Thirty people got up early Saturday morning to mark Juneteenth, June 19 – now a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery (read more about it HERE). The idea, according to organizer Bob Houghtaling, was to celebrate the dawning of a new day. Hence the early hour.
The gathering included teens, adults, Town Manager Andy Nota, Town Councilor Caryn Corenthal, and three dogs. The walk followed a path now well-worn by Houghtaling, who started walking with people during the COVID-19 lockdown as a way to connect with others beyond the computer. The group started at the parking lot between Academy Field and St. Luke’s Church and proceeded around the Hill.
At the Varnum House, Houghtaling noted there was history relating to Black Americans we were not very aware of, including the Black regiment that was formed here in East Greenwich during the Revolutionary War.
When back at the parking lot where the walk began, the group formed a circle and Houghtaling invited participates to offer their thoughts on the day.
EGHS sophomore Geoffrey Aptt, who is Black, was the first to talk.
“I’m just so happy that you guys are here today. Seeing all you here today really gave me a lot of hope for the future. Thank you.”
Aptt and classmate Sudishma Acharya, also a sophomore, formed the Talk Club at the high school in March as an anti-racism, anti-discrimination, pro-love and pro-knowledge group.
“It’s always good to start a conversation,” said Acharya. “That’s why we formed the club.
Resident Carla Swanson talked about a conversation she had with a new colleague. They talked about getting together and Swanson suggested walking on Main Street and maybe choosing one of the many restaurants there. The colleague, who is Latina, asked, “Is it safe?”
“I was thinking she was referring to COVID so I said there were signs up,” Swanson related. “She said, ‘No, is it safe for me?’ … I was speechless for two reasons. One, that this is a perception of our town. Secondly, my white privilege response was, ‘Oh, you must have gotten us mixed up with another community. Of course East Greenwich is safe.’ Well, it’s safe for me because I’m a white lady. It highlights the importance of us here today.”
Another woman talked about moving here from Arizona and being Latina. She said she wasn’t surprised by Swanson’s colleague’s impression.
“Whenever my mom visits and we speak Spanish on Main Street, we get looks,” the woman said.
“If you want a response from POC [person of color],” said Aptt, “Is East Greenwich safe? It depends. It really depends. There have been many times when I’m walking on Main Street and people have yelled slurs at me.” That said, Aptt said she should expect harm while on the streets of East Greenwich, “but it is a perception of the town.”
Many were receptive to the idea of further meetings and discussions on the topic of race.
“I know walks aren’t going to save the world,” said Houghtaling. “It’s like a pebble in the ocean, but what I really like about this is the dialogue. There’s a lot to be said. There’s a lot we need to learn.”