America is erupting into discussion, protests, and action in response to racism, police brutality, and injustice nationwide. Our reaction now, as a nation and a town, raises the question–have we been here before?
Asking where we’ve come from and who we are as a community fits the pledge GOOD Morning Wilton has made to tell more diverse stories and better reflect all of Wilton.
Over the past several weeks, reporter Lily Kepner has started delving into Wilton’s history, the good, bad, and truthful, investigating Wilton’s complicated history of race, activism, and inaction in order to contribute to the discussion of what we can do better today.
Wilton’s history started long before the Civil Rights Movement. From violent pro-slavery bombings in the early 1800s to a barber denying service to a Black child in the 1950s to microaggressions in our schools and town today, it’s clear that despite many positive actions, Wilton is far from perfect.
Kepner’s research encompasses documents and archived Wilton Bulletin articles provided by Julie Hughes, the Wilton Library History Room‘s archivist; and Wilton Historical Society resources sent by associate curator Nick Foster. GMW also spoke to Robert Russell, author of Wilton, Connecticut: Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress, and other long-time residents of the community for their perspective.
Recognizing our limitations with available resources and documents, we’ve done our best to begin to present an unvarnished look at Wilton’s history. It’s an ongoing project, and we encourage people to share their own experiences and memories of Wilton.
Today’s inequalities may look different from those of the past, but recent events have shown the nation undoubtedly maintains disparities between people of different races. Just as national news now awakens us to our country’s troubled history with race, examining our own town shows us we are not an exception to a complicated past.
All of this has led to this multi-part series, looking at “Racial Inequality, Justice, and Activism in Wilton,” and the first of many articles we plan to publish on the subject of race in Wilton.
Last week, Part 1 of the series traced the town’s complicated involvement in slavery and the abolitionist movement, as well as more recent theatrical bigotry; Part 2 picks up on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement when Wilton found advocates for change in many places as well as new neighbors changing the face of Wilton.
Today, in Part 3, we hear the voice of a longtime resident–a Black woman who shares her story of moving to Wilton with her white husband and raising their three sons here over the last 23 years. The series will conclude with Part 4 later this week.
It’s a small step forward to making sure we progress in the right direction, so that when future generations look back on our actions as part of their history, they too can seek answers to the questions of where they came from and who they are as a community. Hopefully, they’ll discover we were a generation that cared to learn from the mistakes of our past to correct our wrongs and do better.
“Racial Biases–They’re Real.”
Adrienne Reedy moved to Wilton with her family in 1997, in search of the “small-town feel.” Here, Reedy raised three sons–Terrence, Calvin, and Quinn–each of whom went through all 13 years of school in the Wilton Public Schools. In her 23 years of living here, Reedy found that while many individual people in Wilton have been welcoming on the surface, her family has also experienced many microaggressions and questionable incidents, and they’ve been met more than once with defensive comments, denial and ignorance.
“I have many people that are wonderful people that I’ve met in town, and I feel very safe here. I never had any [major] problems, but I still feel like the town needs to have more conversations to get people to understand people of color more and this idea of being aware of the racial biases that truly are apparent,” Reedy said. “They’re real.”
One of the most prominent ways Reedy engaged with the community was through Wilton’s A Better Chance (ABC) Program, where she served as its Director of Development. Reedy said that volunteering with ABC and watching how the town accepted the ABC scholars introduced her to Wilton’s interest in engaging with people who are different from them in background and sometimes color; it was a program from which she saw both the participating students and the town benefit equally.
However, she was sometimes reminded not all of Wilton was as open or receptive.
“It was through ABC that I that I got to see, on one hand, the community was very responsive, that they embraced the ABC students. But then when you start to see the ideas on Facebook, it was and it still is very disturbing to see some of the words and expressions on Facebook,” Reedy said. “I realized that, wow, the community embraced these students because I think this community has a very high value on academics. But even though a lot of the students from ABC may have been from disadvantaged areas, I felt that a lot of people still didn’t understand the systemic, the racial biases [and] narratives that are going on throughout the country.”
This juxtaposition–of people outwardly claiming support for programs like ABC and internally holding racial biases–has been a pattern Reedy has recognized in the community throughout her years here. Though she personally has not had encounters with Wilton residents outwardly giving her trouble or accusing her of being suspicious, she has heard stories from other people whose experiences with Wilton residents have been negative.
“I had a friend who worked for the post office. He lived in Bridgeport, but he hated when he had to come to Wilton, absolutely hated it,” Reedy recalled. “[He] said that when he was in Wilton..the most trouble he ever received was when he was doing work here in Wilton.”
Reedy added that the trouble this man recounted was not when he was actively working, but when he was leaving work, he feared “being in Wilton, being pulled over.”
Personally, Reedy said she and her kids have been excluded and have faced many microaggressions. Even when these microaggressions were unintentional, or when Reedy stood up for herself, people often got defensive and denied it instead of wanting to improve.
As an example, she described how a teacher in charge of the music program at one of the schools would only pick a “certain type of person” to be featured in spotlight roles, even after she brought it to his attention.
“After seeing this happen over and over, one time I approached him about it and I introduced myself and I said, ‘I think you guys are doing a fine job here.. but I want to bring something to your attention..do you ever notice the type of person–and maybe you don’t and maybe because I am a minority I see it–but never once in the years that I’ve been coming here have I seen you ever pick any kind of minority–it could be Asian, it could be Black, it could be biracial–never to do your speaking parts,'” Reedy said. “I said ‘Have you ever noticed that?’ and he was very, very defensive.”
Reedy asked that teacher on three separate occasions–politely, calmly, and as if they had never had the conversation before. But no matter the tone, she said he felt he was being accused, and no change happened until four years later.
“The fourth time I thanked him, and then every time when I saw that he did it, I thanked him,” Reedy said. “So microaggressions in that way of not seeing the value… There were times when I didn’t feel that my kids were given roles of leadership, where it was just obvious that they should have been given that position.”
For instance, she said that there were times when white students would be made a solo captain of a team, but when her biracial sons were given that position, they were named co-captains and had to share the role with other students who were white, as if they could not hold the role alone.
“It was always, they’d have to do it as a co-captain with maybe two or three other people,” Reedy said. “And it was just like, I cannot believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe it.”
No matter if it was intentional, Reedy said it illustrated the racial biases people have and aren’t addressing. For instance, she recounted one teacher who had previously taught in an urban environment and treated her son with biases, assuming he came from a similar background and acted a certain way just because of his skin color.
“She couldn’t see my child for who he was,” Reedy said. “She brought these perceptions into how she was going to react to my son. So several times things like that would happen and [my husband and I] would handle it ourselves because I didn’t expect the school to always get it.”
Important Thoughts About Wilton Police
There’s no denying that nationally, police bias and accountability has become a leading topic. It’s not a new conversation for Reedy. She talked with GOOD Morning Wilton in 2016 shortly after two black men were shot and killed by police, an incident quickly followed by a sniper attack that took the lives of five police officers.
Reedy shared her concerns about police and race, recounting that she knew people who did not want to come to a predominantly white town like Wilton. “I have friends who are fearful to come to Wilton. Fearful that they’ll get pulled over. That’s the reputation. I have friends who will not come here after dark. They don’t feel they belong here.”
It was an issue that came up for her again, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. So she reached out directly to Wilton Police Chief John Lynch–someone Reedy has called a friend for many years.
“He was the first person I called after George Floyd died,” she said.
“I called Chief Lynch that day and said, ‘I’m having a tough time you’re going to have to walk me off of the ledge here because I need to know again, what are you guys doing to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen in our town?'” Reedy recalled. “We were able to talk and have that kind of friendship where he could talk to me and share with me what’s going on and what they’re doing to make sure that something like that would never happen here.”
Reedy has worked to make sure her relationship with the Wilton Police Department is a strong one, and it colors how she views the officers and how she feels in this town, and that any reputation for bias doesn’t truly reflect who Lynch and his officers are.
She made those feelings known during the recent peaceful protest held in Wilton after Floyd was killed. After the formal program ended and the speakers dispersed, dozens of younger, mostly teenaged protesters accused Wilton Police of making people of color feel unsafe driving through town.
But for Reedy, this reputation couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“At one point, there were a bunch of young people and they were blasting Chief Lynch and I was like, ‘There is no way I’m going to let them blast this man,'” Reedy said. “I felt I needed to speak up and say, ‘Hey, he’s not that person.'”
Conversations Need to Start
While what those teens thought may not have aligned with what Reedy says is the real story about Wilton’s Police Department, she still admired their involvement and passion. And she was thrilled at realizing how the community has shifted. She expected maybe 50 people would attend the protest, but to her astonishment, there were hundreds who showed up.
“I was shocked,” Reedy said. “And I was so excited. But what was even more exciting to me was the young people that were out. The young people were out…[and] they’re not holding anything back.”
Wilton’s youth taking an active role in demanding change was something she said she hadn’t seen before. Young people holding themselves and each other accountable and actively fighting for an anti-racist town and nation gives her hope for change.
What needs to happen now, Reedy believes, is for people start trying to understand the issue through someone else’s eyes, because ignoring it perpetuates the problem of racism, leading to the kind of environment where “someone like George Floyd [could] die, the way he died.”
Open conversations are a place to start, Reedy suggests–mature conversations that start early, where people come to the discussion as equals, in a non-patronizing, honest way. As for when it happens for the students, she emphasized that it would be unfair to expect the ABC kids, who are often working on finding their place in Wilton themselves, to have to represent what it’s like for everyone.
“It’s very overwhelming for ABC kids to come to this town, and to all of a sudden fit in,” Reedy said. “It’s one thing–the socio-economic class system here, and then you add on to that the minority status.”
She looks to Wilton’s town and school leaders to set the tone and the example by making themselves very visible in the community as people who will not tolerate racist remarks, actions, or biases, and will support minority students 100%. Recruiting more teachers of color and ending the race-blind curriculum is necessary, she said, as is turning incidents of racism and microaggressions that happen in the schools into teachable moments instead of quietly punishing the student.
In terms of what Wilton can do as a whole, Reedy said people should actively work in the schools and in the town as a whole to emphasize that racial equality is a value for the town. As an example, Reedy said she use to put on the “I Dream a World” Concert, sponsored by ABC, which is based on a Langston Hughes Poem. The whole school district was involved in helping put on the concert, through art or music, and it was held during February’s Black History Month. It was an event that Reedy says brought the entire community together.
“For our town to become a place where they showed on paper and [in] actions and behavior that [racial equality] is a value for our entire community, whether they bring in top notch speakers who are people of color or host different gatherings, so we can get Wilton on the map of being a place where this is a value,” Reedy said. “[To show] we care…this has to be something that is ongoing. This has to be like a 20 year vision to literally change the mindset.”
Reedy suggests the town should create a task force that holds the town accountable to protect Black people. Taskforce members should be people from all different walks of life–police, teachers, the school superintendent, town officials, etc.–and it should be centered specifically on Black lives, staying focused on that topic alone.
“Even though there are not a lot of Black people who live in Wilton, these racial, systemic problems that we are talking about, [these are] structures that are impacting the Black people,” Reedy said. “It is Black lives that matter, and that would be a trigger for many people in our community for not understanding what that means. Of course all lives matter, but… this is a systemic problem and awareness that needs to be brought to the minds of the people in our community as it pertains to Black people,” she said.
“This is a task force that cannot get watered down because if we then talk about everybody, it reduces the issues that we are talking about.”
What Gets Discussed
Reedy says being able to acknowledge the issues means recognizing the history of our nation–and, very importantly, our town–and how that history has had a direct effect on the inequalities today.
“We have to be able to understand that what has happened in the United States of America–not really being able to talk about race, and being able to talk about slavery–even though you were not there, I was not there, I am still impacted by what was done many, many years ago,” Reedy explained. “So the idea of understanding what people are very uncomfortable talking about is the superior idea–that needs to be addressed. It’s a very tough pill to swallow, but it needs to be addressed so we can all be healed from it.”
In these dialogues, Reedy emphasized that it’s not just about tolerance; it’s about respect. We don’t just tolerate differences, we respect them. That we need to recognize color and celebrate color, and fight to be anti-racist to protect people of color.
“If you don’t see my color than you don’t even know how devastating and how painful these [tragedies] one right after the other have been. If you don’t see color you can’t even know the ache, the heartache that has been going on in my life as a result of that. I need you to see my color, I want you to see it. I don’t want you to judge me negatively because of my color, but I want you to see my color. And I want you to celebrate with me who I am as an African-American woman.”