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Pennsylvania Community Finds Its Bearings In Trump Era

Above Photo: David Goldman/Associated Press

If Trump’s election represents the flashpoint that deepened tribal divisions 391 miles due south in another college town — Charlottesville, Virginia — then conversely, it triggered a profound soul-searching here in Titusville, leading to an urban renewal project aimed at refurbishing hearts and minds.

TITUSVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA — Shoehorned between the state line and the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania’s northwest corner, the city of Titusville is as red as America gets, a place where virtually every one of its 5,601 residents identified his or her race as “white” on the 2010 U.S. Census, and a few storefront windows, rather  bewilderingly, display Confederate flags and “Trump: Make America Great Again” campaign banners even now, more than a year after the 2016 presidential election.

Unsurprisingly, African-Americans across the state, if they’ve heard of it at all, tend to view the bucolic enclave and its environs with some trepidation, peppering their goodbyes with so many warnings to “be careful” and “be safe” that black students enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh’s feeder campus in Titusville often joke that their parents think that Crawford County is a combat zone in Kabul or Fallujah.

Not just turning a blind eye

In all fairness, though, African-Americans seldom experience Titusville’s racial antagonisms as bodily violence, but rather as the gaping spiritual wound left by a battery of invectives, bullying, and profiling that locals often characterize as “drive-bys.” Still, it did not go unnoticed when both the frequency and intensity of these microaggressions began to escalate sharply in the days and weeks leading up to Election Day in 2016.

One black student complained that he was just minding his business at an off-campus hangout, the Sheetz convenience store when he was accosted by a white customer exhorting him to “go back to Africa.” In the same vein, a department store cashier demanded that a black student produce proof that he had the means to pay before ringing up the merchandise, and yet another insisted on rummaging through an African-American student’s backpack.

And in a  recent incident during homecoming weekend in October, Tyra Hollinger, who is African-American and the vice-president of the Black Student Union, was buying snacks at Sheetz when she and her friends were confronted by the driver of a pickup truck who proudly displayed a Confederate flag in his rear window. Revving his engine, and “whooping and hollering,” as Tyra recalled later, the young man glared menacingly and conspicuously at the women while they pumped gas, as though he were auditioning to play the role of skinhead in an American X sequel.

Titusville residents take part in the Oil Festival and Parade in Titusville, 2014. (Photo: Cathy Smith/uniquelycat/Flickr)

Funny thing about that one though: Tyra and her friends were on their way to the Friday night bonfire at the Well on East Point, a popular coffee shop in town, when they encountered the angry young white man at Sheetz. When they arrived at their destination moments later, they told the cafe’s owner, Sarah Muir, about the incident, half out of bemusement, half out of annoyance.

That did not sit well with Muir, who is 40 and white, and grew up in neighboring Pleasantville. The next day, she repeated the story to her husband and childhood sweetheart, Brent, a tattoo artist who was even more steamed than she was. He immediately sprang into action, phoning Tyra for a description of the truck; he made a few inquiries and five minutes later texted Tyra a photograph of a blue pickup with a wooden bed.

“Is this the one?” he asked.

Tyra verified that it was, and Brent promptly put in a call to Titusville’s Police Chief, Harold Minch, who immediately recognized the truck as belonging to the son of one of Titusville’s most esteemed families and summoned the young man to his office for an early Monday morning meeting to read him the riot act.

“We want our college students to feel comfortable and to enjoy their college years,” said the 55-year old Minch, who describes himself as a lifelong Republican, albeit one experiencing a crisis of faith in the Trump era. “I sure as heck enjoyed mine and a lot of us are committed to letting our African-American students know that we’ve got their back.”

Brent Muir puts it more bluntly: “I was just fed up with the way some of our kids are treated in town,” he said standing in his wife’s coffee shop on a  twilit autumn afternoon.“There’s always been this attitude about people coming into town from the outside but there’s been a kind of surge over the last year, and a lot of us have taken it upon ourselves to address the problem. We’re not going to stand idly by and just let this happen.”

Tyra was simply awestruck. She certainly knew that the Muirs would not gaslight her but “I really just wanted to vent,” she said. “I call that ‘Tyra being tired.’ I never expected the Muirs and the police to do what they did.”

An uptick of racial antagonism in the Age of Trump — Titusville bucks the trend

F.B.I. crime data shows a sharp spike in bias incidents beginning in the weeks leading up to Election Day and continuing into 2017. Such ugliness caused the townspeople of this rustic, remote enclave at Lake Erie’s edge to take a long, hard look at themselves.

Suffice it to say, many of them did not like what they saw.

And so it came to pass that wide swaths of Titusville — from university administrators and faculty to the YWCA to the Chamber of Commerce; from the police to faith leaders, parishioners, bloggers, and mom-and-pop shop owners such as the Muirs — decided to do something about it. If Donald Trump’s election represents the flashpoint that deepened tribal divisions 391 miles due south in another college town — Charlottesville, Virginia — then conversely, it triggered a profound soul-searching here in Titusville, and led to an urban renewal project aimed at refurbishing hearts-and-minds more so than bricks-and-mortar.

On Friday nights, the town drunk and his drinking buddies teach young, dreadlocked black men from Philadelphia and Cleveland to roast marshmallows and hot dogs over a campfire, and tell tall tales. Young black women babysit the Muir’s adopted Puerto Rican daughter almost every weekend, braiding her hair and eating so much free food that university administrators call to inquire if they’ve lost their meal card. When a customer photographed a “N—– Job Application” posted on the bulletin board of the only hardware store in town, the university stopped doing business with the store.

A University of Pittsburgh-Titusville student talks to local high school students during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, 2016. (Ashleigh English/YWCA Titusville)

A second-year pre-med student from Baltimore, 20-year-old Briana Davis was running errands last winter with three of her girlfriends, all black, when one of Minch’s patrol officers stopped her for running a yellow light. “Someone said to turn the car off,” recalled Briana, who is the president of the Black Student Union, but otherwise the women sat in silence nervously awaiting the officer’s approach.

Briana dutifully complied with the officer’s request for her driver’s license and car’s registration, then sat motionless, her hands affixed at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, as the officer somberly inspected her documents.

Suddenly, he smiled.

“Oh, is your mom’s name Charlotte?” he asked. “That’s my mother’s name too,” he said, beaming like a lottery winner and sending the young women on their way with only a warning.

“He was very professional,” Briana said. “This whole community has really made an effort to make African-Americans feel comfortable.”

No one here adheres to any illusions. Barring something biblical, racism will outlive everyone in Titusville, if not the whole of the Republic.

And yet, there is this:

“I just know that as a woman of color, I feel welcomed and free here,” said Briana.

And this:

“I think we’ve made significant progress,” said Tammy Carr, who is white and the university’s vice-president for marketing and the assistant to the university’s president. “The name-callers always thought they had free rein because they’re never called on it. A lot of us have just decided . . .  that we’re just not going to put up with it anymore.”

Quo vadis?

Will the Trump era spark a return to the raw and festering racial hostilities that characterized the Jim Crow era? Or will it cause a nation to reconsider exactly what it means to be American?

History suggests both. When it comes to racial politics, the U.S. has always been of two minds, demonstrating time-and-again a propensity for being not just one thing or another but all things and the other. From the postbellum Reconstruction era there emerged both lynching and a rainbow coalition to fund public education. From the integrated trade unions that turned bad jobs into good ones during the Great Depression, to the mind-meld between black civil rights activists and white antiwar protesters beginning in the 1960s, Americans’ response to catastrophe follows a remarkably consistent pattern: we fight, fall out, lose touch; and then, at our lowest point, seek each other out again.

Rinse and repeat.

The genesis and impact of Stand Up Together

The formal name for Titusville’s anti-racism campaign is Stand Up Together and, like most things these days, the seed was planted online, as frustrated locals turned to social-media networks to articulate their fears in the days after Trump’s victory. “A lot of us were basically licking our wounds,” said Ashleigh English, who is white, and the executive director of the Titusville YMCA. “We knew we wanted to educate and advocate but not push people away.’’

From those digital dialogues a mission statement emerged:

As part of a global society, Titusville is committed to creating an inclusive, respectful and safe community that will actively confront and challenge all forms of harassment and discrimination. By embracing and celebrating the ideals of diversity and equality, we will create a culture of empowerment, goodwill, innovation [and] economic empowerment.”

The group’s inaugural was the first-ever citywide Martin Luther King Day celebration one year ago, just days before Trump’s swearing-in. English said she would’ve been thrilled if 20 people had shown up; but, by her estimate, roughly 125 people attended, standing in a semi-circle in the YWCA courtyard holding aloft votive candles while listening solemnly to the “I Have A Dream” address. From there, they moved across the street to the St. James Episcopal Church to sip hot chocolate, eat muffins and cookies, and, most importantly, talk.

Sarah Muir and her adopted son celebrate at a 2016 Martin Luther King Day event in Titusville. (Ashleigh English/YWCA Titusville)

Stand Up Together hasn’t shut up since, their motto seemingly the same as New York City’s anti-terrorism campaign: “If you see something, say something.” When the campus police chief complained to Dean David Fitz that some black male students were protesting the nationwide spate of police shootings of unarmed African Americans by throwing up their hands and mockingly declaring “hands up, don’t shoot,” whenever campus police officers walked by, Fitz suggested that he resolve the situation by explaining to the students that their protests unfairly painted law-enforcement with too broad a brush. The chief did just that; the protests stopped.

Carr, the university’s marketing director, invites blacks to speak to the Black Student Union, and Mary Ann Caton, an assistant professor of history and political science, invites African-Americans to speak to her classes or deliver town-and-gown lectures, while the YWCA’s English coordinates discussions between black college students and white high-schoolers.

Chief Minch appealed to downtown merchants to help ease racial tensions by removing their Confederate flags and, although all three declined, Minch and others involved with Stand Up Together say the most vital step is merely initiating the conversation.

Said Minch: “We knew going in that we had to make some changes and, specifically, white people had to make some changes. Black people get it already.”

Brushing shoulders, telling stories, and listening to lives at weekend bonfires

A logger and 23-year old church volunteer from Pleasantville, Tyler Brown was enthralled with the idea of a community coming together and finding a place where “someone like me can brush shoulders with people who are different.”

And so, about eight months into the Stand Up Together project, he began organizing the weekend bonfires at the Well. The first in early September of last year got off to a slow start, with Tyler posted at the edge of the road recruiting pedestrians to stop by for a free coffee, a hot dog or a s’more.

One of the first to walk by — well stumble actually — was John, a white man in his 70s who is widely considered the town drunk. ”I have never seen him sober,” says Tyler. John sat down on a metal chair with foam padding and was chatting with Tyler when he spotted a friend walking into a nearby bar and promptly yelled: “Ben, get your ass over here and get a cup of coffee.”

Ben did as he was told and, before long, began telling John and Tyler and a few others gathered around the fire that he had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and it didn’t look good. He was confessing that his biggest concern, in fact, was finding someone to care for his dog when Tyler spotted a group of six Pitt students walking towards them, and invited them over. Of the three who stayed, two were young black men from Philadelphia, and the third from Baltimore.

Revelers at the all-night bonfire outside the Well on East Point in Titusville, PA, September 2017. (Photo: Tyler Brown)

The Indian summer night wore on, the flames heaved and fell as the crowd expanded to as many as 20 people, their frames cast in sharp relief by the nearly full moon. Tyler counted at least a half-dozen conversations happening simultaneously by the time John left for home sometime past midnight, only to be replaced by a forty-ish white man named Mark whom Tyler describes as “the most committed redneck I know.”

Hitting it off particularly well were Ben and the three Pitt students. As Tyler recalled:

I remember that Ben was amazed when all three of the students said they had never been to a campfire, and so he’s there, showing them how to roast a marshmallow. And then later, he had them in stitches telling the story of how he once chased a baby black bear with a broomstick.”

The three black Pitt-Titusville students would admit later that they had been on the hunt for some weed when they ambled past the bonfire, but settled for s’mores and conversation instead.

As the hour closed in on 2 a.m., and the bars let out, a thirty-ish white woman ran past the bonfire in hot pursuit of a fleeing car. She was alternately cursing and crying and “just an emotional wreck” as Tyler recalled. Minutes later, an older woman came running after her. When she finally caught up, the older woman attempted to comfort her friend in her moment of despair. Tyler fetched them both coffee and they sat, with the younger woman explaining that she’d had an argument with the man in the fleeing car who’d resorted to calling her the “C” word. And, to make matters worse, she said, her night out was intended to help her numb the pain of her sister’s recent death.

The older woman — who gave her name as Mama D – was as sober as her friend was drunk, though not for a lack of trying; she’d had every intention of tying one on when she headed out earlier in the evening. Like Ben, she’d also been diagnosed with cancer recently and wanted to drown her sorrow in bottled spirits, but just couldn’t seem to get there.

The crowd began to dissipate slowly after 3 a.m., as Tyler recalled. The drunken young woman had sobered up some but, as she left, she hugged each of the dozen or so people gathered around the fire, embracing a few so tightly that she left them gasping for air. “I’m so sorry,” she said, apologizing for her behavior earlier, “but I’m so glad you guys were all here tonight. I feel like what I really needed was just someone to be nice to me and here you all were, just waiting, to give me exactly what I needed.”

The “redneck,” Mark, offered the three black Pitt students a ride back to campus, which they accepted.

“There was not even a whiff of any racial tension,” he said. “There was a lot of laughing like we were all just best friends, and like we all belonged.

Like many others in Stand Up Together, Tyler’s investment in the project is deeply personal. At the university, Carr and Caton speak of the black students as if they were their own adult children. The adult son of the YWCA’s English works for the local phone company, traveling the state installing cable wire. She told me:

I don’t really worry about his safety but you know Colin Kaepernick’s protests made me realize that if he was black, I would be terrified for him. I’m from this community and I don’t want to alienate my neighbors, but at the same time things have to change. I’m working on being braver and speaking up.”

Similarly, Chief Minch has watched in horror as hecklers, unaware that the couple was married, have told his wife, who is of Chinese ancestry, to “go back where she came from.” “People here ask me all the time: ‘Why do you care?’” Minch said in a phone interview. “I ask them: ‘Why don’t you care?’”

Skin in the game

But no one who lives or works in Titusville has as much skin in the game, so to speak, as do the Muirs, who reported Tyra’s encounter with the belligerent pickup-truck driver to Chief Minch.

When the youngest of the couple’s three biological teenage children started high school, they decided to become foster parents, taking in nearly 20 children over a three-year span, including three Black Puerto Rican siblings from Erie, aged 4, 7, and 8. With their parents unable to shake their demons, the Muirs formally adopted the three, and last autumn began the process of adding their newborn baby brother.

The kids adjusted well to the normalcy of their new family life, but one day, as they drove through town, their four-year-old daughter said innocently to Sarah: “Mom, I like Titusville but there’s no one here who looks like me.”

Sarah was on a mission at Stand Up Together’s MLK Day event, her eyes scouring the room for someone who resembled her daughter until she spotted the clot of black women sitting at a table. She walked up to Tyra and introduced herself.

I wanted to contact some of the girls at Pitt to teach me how to do my daughter’s hair but more importantly, I wanted to create some real, authentic relationships.”

In the year since they’ve all met, Sarah, Tyra and a few other black women at Pitt have become thick as thieves. “I love me some Sarah,” Tyra says enthusiastically.

Said Sarah: “I’m very thankful for the girls … With them, I really feel like my [adopted kids] are being raised by an entire community.”

Two years earlier, Sarah and Brent had driven to Erie, Pennsylvania in a driving snowstorm to pick up four black children whose grandmother had been arrested for stealing diapers. As the children climbed into the back seat, the three youngest were just “bawling,” Sarah recalled, their cries so loud and guttural that they pierced the bitterly cold air. The oldest, a 15-year-old boy named Shakur Franklin, was a “rock,” consoling his sisters and brother, reassuring them for the duration of the 45-minute drive to Crawford County. “It’s okay,” he repeated, hugging his sisters, tugging at them. “We’re all together. We’re going to be alright.”

The three months that followed were a joy for Sarah and Brent. “Singing, dancing, laughing, yelling, fighting, and making up again,” the Muir’s foster kids were like a solar system unto themselves, Sarah said — of which Shakur was clearly the sun around which his siblings orbited. Tall and angular with a smile so bright and honest that it seemed to warm the entire house, he helped Sarah bake Christmas cookies and sang Bruno Mars.

Once, she took the kids to her church in Titusville and Shakur’s younger brother asked her “Why are there so many white people here, Sarah?” Then he started to count: “one, two, three, four. . .” ”He stopped at 20. I had no good answer for him. Why are only white people showing up at our church?”

Shakur and his siblings were reunited with their mother. A year passed, and the Muirs took the kids they would later adopt on a 10-day Disney World vacation. They’d only been home a few hours when Sarah got the news: Shakur had been murdered, fatally shot in a drive-by targeting another youth.

Attending his wake, Sarah couldn’t help but notice the irony: “Why are there so many black people here? One, two, three, four. I got to twenty and then stopped counting. Why are only black people showing up for a young man killed by gun violence?”

In a Facebook post months later, she wrote:

I know virtually nothing about race issues, gun violence or injustice, but I am listening.  My life until now has been blissfully ignorant, consumed in rural whiteness. These issues were removed, were other, were not my life. They didn’t matter to me in a real way until a child who sang in my shower, ate spaghetti at my table and danced with my children was MURDERED. He is not my child, but he is all of our children…

The only thing that I know how to do is to show up. I will show up in the city to visit his family. I will show up at the cemetery to remember his life. I will continue to offer my futile condolences, to send messages saying ‘I’m thinking of you’ and ‘What can I do to help?’ I will talk to my children about injustice. I will teach them the best that I know how…

Rest in peace sweet boy. I will forever hear your voice singing ‘Today I don’t feel like doing anything, I just want to lay in bed.’ I will hear you complaining about my cats keeping you awake at night. I will see you putting together my Christmas train with my other children.

I will see you hugging your siblings. . .  I will remember your energy. I will keep your smile forever in my heart. . . You made a difference. You changed my world. You give me the motivation to be a world changer.”

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