New Hartford Selectboard member confronts racism

  • Rachel Edens (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/25/2020 8:05:09 PM
Modified: 11/25/2020 8:09:58 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Within days of her appointment to the Hartford Selectboard last week, Rachel Edens saw the Facebook comments roll in.

Someone had grabbed screen shots of old tweets Edens had posted — decrying the racism she’s experienced living in Vermont; a “Trump 1” license plate she saw; criticism of a political candidate for not calling out white supremacy — and shared them on a Facebook page run by some Hartford residents with the message: “New Selectboard member.”

The comments in response to the post ranged from outrage at her appointment to support for Edens. Edens saw some support in other places as well, in the form of messages from community members shocked that she had received such hate two days into her appointment.

But Edens, a 41-year-old Black woman and the third Black board member on the seven-member Selectboard, did not share their surprise.

“It’s not my tweets that were inflammatory, it’s that they came from me,” she said in an interview this week.

Edens, a program officer at the Vermont Humanities Council and former assistant dean of pluralism and leadership at Dartmouth College, applied for and was appointed to the board last week to fill a seat left open by former board member Alan Johnson, who stepped down earlier this month. Edens, who was appointed over three other candidates for the position, said she stepped forward to fulfill an ingrained sense of civic duty.

“Public service, that’s sacred,” Edens said. “I don’t enter into it lightly and I do care about every Vermonter.”

Members of the Hartford Selectboard unanimously voted to appoint Edens. Her five-minute interview in front of the board made her stand out, according to Board Chairman Dan Fraser.

“She is highly educated, talented and had the energy and drive to accomplish tons of work, which is what the board is facing,” Fraser said via email on Wednesday.

Edens said she knew the position would come with some “resistance or opposition” because of her race, but that she was disappointed in how quickly that resistance came. (One of the comments on the Hartford-related Facebook page, for instance, read, “She should be removed by the people of this town. If she openly hates Vermont and its people that bad she should move.”)

As a North Carolina native who moved to White River Junction seven years ago, Edens said she makes no bones about the racism present among the bucolic rolling hills of northern New England.

“I’ve spent my entire life in the South,” Edens said, remembering fondly experiences she’s had living in North Carolina and a small town in Appalachia. “This is definitely the most racist and uncomfortable place I’ve ever seen.”

She recalled shortly after her wedding when she entered her home in White River Junction with her new husband; it was a typically happy experience that was marred, in this case, by the next door neighbor flying Confederate flags from his truck.

“The Vermont that some people think they’re living in is not it,” she said.

She’s not alone in that understanding. Especially following nation-wide protests over police brutality against Black people this summer, many local activists espoused the same belief: Vermont has a serious problem with racism.

Its demographics are predominantly white, at 94%, with a Black population of just under 1.5%, according to U.S. Census data from 2019.

In Hartford, a 2017 study by University of Vermont economist Stephanie Seguino found that Black drivers accounted for 3.3% of the traffic stops in a yearlong period ending in August 2016, despite Black people making up only 0.9% of the population of drivers in the town.

Hartford drew unwanted attention in May when a Black Columbia University professor who had moved to his family’s second home in Quechee a couple of months earlier was targeted by two men for having out-of-state plates during the pandemic in an incident Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said had racial undertones.

One of Hartford’s other Black Selectboard members, Joe Major, who was elected to the board in March, said he has not had the same experiences with racism as Edens, but he is acutley aware of its presence in the community. He added that the online response to Edens’ appointment was “disheartening” especially since objectors “didn’t even give her a chance.”

“Do I think it’s the norm or majority of people? No, I don’t,” Major said. “But to say it doesn’t exist is ludicrous.”

Edens said that she understands some of the pushback may not be due to her race, but rather to an outsider making Vermont home. But she said that she hopes to be able to serve the community, and that her presence will resonate with some people.

“When I decided to run for Selectboard here, in a place I don’t particularly love all the time, it seemed like a greater public service than serving in a place I do love all the time,” she said. “My hope is that more people will see that this Black woman cares about their town.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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