NAACP Has First Chapter In Vermont

Monday, July 20, 2015
Burlington — Vermont, one of the whitest states in the country, has its first official branch of the NAACP after more than 100 years.

“It’s time,” said Champlain Area NAACP President Mary Brown-Guillory.

Racially charged incidents both locally and nationally prompted organizers to start the branch, Brown-Guillory said.

People think of the Green Mountains as an inclusive place but injustices happen, she said — a girl called racist names as she walks home from school in a small town, or people facing discrimination when renting or buying a house or a car, or trying to get a job or a haircut.

But the new branch’s meeting last week illustrates its diverse support; Only about a quarter of the 80 attendees were black.

“I believe that the citizens of the Champlain area are saying, ‘Enough is enough. Let me help,’ ” Brown-Guillory said after the meeting. She called it a “great awakening.”

Indeed, the NAACP itself notes that it was founded in 1909 by a group of white liberals in response to the practice of lynching and the 1908 race riot in Springfield, Ill.

Membership has grown in recent years, a change a regional NAACP official attributed to police- and civil rights-related issues.

“Membership and general interest in the NAACP and civil rights advocacy in general tends to wane when ... people feel more comfortable,” said Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, which is in the process of starting two additional branches in the greater Boston area. “And when they feel less comfortable, the interest in the NAACP and civil rights advocacy in general increases.”

Vermont has had expressions of interest over the years but there was not sufficient interest in merit going forward with the chartering process, Cofield said. Norwich University in Northfield, the country’s oldest private military academy, has a student chapter of the NAACP but the Champlain Area NAACP is the state’s first official branch. According to the NAACP, North Dakota is now the only state without an organized unit.

The new Vermont branch seeks to represent immigrants who have recently arrived in Vermont or minorities who have been here for years, Brown-Guillory said. Since 1988, about 7,000 refugees including more than 1,200 Africans have resettled in Vermont, mostly in Chittenden County, according to the Vermont field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Isiah Leonard, 22, who is originally from New York City, attended the Burlington meeting and said afterward that he was hopeful about the group and its mission.

“Even in Burlington, there are things that you experience as a person of color,” Leonard said. He recalled his first experience at the University of Vermont in Burlington — hearing a girl shout, “Eww black people,” as he walked down the street.

Brown-Guillory said she decided to start the branch after protesting the Greater Burlington YMCA last August, where a youth basketball team that her son was coaching was told they could no longer use a water fountain to fill up water jugs. She said she felt the decision was discriminatory.

The YMCA’s president denied the decision was discriminatory — she said the motor on the water fountain burnt out after the group had filled up jugs to mix with Gatorade the week before so a staff member told the kids told they could use a cold water shower to fill them — but said it was a lesson learned.

“It was not the appropriate response that he should have given because I personally don’t want to drink water out of shower head,” said YMCA president Mary Burns. Now the YMCA is providing the kids with bottled water and fruit.

The NAACP branch wants to address discrimination based on race, age and gender and hopes to meet with schools, churches and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce to educate businesses and to offer trainings.

The group had 168 members earlier this week and hopes to get more.

“The NAACP is saying we’re neighbors, we’re one family. It’s lifting up things that we need to address and people in power position don’t address, fairly, equitably as a human family,” said Roy V. Hill, president of the Vermont Ecumenical Council & Bible Society. “And the NAACP in Vermont is saying we can do better than that.”

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