What it's like to be black when your state is 94% white.
When Cherie Buckner-Webb was 5 or 6 years old, someone burned a cross in the front yard of her Boise home.
Buckner-Webb and her family had every reason to leave the neighborhood, or even Idaho, after that. Instead, her mother turned an act of bigotry into a powerful teachable moment.
“My father would’ve liked to taken it and hidden it away,” Buckner-Webb says, “and my mom was saying ‘Put it on the front porch. We’ve been living here a year in this neighborhood, and they are late.'”
Boise in the spring. Photo by iStock.
Buckner-Webb is a black face in a white space. And like her mother before her, she’s not going anywhere.
She is a fifth generation black Idahoan, and her family has deep roots in the state. One of her great-grandfathers even founded and built the first black church in the Boise area. Her parents were active in the community, with the NAACP chapter and other local initiatives.
But numbers don’t lie: less than 1% of Idaho residents — about 13,250 people — identify as black or African-American, and Buckner-Webb recalls a childhood tinted with the hypervisibility that comes with being the only black face in the group.
“I was very well-behaved and probably because there was a small number of us,” she says. “I tell the same thing to my children, ‘Nobody will notice anybody that you’re with, but they’ll notice the one black kid in the group.'”
Image via iStock.
Buckner-Webb credits her mother for telling her the honest truth about the “the way things were.”
“It was really important to her that her children had an awareness and understanding of what it is to be black and walk in the world.” Buckner-Webb says. “I realized quickly that our way of being was different and unique to the kids I went to school with.”
She made connections and built a lot of her community at church.
“It seemed like almost everybody black in Idaho, whether it was for the National Guard or whatever, we all met up [in church],” she says. “It had a lot to do with religion, but it had a lot to do with a place you saw people who look like you, a gathering place.”
Image by iStock.
Across the country, Curtiss Reed is working on building community and gathering places for all Vermonters, but especially people of color.
Reed was living in St. Louis but working on a consulting project in Washington, D.C., when a friend invited him up to Vermont for a ski weekend in 1978.
“I found it picture postcard perfect,” he says. “And six months later, I moved — relocated to Vermont.”
Reed lived and worked in the Green Mountain State for five years, then spent nearly two decades traveling and working abroad. He lived and worked in France, Tunisia, Burundi, and more. But when it was time to return to the states in 2001, there was only one place Reed wanted to be: Vermont.
Vermont in the fall. Photo by iStock.
“When I was overseas, I voted absentee ballot, got the newspapers three or four weeks after the fact, paid my taxes, etc. This has always been home,” he says.
But much like in Idaho, Vermont’s black population is staggeringly small. There are approximately 8,100 black people (1.3% of the population) in the entire state. That’s about .84 of a black person per square mile. To put it in perspective, there are approximately 52 black people per square mile in Florida. States like Vermont are blinding whiteness, and black people in these regions are truly few and far between.
Today, Reed lives in Brattleboro and is executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
“We are the organization people turn to when they want to address issues of equity in the public sphere,” he says. Recruiting employees and visitors of color is more than a “nice-to-have.” For Vermont, it’s now or never.
The state’s low-birth rate and large percentage of people over 65 (17.6%) means Vermont is in desperate need of more people. Not just skilled workers to replenish the work force, but visitors to keep the state’s thriving outdoor tourism industry afloat.
“Vermont’s future is inextricably tied to it’s ability for the state to be an attractive destination for folks of color,” Reed says.
It’s a snowy day in Burlington, Vermont. Photo by Jordan Silverman/Getty Images.
To build community and foster new relationships, both Buckner-Webb and Reed have tapped into local black history.
Buckner-Webb is on the board of the Idaho Black History Museum. Housed in the church founded by her great-grandfather, the building was lifted off its foundation and moved to a local park. Since 1995, guests have enjoyed exhibits, guest lectures, musical performances, and community programs.
“It’s possibly the first black history museum in the Pacific Northwest,” she says.
Reed partnered with the Department of Tourism to develop the Vermont African-American Heritage Trail. The route takes visitors of all ages to 20 different museums and cultural and historic sites throughout the state. The governor of Vermont even named February 2017 Vermont African-American Heritage Trail Month. After all, “Black history is Vermont history,” Reed says.
A marker outside the Old Constitution House, one of many historic sites on the Vermont African-American Heritage Trail. Photo by Doug Kerr/Flickr.
For Buckner-Webb and Reed, their love for their state is more than hometown pride — it’s a calling.
In 2010, after being asked off and on for more than 25 years, Buckner-Webb decided to run for state office. She didn’t know if she’d have the patience to make it happen, but a friend ultimately convinced her.
“[She told me] you have some work to do. One woman can make a difference,” Buckner-Webb recalls.
She filed the next day.
Buckner-Webb was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives that year and to the State Senate in 2012, 2014, and 2016. A Democrat in a conservative stronghold, she is used to standing up to adversity. And she’s had decades of practice.
The Idaho Capitol. Photo by iStock.
“I’m a super-minority in a super-minority party in Idaho, so I have a lot of experience that way,” she says.
Buckner-Webb is the first and only black person to be elected to the state legislature in Idaho, and she currently serves as assistant minority leader. While Buckner-Webb is used to sticking out, she’d rather have some company in the state house.
“One of my legacies I hope to leave is that there will be many more after me — or right now would be fine. With me, with me,” she says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Reed travels almost every day across Vermont, reaching out to employers, community leaders, and more about the importance of recruiting, hiring, and building community for people of color.
From signal boosting resources and personal stories and planning an annual conference for leaders of color and executive and legislative leadership, to talking with police departments and local municipalities about implicit bias, Reed’s work is never done.
“We spend a considerable amount of time building community by example,” he says.
Being a black face in a white space is a universally specific experience that’s neither all good nor bad.
I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, a college town less than three hours from Chicago and 78% white. Since college, I’ve lived in Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, and now Portland, Oregon. In every stop, save for my brief stint in Jacksonville, Florida, I felt out of place as a black woman. I was both hypervisible and invisible simultaneously. I’d go from being followed around a department store to being brushed off and ignored by waitstaff at dinner.
Image by iStock.
That notion of hypervisibility and invisibility are themes I noticed in both Buckner-Webb’s and Reed’s experiences. But like them, I also have a sense of pride and passion for the place I grew up. Madison is, for better or worse, my hometown.
For black Americans, home is not limited to certain zip codes, cities, states, or regions of the country. Though black people in majority white spaces face the additional challenge of lacking critical mass, our lived experiences aren’t any less valid or “black” than anyone else’s. (Did you hear that, Donald Trump?)
In fact, both Reed and Buckner-Webb said their smaller communities have their own advantages.
“My husband is from Atlanta, Georgia, and I think the opportunities to succeed might be a little bit easier [here],” Buckner-Webb says. “Probably because there’s not a critical mass here to scare people. People are not comfortable with people that don’t look like them, you know what I mean? It is a relatively welcoming place. There are opportunities to make your way here.”
Boise, Idaho in the fall. Photo by iStock.
For Reed, Vermont’s small towns foster community and collaboration in a way other regions simply can’t.
“We have 251 towns in the state. They’re small. On a day like today — it looks like we have about two feet of snow — you need your neighbor to help shovel, or plow, or move your car out of a ditch. I think in that case, the weather, geography, living in smaller communities really focuses people on what it means to be neighborly.”
Horses dine in Putney, Vermont. Photo by iStock.
Black people helped lay the foundation for this country, and today, we are everywhere.
Whether home is Boise, Brattleboro, Portland, Chicago, or Atlanta, black people are building communities, fostering relationships, and making a difference from coast to coast. Whether invisible or hypervisible, we are here. And we will continue to live, love, and contribute to our communities for generations to come.
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