census).
In Warwick, Massachusetts (population 780), just north of Orange, “Black Lives Matter” signs can be seen outside several homes and in front of the town’s Trinitarian Congregational Church. That church’s minister, Rev. Dan Dibble, was one of many prominent community members attending a recent outdoor rally in Athol that I was pleased to join with several of my friends. Everyone was wearing masks, by the way.
There have apparently been no reported incidents of police brutality locally.
Interestingly, while the region overall voted about 50-50 in the Trump-Clinton 2016 election, overt racism is rarely expressed. There have apparently been no reported incidents of police brutality locally, but the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have shown up on signs at these gatherings and what’s going on here is clearly linked to the national movement. (Floyd was the man murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis, and Taylor was killed by police during a “no knock” warrant action in Louisville, Kentucky.)
In Orange, activists have faithfully gathered for an hour each Saturday morning with “Black Lives Matter” signs, and the response has been mostly positive.
Though white liberals in this region are responsible for some of the anti-racism presence that has emerged, it was the leadership of a small number of young Black residents of Athol that had the greatest impact.
‘Bring your family and friends and come take
a knee with us.’
It started in early June with a Facebook announcement by Raheim Moore and Joseph Martinez, both 20-something Black men who live in Athol. The announcement said, “Bring your family and friends and come take a knee with us for Black lives and to honor the memory of Mr. Floyd.”
I was not aware of this event and thus did not attend, but I was startled when I saw on Facebook the photo of about two dozen kneeling people in front of the Athol Police Station. The photo was taken by Mitchell Grosky, a retired schoolteacher and principal (also a professional photographer). I am sharing here on The Rag Blog that photo and Mitchell’s Facebook narrative (edited):
The two major speakers were friends of one another from Athol — Raheim Moore and Joseph Martinez. Both had grown up in New York, but have now made their home in Athol. They spoke on the sidewalk for a few minutes before the event began with Athol Police Chief Craig Lundgren and Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera. The conversation was cordial and respectful as each man spoke of his feelings about the events of this past week [following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis]. I remember interjecting something about the fact that while I understand how serious the situation is and that we all wanted to work together to improve the lives of all people of color, we were, nevertheless, proud of the work of our local police department.
Then came the actual event, and it truly was a peaceful protest. There was strong emotion from both Mr. Moore and Mr. Martinez, as they spoke about the racism that they and their friends have been subjected to during their lives, but there were no attacks on the police in Athol. Both men spoke with great passion, and we could definitely feel their pain at any number of moments during their speeches….
Raheim Moore: ‘I get harassed because I’m Black — because I’m different, and other people get harassed because they’re Black — because they’re different — for no reason…. I’m tired of every time I leave my house, I’m scared and wonder if I’m going to make it back home! This is not fair! People see us standing here like this . . . they’re never going to forget this. We stand together, and we’re proud together and we’re going to be humans together . . . Remember, from this day forth that we are all one person, one voice, and we speak all together. We’re no longer being quiet on topics like this. We all come together, no matter what it is. Our voice is one, and we will be heard.’
Joseph Martinez: ‘Whether or not you like what we’re doing, that means that you heard us; that means that you saw us; that means that you see what we’re doing and what we’re all about, and you see that we’re really not going to be quiet. I appreciate yet again our chiefs — both departments both fire and police. I want everybody to hear our words. I want everybody to feel our pain, and I want everybody to see that we’re not going to sit back and be quiet.’
Jennifer Gordon, Executive Director of the YMCA: “I heard what these fine young gentlemen are trying to do today, and I am so proud that they are a part of this community. You know, it breaks my heart…that someone says you don’t belong here in this community. . . You know what? Athol is one of the strongest communities I know where people band together to make a change, and that’s what this is about — making a change and making a difference. You have a whole community behind you.”
In speaking with Jennifer after the event had concluded, she informed me that the work of the Y revolves around social injustice, health disparities and racial inequalities.
Since they asked if anyone else wanted to speak, I took advantage of the offer to step out of my role as a photojournalist to speak to the crowd, to thank them for coming and to say the following: “I think all of us need to regard ourselves — no matter our color, no matter our religion — as brothers and sisters. It is absolutely outrageous that some people judge other people by the amount of melanin in their skin, that makes it lighter or darker. As Dr. King said, we have to judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. And we have certainly seen these two young men today show what their character is as they work toward greater understanding, toward love among people, toward elimination of hatred, and toward a better society for each and every one of us, including our African-American brothers and sisters and all people of color.”
Two young Black men and the YMCA director created a new organization called SPARK.
The two young Black men along with the YMCA director got together with some others and created a new organization called SPARK — Standing Peacefully Against Racism Knowingly” — which planned to take further action. One of the people who got involved is Jamal Hamilton, an Athol native and member of the town’s fire department, who already was an acquaintance of mine. More about Jamal later in this article.
A few weeks later, on July 25, a second anti-racism gathering was held in Athol. Without very much publicity, this event attracted nearly 100 people, many holding handmade signs. Some included verbiage already well known, such as “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.” As cars drove by, drivers gestured support for the most part, but sometimes an individual shouted out, “All lives matter.”
There are lots of local people who feel actions about racism are simply not necessary here. In response to a Facebook announcement about the July 25 gathering, a woman I know and consider a friend posted this comment (which was typical of those expressing negative views.) She wrote: “Stir and stir and stir…. I don’t believe racism is an issue in Athol. Is there a jerk here and there? Ya, everywhere. Living in this town my entire life, I welcome everyone. There is no color!”
Another woman friend of mine posted this: “This gathering is for positive thoughts! The great majority of people in these towns are not ‘racist.’ But, having very peacefully been at protests/vigils in the last few weeks, trying to spread messages of love and peace, quite a few have ridden past us swearing and tossing up middle fingers. It is here. It may not be you or me, but there are enough people in the area who want life here to be white, straight, and conservative. The rest of us are inclusive.”
There has been no significant ‘backlash’ as well as no reported violence.
In any case, there has been no significant “backlash” as well as no reported violence at either the Orange or Athol protests.
My self-assigned role in the July 25 rally was to help publicize it on Facebook, and I enjoyed attending it, too, with my own message. Coincidental to creation of SPARK, an outdoors organization I’ve been involved with for years, the North Quabbin Trails Association, had launched an effort to include “underserved communities,” so I carried a sign that said “Mother Nature Welcomes Everyone,” with the NQTA website on it. A few signs with rainbow coloring indicated involvement of the LGBTQ+ community.
The printed flyer distributed by SPARK at the rally stated this:
“Through education dialogue, and relationship building, SPARK aims to foster an environment in which differences and diversity are understood and celebrated, so that all residents can unite in making Athol an inclusive and equitable community.”
Athol Daily News reporter Greg Vine took photos and wrote a concise report which was published on the front page of the paper. The following is his article:
Carmen Santa, who sits on the board of SPARK, welcomed attendees by explaining the group was formed because “what we have in common is that we have experienced racism, or witnessed it, in the community and we felt compelled to do something about it.
“That’s not to say that we think everybody in Athol is racist or that Athol is a racist town, but that no place in this country is immune from racism. Like anything else, recognizing that we have a problem is the first step toward recovery. We need to identify the problem, name it, and strip it of its power.
“This is a time for self-reflection and growth,” said board member and Athol Fire Dept. Captain Jamal Hamilton. “This is a time for unity and empathy. This is a time to create measurable, tangible change for the future. The ideas we set forth today will pave the way to a brighter tomorrow.
“Only with clear eyes and open minds will the blindfolds be lifted from our eyes so that we can all emerge from the darkness of ignorance and intolerance, so we can all witness the spark that becomes a beacon of light to provide us with vision. The vision of our future isn’t defined by our differences but by our commonality and principles. It’s time to be on the right side of history, on the bright side of these dark days.”
Among the speakers were State Rep. Susannah Whipps and State Sen. Anne Gobi. “I’ve always been proud to live in this community,” said Whipps. “I want to continue to be proud living in this community.” Motioning to Sen. Gobi, Whipps said, “We would love to be able to legislate away racism, but that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a grassroots effort that all of us need to be part of. “Things are starting to happen,” said Gobi. “Today’s event is just the start of what’s going to happen. Our eyes have been opened over the past several months, and it’s up to us to figure out what we can do to make things better.”
SPARK’s board member Raheim Moore said to applause, “When I say Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t mean anybody else’s live is worth less than ours, it’s just that ours is in danger right now.
“When we speak about diversity, we tend to speak about skin color or culture. But it’s not just that. Diversity to me means “different.” We’re all different. And we need to let people know it’s OK to be around people that aren’t the same as you. Folks, we should feel blessed to live and co-exist as one race of human beings and actually live in peace.”
Joseph Martinez, who also sits on the board, thanked everyone for turning out to support the event and SPARK. “I think if we can start where we live and make that little change,” he said, ‘”I think progressively, over time, all of you can go home and spread this message to your family members. This may just look like a little gathering, but there are a lot of people just sitting at home who do support our message. But all of you coming out today shows that we can make a difference.”
Other speakers included Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski, YMCA Assistant Executive Director Matt Talbot and YMCA Executive Director Jennifer Gordon.
SPARK is planning a cultural celebration in September, but details are still being worked out.
Unlike Moore and Martinez, Jamal Hamilton is well-known in Athol. I first met Jamal and his wife Beth at a dance party at the Honest Weight microbrewery in nearby Orange, which happens to be co-owned by mutual friend Sean Nolan. We had only a brief conversation in that setting, but when I heard about SPARK and his involvement in it, we met again, as Jamal and Beth and their three daughters joined me on the outdoor patio of a local restaurant for late-afternoon drinks and snacks.
I learned that Jamal is not only a captain in the fire department but also was elected by his co-workers as union president and serves on the board of the YMCA. Jamal’s parents came to Athol before he was born — when his father moved from New York City to take a job as a DJ in a local radio station. His mother is from Barbados and his father from Brooklyn, and Jamal prefers to identify as “Black” rather than “African-American.”
He sees the goal of SPARK as educating the populace and promoting unity.
He sees the goal of SPARK as educating the populace and promoting unity, “not to cause a fracture, but to promote a positive vision for the community.” He added, “Lack of knowledge or ignorance” needs to be overcome, “as racism does exist here, whether intentional or unintentional.”
Beth, who is white, stated that she is concerned about the future of their “three Black daughters” and as parents they want to ensure that “bullying is not allowed, that people won’t just stand by.”
This fits directly with the work of a local nonprofit, Quabbin Mediation, which has developed an effective program for training active bystanders. The program “teaches how bystanders can interrupt harm doing and generate positive actions by others. We emphasize that active bystandership does not mean aggression against the harm doer. It means taking responsible action to help people in need, instead of remaining passive and becoming complicit.”
The Hamiltons’ daughters, Maya, 7; Nina, 5; and Rosa, 1, are named for poet Maya Angelou, singer Nina Simone and activist Rosa Parks.
Regarding the July 25 rally, I saw special meaning in the participation of Rep. Whipps, a seventh-generation Athol resident and former Republican turned independent. She told me about a year ago that her main reason for leaving the Republican Party was its failure to condemn the racism exhibited in Charlottesville, Va., at a now infamous right-wing gathering there.
She left the Republican Party because it refused to condemn racism at a right-wing rally.
I moved to this region in 1973, and I can remember a couple of times when I’d come home and say, with mild incredulity, to one of my housemates, “I saw a Black person in Athol today.” Over time, I learned that there have always been some Black people in the region, though few in number.
Discussing these recent events with some friends who are Athol natives, I learned that a few Black boys who came to Athol for a Morgan Memorial summer camp were taken in by local white families and attended Athol High School. That was in the early 1970s, and according to my friends, it was a positive experience for the community.
Going back to the more distant past, the North Quabbin Trails Association has been involved in the conservation of a historic 46-acre property containing a homestead once owned by a freeborn African-American carpenter and sawmill owner, Calvin T. Swan (1779 -1875). The site, in the town of Northfield, is readily accessible from a town road and from the New England National Scenic Trail, about 15 miles from Athol.
Betty Congdon, a member of the Northfield Historical Society, has verified the original Swan deed for the property (acquired by the town) is the exact acreage of the proposed conservation land. In 2004, Congdon presented a research paper on Swan at Boston University’s Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife.
A nine-foot-tall monument to the Calvin T. Swan family rises above nearby graves at Center Cemetery in Northfield, but Congdon said its inscriptions give no hint of the Swans’ lives as freeborn African-Americans in the state’s least populated county. According to Congdon’s research, Swan was active in local and regional anti-slavery organizations.
“There were 98 people of color in Franklin County in 1850,” wrote Congdon in her research paper, adding. “For much of the 1800s, however, the Swans were the only family of African descent in Northfield and their mountaintop neighborhood. Swan was a leader in this community at a time when African Americans generally did not receive the acceptance and respect that he was accorded. His career was remarkable for what he achieved as a craftsman and landowner, and the business ventures he dared to try. The attitudes of his community also played a significant role in what he and his family could accomplish.”
As a white person writing about racism today, I feel comfortable in my consciousness of the need for our nation to work toward equality and understanding. At the same time, I feel the need to learn from people of color and listen to their stories and read their own accounts. This article for The Rag Blog is created with that in mind, along with my desire to share the experience of living in a region where people of color are few in number at the same time that national demographics are changing dramatically.
I’ll be voting in November with considerable enthusiasm for the presidential ticket being finalized as I write: an old white guy much like me, sincerely claiming to support racial equality, and a Black woman who is his running mate and perhaps may become president herself some day.
[Allen Young has lived in rural North Central Massachusetts since 1973 and is an active member of several local environmental organizations. Young worked for Liberation News Service in Washington, D.C., and New York City, from 1967 to 1970. He has been an activist-writer in the New Left and gay liberation movements, including numerous items published in The Rag Blog. Retired since 1999, he was a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol (Mass.) Daily News, and director of community relations for the Athol Memorial Hospital. He is author or editor of 15 books, including his 2018 autobiography, Left, Gay & Green; A Writer’s Life — and a review of this book can be found in The Rag Blog archives.]
- Read more articles by and about Allen Young on The Rag Blog.