Americans are taking a hard look at race.
The police killing of George Floyd last month sparked a national anti-racism movement. Millions have gathered at protests nationwide (including demonstrations in Littleton, Lyndonville, Newport and St. Johnsbury) to rally for social justice and societal reforms.
So why does that matter in the North Country and Northeast Kingdom?
To help answer that question, The Caledonian-Record recently spoke with four local residents. They discussed the different ways race had shaped and impacted their lives. Their unique stories (far from comprehensive) offer a glimpse into the black experience in rural northern New England.
RILEY URIE, 20, WEST GLOVER
Growing up in the Northeast Kingdom, Riley Urie wasn’t vocal.
A standout athlete, he kept quiet and played hard, leading Lake Region to back-to-back boys soccer titles, setting the school goal-scoring record, and eclipsing 1,000 points in hoops.
Now, he’s speaking up.
Following the death of George Floyd, Urie and his University of Vermont men’s soccer teammates are taking steps to support social justice causes.
“Now it’s about being more than an athlete,” he said. “It’s about using my platform and my voice.”
The youngest of three adopted black children, Urie formed his identity in northeastern Vermont, in a town of less than 1,000 that is 96 percent white.
He remembers a family trip to Washington D.C. when he, his siblings Tyrah and Shaquille, and his parents Brad and Chastity (who are white) went to a restaurant with an all-black clientele. In that moment, his parents glimpsed the otherness he had experienced.
“We went into this restaurant. It was all black people, there weren’t any white people. Once we left, my parents were just like ‘Wow, we feel how you guys felt,’” Urie said. “They felt a little uncomfortable, they said they felt out of place. They just weren’t used to it. Me and my brother and my sister, we just kind of laughed.”
Because of his personality and athletic ability, Urie didn’t experience much overt racism. However there were small incidents — jokes, comments, unconscious reactions, and people touching his hair — that most in the overwhelmingly white area “don’t understand or wouldn’t even notice,” he said.
“If you’re on the bus, you’re going home, and someone makes a black joke. If there’s not as many black people around, we might not want the confrontation or really know how to handle it. So a lot of times I’d end up laughing stuff off instead of telling people it’s not all right,” he said. “Growing up I dealt with a lot of people making just jokes, not knowing it’s making me feel uncomfortable. But it’s just a thing that black people have to deal with when they grow up in America, no matter if there’s a small or large black population around them.”
On a few occasions a white person would attempt to use the N-word in the friendly sense (as it’s used in the black community). Urie stopped that.
“I’d tell them it’s not cool,” he said.
During high school, he acknowledged that other black students “experienced more than I did” and said during that time “I’d think it was inevitable and you just had to deal with it. And I’d just kind of ignore it. And looking back I wish I could have stepped up and said something.”
After high school, Urie entered a more diverse environment.
He played for the Herkimer County (N.Y.) Community College men’s soccer team alongside players from the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and southeast Asia.
Some of his Herkimer teammates wore their emotions on their sleeves. Through them, he learned there is value in speaking up for one’s self.
“Being around them made me more passionate about different things. Because they’ve gone through a lot, and they told me about what they’d gone through,” he said. “It definitely helped hearing them and seeing how they reacted to certain situations.”
For example: One time an opponent mocked the accent some Herkimer players. Urie’s instinct was to walk away, but his teammates voiced their concern.
It taught Urie a lesson, “There’s a time when you should shut it down and not let it happen.”
After two years at Herkimer, Urie transferred to play for Division I University of Vermont. During the off-season the team has discussed ways to use its platform to advance social justice.
“It’s eye opening that finally people are starting to understand what the black community has gone through,” said Urie, pointing to growing support for Black Lives Matter and other organizations pushing for black equality and law enforcement accountability. “That’s what Colin Kaepernick’s been trying to say, black people have not been treated equal, and that’s all we want.”
Does the movement apply to Vermont? Yes, Urie said.
He recalled a recent experience at a Burlington bus stop where, he said, a group of white males “were just looking at me and one of them said ‘What’s up brother?’ I just ignored him. He looked at me and told his friend to go to the store and get him some grape soda. [Stuff] like that. He was wearing a confederate flag sweatshirt so I already knew it was going to be an issue when I walked up. It really didn’t bother me much, I just continued on my day. I just ignored him.”
Urie said the protests have not been perfect. He has run a landscaping company since middle school, and empathized with those whose businesses were destroyed. However those demonstrations have effectively grabbed the public’s attention and galvanized public support for a sustained effort and meaningful reforms.
He hopes that, from the deaths of George Floyd and others, real change could be made.
It’s a cause he aims to support.
“One thing it showed me is I’m going to use my voice and not stay as quiet as I would usually be,” he said.
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REGAN PRIDE, 58, LISBON
Thirty years ago Regan Pride arrived in the mostly white North Country.
Culture shock? Think again.
He was raised in Los Angeles where his parents — an architect father and businesswoman mother — moved their family from the multi-ethnic neighborhood of Midtown to the white suburb of Granada Hills in 1965.
“We were like the only black family in town,” said Pride, who was four at the time.
It was a turbulent transition. He and his older siblings, brother and sister, were the only black students at Knollwood Elementary School. Later his parents gave him ‘The Talk’ to prepare him for added scrutiny in a white community.
“It was rough at first. When we were moving into the neighborhood there was a family that took up a petition to prevent us from moving in. We experienced a lot of slurs and stuff in school from kids,” said Pride. Years later he asked his father why they had moved. “He said that he figured it was the best way for us kids to get along with white people. It was immersion training.”
It got better.
Within a few years the name calling stopped. Pride acclimated and formed a core group of friends, all of whom were white. His best friend was Jewish.
He didn’t fit stereotypes. He sported a “big Jackson 5 afro” (his words) but didn’t tap deeply into black culture. He was a self-described ‘nerd’ who obsessed over NASA and dreamed of being an astronaut.
“For a lot of my lifetime, I’ve felt disconnected from the black community,” he said. “I read an article recently, written by a guy who described being the token black guy in a group of white friends. It sounded like a similar experience to me. Many times in my younger life I would get the comment: ‘I don’t think of you as black.’”
Pride studies mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and met his future wife, Deborah, who was white. She had two children (both black) from a previous relationship.
For a time they lived in a dangerous section of LA. Seeking a better environment for their kids, they moved across the country to Deborah’s hometown of Lisbon in 1990. Eventually they had a child together, Naji.
“We were ready to get out of southern California and her father had passed away and left her the house,” Pride said. They drove from southern California to northern New England, and along the way the mixed couple stopped for dinner at a southern truck stop, Pride recalled, “and it was like a scene from a movie. It went dead quiet and all eyes were on us. We asked ‘Can we get change for the pay phone?’ and left.”
Life for Pride’s step-children in the North Country wasn’t easy.
“My step kids had some rough times. They experienced a fair amount of racial name calling at the school … some kids had certain stereotypical assumptions about what black kids were like,” Pride said. For that reason his youngest son was home schooled. “He didn’t have to contend with the school yard scenarios.”
After working in the aerospace industry in California, Pride has spent the last three decades serving his adopted North Country community.
He is currently Chief Operating Officer at Tri-Country CAP and previously served as the Lisbon Town Administrator, a planner at North Country Council, and a technology specialist for Littleton Schools. He has served on multiple board and committees including the Lisbon Board of Selectmen, North Country Council Board of Directors, Grafton-Coos Regional Transit Coordinating Council, and Lisbon Main Street Organization.
He has not faced overt racism living in northern New Hampshire, he said.
Still there have been little things. Pride recalled once telling someone his hair was a mess and they responded “How can you tell?” When his youngest son worked for a local auctioneer, his wife noticed those in attendance talked and joked differently when he left the room. He has seen a handful of Confederate flags and once encountered (but did not speak to) a man with a swastika tattoo.
And there have been times where Pride was left wondering if race was a factor: The way someone reacted to him, the fate of job applications, the lack of invitations to activities.
“Now some of that might be my personality. Maybe I come off as conservative or a bit aloof. I don’t go to drinking parties and stuff,” he said, but added, “It’s different for black people. We don’t have the opportunity to not think about it.”
“I can go for stretches at a time without it crossing my mind ‘Hey, I’m black and that person’s white.’ But other times there are situations where you have to remember what The Talk taught you.”
Watching events unfold since a white officer killed a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis in late May, Pride called it “a historic moment that I never really thought I would see in my lifetime.”
“It’s certainly been a long time brewing. I’m really hopeful that positive change and more open and honest dialogue will come out of it.”
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AUREON NOMMIK, 29, NEWPORT
Aureon Nommik doesn’t want to be judged by the color of his skin.
He’d rather be defined by his accomplishments.
The Northeast Kingdom native left school to start a career at 16, graduated from the New England Culinary Institute at 18, and opened his own restaurant — Salt Bistro and the Vermont Catering Company — at 27.
And he’s just getting started.
“I want to be known as an educated person who has worked hard to be where I am,” he said. “Not specifically because I’m black.”
Even so, race has been a constant.
The youngest of three adopted black children, Nommik was raised on the U.S.-Canadian border where he encountered racism before he could understand it.
“[My brother and I] would be on our road, riding our bikes or walking, and Border Patrol would ask us for identification, where we’re coming from, and what we’re doing,” he said. “And, you know, you see a couple of black kids walking and they want to know who you are and what you’re doing. It’s a fine line whether they’re doing their job or being discriminatory.”
“They eventually knew where we lived, but we would still get stopped and checked out.”
It wasn’t all like that. His mother Judy, who is white, said the community was “really positive about black people” and some families arranged play dates, so their kids could play with black children.
Still, there were mis-steps.
According to Nommik, friends and classmates touched his hair, said things like “You’re the whitest black person I ever meet,” or made inappropriate jokes and then said “Oh, I didn’t mean you.” Some wrongly assumed he would be good at basketball because he was tall and black (“I was awful at basketball”).
In most cases, he said, people weren’t mean spirited. They just didn’t know better.
He and his siblings (brother August and sister Aavi) “would just make a joke out of it. We would take the power right of it,” he said.
It was a survival technique — one that allowed Nommik to navigate adolescence in the largely white Northeast Kingdom. Looking back years later, he questions if it was the best approach.
“Maybe it wasn’t the right way. It might have been a good time to educate people but when you’re standing in the hallway of a high school you don’t want to get into an educational moment. They may exclude you,” he said.
Nommik didn’t stick with high school for long.
Midway through he left to pursue his passion: Cooking.
As a kid, he helped his mother prepare holiday meals. (They were a low-income household and she taught him to cook healthy on a budget.) Later, he worked at local restaurants, where he rose from dishwasher to fry cook.
It became his profession. He dropped out of North Country Union High School as a sophomore and became the youngest student to attend the New England Culinary Institute. He earned an associate’s degree, spent a decade gaining experience, and opened Salt Bistro in West Burke in 2018.
The restaurant moved to St. Johnsbury last year.
Explaining his unconventional professional path, he said, “You only live once, so why wait? Take some chances and go for broke.”
He has guided the business through the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been tough. That has left him with little time to closely monitor current events. Yet he still fields questions from those around him — most of them white — looking for insight.
“People do ask what do you think about this stuff going on. I think maybe a lot of people have concerns, they don’t know if they’re being racist or not being racist. So they just don’t say anything,” he said. “They want to know my opinion so they know if their opinion is right.”
Not long ago he attempted to purchase tires for his Mercedes Benz. The new tires were bald. When he pressed the issue, he was ignored. His car was off the road for several days while he pleaded his case, which impacted his business. It wasn’t until his mother complained that the store responded — resolving the matter in minutes. It was the first overtly racist experience he can recall in the Northeast Kingdom, he said.
“It makes you think about the Border Patrol and everything else that I really didn’t pay attention to before,” he said.
However, Nommik doesn’t focus on the negative. He’s got too much going on.
He’s running a restaurant. He’s considering a second location when the pandemic passes. He aims to resume a cooking class for low income households, called Cooking With AJ, to help them eat nutritiously and stretch their dollar.
“I don’t worry about what people are doing. If you start worrying that everybody is looking at you funny, you become paranoid and you can’t live your own life,” he said. “If someone wants to look at me funny, OK, whatever. I just keep moving on. I’m way too busy to worry about what another guy thinks.”
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CEIRRA MANASSA-CURNIN, 16, ST. JOHNSBURY
For years Ceirra Manassa-Curnin distanced herself from her blackness.
Now, she’s embraced it.
The rising senior at St. Johnsbury Academy has taken an active role in recent protests against police brutality, co-founded a local social justice group, and taken a greater interest in her roots.
“When I was young I wanted to get as far away from being black as possible. I did not like my skin color,” she said. “Living up here I tried to talk as white as possible, I always made sure my appearance was decent, I tried to make sure my hair was done correctly, I tried not to stand out as much as possible.”
Current events caused her to re-examine things. “This whole revolution, this whole spark of human rights, has really gotten me thinking about how much I have placed myself away from my culture.”
Manassa-Curnin moved to St. Johnsbury with her family when she was two years old.
The oldest of three siblings (sister Naveah, 15, and brother Cedric, 12) she encountered racism as a child: There were times when a white kid repeatedly called her the N-word at the playground during her sixth grade summer; When a white classmate made derogatory comments about her black features; When two white boys made sexual comments to her and a friend (who was Latina) and called them “a couple of chocolates.”
Faced with those situations her father, Cedrice, advised her to stay calm. The reason why: A black person who raises their voice or their fist might be judged differently, and more harshly, she said.
“My dad always told me if anything ever did get physical that I was not allowed to throw a punch. Not just because I’d get in trouble wit a teacher, but it could be seen as something else,” she said. Operating within that double standard can be complicated. “If I have something to say and I get fired up about it, I show them how angry I am, but I try my very best not to come off like an ‘angry black woman’.”
Not to suggest she simply turned the other cheek.
One time when her brother was called the N-word, she made sure he reported it to a guidance counselor “to make sure the kid who called him that understood the meaning of the word.” When she was in seventh grade, a schoolyard disagreement ended with a classmate calling Manassa-Curnin and her friend the N-word. “They started pushing us and we started pushing back. I said this isn’t going to happen, I’m not going to hear that word, I’m standing up for myself.”
Fortunately, those incidents were not daily occurrences at the St. Johnsbury School. When problems did occur, she said teachers and staff responded, including the late Brian O’Farrell, a guidance counselor who passed away last year.
“I had Mr. O’Farrell through middle school. He would always help me through this kind of stuff, he was very supportive,” she said. “He would always give me a space to process things and make sure to talk to people about it.”
Things got better at St. Johnsbury Academy.
The school embraced different cultures. That was reflected in a student body drawn from across the region and around the world.
“The school is very proud of diversity. At the beginning of my freshman year it took me a second to realize it’s OK to express and where my ancestors came from,” she said. “And my sophomore and junior years, I realized I was beginning to come out of my shell. I began to be more confident about my identity as a young African American woman.”
She met a handful of other black women on campus and said “They were all so powerful, they were inspirations.”
She described the Academy as a place that dealt with race issues seriously and quickly, and that addressed black history in a comprehensive way that went beyond the Civil Rights movement.
“They handle black history so elegantly, it’s fantastic,” she said.
Manassa-Curnin has performed in theatrical productions since fifth grade and last year was student president of St. Johnsbury Academy Theater. She plans to enroll as a theater major in college.
However the events of the past month have caused her to consider a criminal justice minor in order to become a better activist.
That interest was prompted by the death of George Floyd, and the social movement that followed. She points to a protest in Littleton, N.H., that drew more than 300 people as a moment of discovery
“Seeing how many people were there and how many people were furious about [Floyd’s death] really meant a lot,” she said. At one point, while standing with friends, she was handed a megaphone and she addressed the crowd with a passionate, off-the-cuff series of remarks. “[An event organizer] handed me the megaphone and asked me if I wanted to say something. I didn’t know what to say at first but then I just had it in my hand. I felt heard, I felt powerful.”
“It was pride, it was anger, it was sadness. All of it rolled up into one,” she said. “In that moment I realized I have a powerful voice and here’s a cause that I can use it for.”
She has been encouraged by the level of white support so far, and the way that support has been offered. She pointed to a protest in Lyndonville (which occurred after the Littleton) where she again took the megaphone and began speaking, with a group of white people looking on from across the street.
“I was talking, getting stuff off my chest, trying to educate people on the matter. And I turn around and the those people who were just across the street are standing behind me,” she said. “Seeing all of this energy coming from white people, seeing all this support. It doesn’t just show solidarity with one person. It shows they are, like, ‘I’m going to use my privilege and I’m going to use my voice to help amplify yours.’ And I think that’s really nice.”
Manassa-Curnin has started to consume more media and literature, to gain a better understanding of the issues. She and friends have formed NEK Girls For Equality, a group that aims to support and advocate for reforms. She looks to keep the movement going locally, and continue to embrace her identity as a black woman.
“When I was younger I was afraid to embrace it because of what I’d been seeing. Because of what I learned about the Civil Rights movement. I said ‘I don’t want that happening again.’ But it’s happening again. So I’m going to do my best to be a part of this. I’ve been too quiet about it and I need to start stepping up about it.”
With that spirit, she will follow in the footsteps of her great grandmother, the late civil rights activist Eugenia Fortes, known as ‘The Rosa Parks of Cape Cod’ for refusing to move to the ‘colored section’ of East Beach in Hyannisport, Mass., in 1945.
Fortes was a founding member of the Cape Cod NAACP, served 14 years on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and once hosted Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta, for Thanksgiving. She died in 2006 at age 94.
Said Manassa-Curnin, “I’m not going to let her work stop there, I’m going to have to keep on going.”