After racist graffiti shatters Sheffield, protests aim to help

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SHEFFIELD — For the past five days, they have been coming to the town green at the edge of Route 7 to protest racist graffiti on a piece of cardboard that marred a Black Lives Matter sign there this week.

This ongoing standout also is a display of solidarity with Blacks targeted by police everywhere.

It's a town reeling and hurt by an act that occurred almost two months after George Floyd died in Minneapolis while in police custody.

And it is a reminder, said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, one of the organizers, that racism also lives in this sleepy farming town near the Connecticut border.

On Friday afternoon, about 60 people rotated in and out to hold signs next to the road as the Sheffield Farmers Market hummed behind them.

"It's not new," said VanSant, founder and CEO of Bridge, a Lee-based nonprofit that creates community learning experiences, conversations and events that oppose inequality and promote cultural integration. "We've had families have to leave the school district because of [an expletive] and because the school didn't handle it."

She said the current unrest and upheaval is helpful in flushing out existing truth so that it can be worked through in the light.

The "Not in Our Town" standout, organized by the local nonprofit Bridge and Sheffield resident Liz Coffey, was another attempt to draw attention to, and root out, the racism that lives here — and everywhere.

Blacks who grew up in Sheffield said they always knew it was here but that their worlds were shaken by the words on the cardboard that said, "Everyone should own a couple."

"There have been little reminders," said Stephanie Wright, a Bridge educator. "But, this was in your face."

Wright said she returned from a trip to Virginia last week to learn about the graffiti in a place that seemed to have overt hatred under wraps. It devastated the Black community here, which, as of the 2010 census, made up about 1 percent of residents.

"It's like the world turned upside down," she said. "I don't know how we pulled it off for so long."

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Police continue to search for leads and are asking the public for help to find whoever pasted the message on the sign.

Sheffield Police Chief Eric Munson III, who has decried the act and has come out to the green to support protesters, said Friday that he does not have surveillance footage from nearby businesses because the range of nearby cameras did not reach the sign. He said he is relying on the public, and is hopeful about one person's offer on social media of a reward for information about the vandalism.

He sent the cardboard to the state crime lab and is awaiting results. He has said he plans to charge the offender with felony vandalism — and with more charges, if possible.

Town officials, who granted permission for the sign from Sheffield Pride to live on the town green all summer, have placed the matter on their Monday meeting agenda as a loose topic for discussion. Select Board member Rene Wood, at Friday's standout, called the act "deplorable."

The Rev. Jill Graham, pastor of First Congregational Church, reported the vandalism Monday morning, after her husband saw it, removed the cardboard and brought it to the police station. It happened a week after the sign was pulled up by its stakes and propped against the church.

And it happened a month after Mount Everett Regional High School, just around the corner, investigated a racist Instagram post by one of its students. The school district has since issued an anti-racist statement and plans to continue to work with students. A Mount Everett teacher released a video last week in which Black students speak about their experience.

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Racism cloaked

Horns honk in support Friday. But, there also are dirty looks from drivers and, at one point, shouts of profanity. Protesters happen to be standing next to a state highway sign honoring Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, who was enslaved in Sheffield and won freedom after she filed suit against the state in 1781.

Arthur Wright, 90, the father of Stephanie Wright and four other girls he raised here, is frustrated that people don't treat each other as human beings first.

"I was never taught Black and white," he said while waiting for his daughters at the farmers market. "I never taught my kids Black and white."

Arthur Wright was born and raised in North Carolina and came here with his wife, who was from Sheffield. He said that while growing up in the South, he knew there was segregation because the signs were everywhere. But, he still wasn't focused on skin color.

"We were segregated, but my father and mother didn't teach me," he said.

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In Sheffield, life wasn't much different, except for one thing.

"The only thing I didn't see in Sheffield were the [segregation] signs," he said.

Wright, who had a junk car business before he became a chef, said Blacks and whites minded their own business in Sheffield, and got along well.

"If people could stop and think for a minute what they're doing to one another ..." he said. "They need us and we need them."

Another of his daughters, Lisa Wright, said that, while growing up in Sheffield, she felt at one with the community and loved her childhood.

"We were so knitted in," she said. "I believe that I am a very privileged person. We only knew we weren't white when other people told us."

But, things happened.

"People got out of the water at Gilligan's Pond when we got in, but we didn't know why," she said.

"The racists might get called out now," she said, noting that the coronavirus pandemic has had a revelatory effect. "It's good to be awoke, because we were all sleeping. It's a crazy thought to know that I lived around all these people and I didn't know."

Lara Setti, a Great Barrington physician, is standing out in her scrubs. She said she wants people of color to know that they have support in the medical community, and that coming out to these events is a way to soothe an aching heart, as well as provide comfort for those for whom words on a little piece of cardboard can most definitely hurt.

"How horrible it must be to grow up here and be Black and have this happen in your town," she said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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