By Don Keelan
Vermont has joined the rest of the nation in celebrating Black History Month. It comes at a time when much had been mentioned that racism exists in Vermont. I really don’t see this and, at the same time, with a state population of over 625,000, I am not blind to the fact that there very well might be residents who practice racism.
One reason it is difficult for me, and I am sure for others of my generation (World War II), is that we had witnessed segregation, discrimination, riots, the civil rights movement and all the positive achievements that followed. Personally, I had seen segregation in the military, workplace, and in public places — at times subtle, other times blatant.
I have previously mentioned in my columns how difficult it was for me to understand, while traveling to Camp David to protect President Eisenhower at his retreat, the sight of our four black Marines not being able to get off the Marine Corps bus at a diner in Frederick, MD. “Whites Only” read the sign.
Nor was it any better for the black Marines when our platoon was chosen to go to southern cities to perform the Silent Drill — the South did not permit a “mixed group” to perform in public.
That was in the late 1950s, and it was not much improved in the mid ’60s. Then, I was working for one of the Big Eight public accounting firms, Arthur Andersen, in New York City. I was assigned to an audit client in Newport News, Virginia — the ship-building company of some 25,000 employees at the one location. Segregation was in full view: The “Negroes” had their own lunch places, bathrooms, drinking fountains and job assignments. The latter were menial ones — never a black welder, machinist, or engineer.
The late 1960s brought much of this to an end with the killing of Rev. Dr. King and the riots across every major American city. What I had witnessed was the end of segregation and discrimination of black Americans from participation in the workplace, housing, education, sports and public transportation.
There has been a great deal of progress made since the 1960s in eliminating discrimination among people of color, physical challenges and sexual orientation. It is not complete, and indeed, a work in progress. However, the accusation that racism is alive and well in Vermont is an inflammatory statement and only leads to create divisiveness among those of us who harbor no such thoughts.
And the accusations and perceptions come in subtle ways. I was recently told by an attorney friend of mine — a politically polar opposite — that he was surprised that my wife and I had entertained 36 middle-schoolers from Harlem, South Bronx and Brooklyn at our home in Arlington. What had taken him back was that last summer was our 20th year having the campers stay overnight on our property, nearly 800 children over two decades.
When I asked why he felt as he did, his response was that I was a member of the Republican Party and that the party is racist. I told him he was paying too much attention to Gov. Howard Dean and he should look into what President Eisenhower had done in 1953 regarding his selecting Earl Warren as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (Brown v. The Board of Education). Also, it had taken great courage on the part of the president in September 1957 to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to allow a black girl to go to what was a segregated school. Republicans are not racists.
The racism that might exist in Vermont should be identified and eliminated through education and good will, not through the harboring of preconceived notions.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.