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In rural Massachusetts, racial injustice persists despite big BLM turnout

This summer, thousands of residents showed up for the Black Lives Matter protests in Great Barrington, Massachusetts -- a small town of less than 7,000 people. NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green, who grew up there, reports on how Black people in the progressive town are still facing racial discrimination.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The recent Grand Jury decision in the killing of Breonna Taylor focuses attention once again on racial justice. It's an issue being debated not just in cities, but also in smaller rural communities, where Black people are an isolated minority.

    This summer, a thousand people showed up for a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Great Barrington, Massachusetts– a town of less than 7000.

    But despite the big turnout, Black people in the politically progressive region say they're still struggling with equitable treatment and representation.

    NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green, who grew up in the area, went back to his small town roots to learn more.

  • Zachary Green:

    39-year-old Regi Wingo lives in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. It's quintessential New England: quaint, very beautiful, and very white—about 92 percent of the 125,000 residents here, to be precise. Wingo works for the Elizabeth Freeman Center, which offers services to domestic violence survivors. He manages their work in Great Barrington, the town where he grew up.

  • Regi Wingo:

    Growing up around here was complicated. You sort of, like, as a person of color in an area like this that's predominantly white, you have to have, like, a different set of survival skills almost, like, socially. And I think the first time I really noticed that, like, it mattered at all was, like, in fourth grade, you know, like, we're at recess and I, like, get in a fight with a kid over, like, kickball or something totally ridiculous. And you know, he called me a nigger. That's when I sat down and had, like, the first talk, like, with my parents about, like, how some people are racist and, like, that is a fact.

  • Zachary Green:

    Black people make up only a little more than 3.5 percent of the population in the Berkshires. But the county has been home to some significant figures in Black history. Wingo's organization is the namesake of Elizabeth Freeman, the first enslaved person to win her freedom under the Massachusetts State Constitution. Her case in 1780 led to abolition throughout the state. The civil rights activist and NAACP co-founder, W.E.B. DuBois was born and raised in the Berkshires. And while the Black community here is small, it has had periods of greater visibility.

  • Dennis Powell:

    Between the '60s and '70s there was a lot more diversity in the schools. City hall was more diverse. So there was more presence.

  • Zachary Green:

    Dennis Powell is the president of the NAACP's Berkshire County branch. He grew up in Pittsfield, Berkshire County's largest city.

  • Dennis Powell:

    Even the relationship with the police was completely different. I mean walking home from the Boy's Club, I always hoped that I would run into a police officer, 'cause I felt safe. Police officers knew our name. They knew our parents' names.

  • Zachary Green:

    But many Black people in the Berkshires still struggle more than their white neighbors. About 36 percent of Black residents here live in poverty, compared to about 10 percent of the white population. That economic divide exacerbates the feeling, shared by many, of being unseen.

  • Zachary Green:

    What are some of the biggest issues that you hear about from Black and Brown communities here in the Berkshires?

  • Gwendolyn VanSant:

    Mainly, it's about the invisibility of the African-American community in our county in certain spaces, right?

  • Zachary Green:

    Gwendolyn VanSant is the CEO and founder of Multicultural BRIDGE. Her organization works with local businesses, financial, and cultural institutions to help increase minority representation in the Berkshires. One of her clients is the Mount, home of the author Edith Wharton. We spoke with her there.

  • Gwendolyn VanSant:

    Even if an organization has been able to integrate African-Americans at some level, they're not at leadership levels of any of our, you know, larger organizations that you'd find in any community.

  • Zachary Green:

    Dennis Powell who helped to pass an affirmative action ordinance in Pittsfield says achieving prominence as a Black person in the Berkshires can be an uphill struggle.

  • Dennis Powell:

    This young lady who had graduated top of her teaching class had been substituting. She applied for a teaching position that opened up. But they gave the position to a white male, 'cause he had ten years' experience. And we said, "No, Affirmative Action is not based on experience. It's based on qualifications. She is of color, so that becomes the role model for so many of our kids. If she could be a substitute, she can be a teacher." And they gave her the job.

  • Gwendolyn VanSant:

    People sort of identify Central Berkshire, Pittsfield, with having people of color. And then, so programs, if there are any, get concentrated there. And I'm saying, "Well, what about the children that are one or two of them in a grade or a classroom, their needs are actually more significant in a lot of ways." And so those 10 percent, you know, populations need attention and need support and resources, which has been a challenge for my organization, because if you apply for a grant, I can't compete with Boston, with numbers. But the actual need in a community might be really greater in some ways 'cause there isn't, there isn't community around them to support them and create safety that they need.

  • Zachary Green:

    20-year old college student Dorree Ndooki says she's experienced that need for community. She moved to the Berkshires from Tanzania when she was seven.

  • Zachary Green:

    Do you remember what it was like for you going from an environment where everybody shared the same skin color as you to going to one where almost no one did?

  • Dorree Ndooki:

    I think it's the first thing I noticed in every room I walked in or in any community that I was going to be a part of. The only time my Blackness was really recognized was when white people really felt like they had no idea about certain subjects. And so people would come to me as the only Black person as their reference or as their, you know, source of knowledge.

  • Zachary Green:

    Despite experiences like this, the Berkshires are still considered a very progressive place. But since the killing of George Floyd in May, there have been increased signs of racial polarization here. This summer, a Black Lives Matter sign in one Berkshire town was defaced with hate speech. For Dorree Ndooki, it's been a particularly upsetting time.

  • Dorree Ndooki:

    I've just been so angry and frustrated, because it just seems like there's no end. And when you can't really see an end, it's hard to see or figure out how you can be useful in, you know, preventing it, or for helping other people. So that's been the hardest, I think.

  • Zachary Green:

    Ndooki decided to take action in her own way. With the help of a local youth organization, the Railroad Street Youth Project, she was able to put up a mural commemorating the Black Lives Matter movement in her home town of Great Barrington.

  • Doree Ndooki:

    I think what was fantastic about the protest was that so many people showed up. But I think for a lotta people that came, that was like, "Okay, that was my one thing of social justice. Like, we're done." And so I wanted to have something that would have a long-lasting effect in Great Barrington, but is for the movement. And, so, that's where the mural came to be.

  • Zachary Green:

    In another progressive win, this month Great Barrington's town council decided to rename its middle school after W.E.B. DuBois. But Regi Wingo is skeptical about how much even a liberal place like the Berkshires can really change.

  • Regi Wingo:

    There's a lot of handed-down generational racism or bigotry, that, like, sort of is, like, the underpinning of the Berkshires. Strangely enough, like, one of the kids I used to have a huge problem with growing up, one of the kids my daughter had a problem with, I came to find out is the son of this dude. No one is born intrinsically racist, right. You can tell exactly what is going on with parents by how their children act.

  • Zachary Green:

    And Dorree Ndooki isn't sure the Berkshires is a place she would want to live long term.

  • Zachary Green:

    Can you picture yourself ever setting down roots here in the Berkshires, coming back and moving here after you're done with college?

  • Dorree Ndooki:

    I would like to say that I would. But I just, it's very frustrating always being the only Black person or, you know, not having a lot of Black friends in the area to have a sort of community. So I would move back if that happened.

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