Hartford Discusses Race Relations in Wake of Email Scandal

  • Mike Morris

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/1/2017 12:06:55 AM
Modified: 2/1/2017 3:49:15 PM

Hartford — In front of a diverse crowd of more than 30 residents, Selectwoman Rebecca White called for Selectman Mike Morris to step down from his position, part of continued fallout over an email that contained a racist depiction of Barack Obama and his family.

“I believe you should resign,” White said to Morris during a discussion on race relations at Tuesday’s Hartford Selectboard meeting. “I can’t force you to. I am willing to work with you, but I have not forgiven you.”

In the email, which Morris sent to a Valley News columnist earlier this month, the Obamas and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, are depicted as poor and uneducated characters from the 1960s television show The Beverly Hillbillies.

White said the image “harps on oppressive stereotypes and promotes the idea that black Americans are unintelligent, backwater, and by that measure have no place in government. That email may not have been created by Mike, but it was forwarded by him to multiple people. That harmed people. Whether it was an accident or not, it harmed people.”

Roughly a dozen residents spoke to the Selectboard, many of them sharing stories that challenged the narrative about Hartford that is often articulated by the town’s longtime, predominately white, residents: that of a cozy and safe rural community. 

Hartford’s nonwhite residents, a population that federal Census counts show has grown from about 3 percent to about 5 percent between 2000 and 2010, described the town instead as a frightening place, one in which they are likely to encounter a mix of cultural ignorance, and downright hostility.

In Hartford, “I had rocks thrown at me. Sticks thrown at me. My head pushed into a brick wall,” said Wayne Miller, who said his mother brought him to the town from an urban Connecticut community 20 years ago to get away from violence.

Decades later, he said, he is tired of hearing about ignorance as a defense of racism and intolerance.

“I’m enraged knowing that my 3½-year-old daughter will grow up in this community hearing the same taunts that I did,” he said.

“My entire life, I’ve been called names by my peers and teachers and coworkers,” said Ashley Bennett, a 33-year-old salon owner who described herself as biracial. “... I don’t feel welcome to even go grocery shopping in the town I grew up in.”

Morris apologized for his actions, but did not offer to resign.

“I cannot tell you how sorry I am for being so naive. This past week has been a tough one, but a very educating one for me,” he said. “I never understood what being a privileged white man was before now.”

Other members of the Selectboard criticized Morris for his actions, but did not join White in calling for his resignation.

“Clearly this is inappropriate and he made a big mistake. ... (But) we need people like Mike, who aren’t perfect, but who are willing to do their best,” board member Dennis Brown said. “Mike is a good person, and I hope he stays here with us.”

Hartford resident Olivia Lapierre, who was born in Ethiopia and was adopted by her family in 2000, said she has been “assaulted, called the N-word, and subject to micro-aggressions.”

Lapierre called for the Selectboard to take measures that would address systemic racism in the town by instituting ethics training, adopt a policy regarding racial sensitivity issues, and hold its members accountable for their actions.

“It is your responsibility as an elected official to know the population you are serving. ... This is an act of racism and aggression,” Lapierre said.

In response to the community concerns, the Selectboard agreed to form a committee to study the issue and come up with specific recommendations. The committee will include five members of the public and two members of the Selectboard. The School Board will be invited to seat two members on the committee as well.

After the meeting, attendees had mixed reactions to the actions of the Selectboard.

“I’m not satisfied, but I’m hopeful,” resident Angela Grenier said. “I’m hoping to gain a community.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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