Before Lula Pearl Johnson was invited to spend what turned out to be the rest of her life in New Paltz, she was a teen-aged civil rights worker down South.
“We integrated the movie theaters. That was easy since they wanted our money. Sometimes the boys climbed up the fire escape and snuck in. Then they spent their movie money on popcorn for the girls. I never snuck in. I was a very good girl. The churches were a different story. We were always turned away with one excuse after another.”
The invitation to New Paltz was extended by the federal government. School systems were required to integrate their teaching staff or lose funding.
In 1964, she was the first Black professional and the only Black person besides seasonal migrant workers living in the Village of New Paltz.
“There was no Black community, no beauty parlor for me to go to, really nothing in the way of services for people of color. Nevertheless it was an easy transition. I felt welcome.”
She only experienced one incident of discrimination when she was invited, then uninvited to a party by a very apologetic co-worker who claimed the party was in an old person’s house who was “uncomfortable” with her presence.
By 1970, more professional educated Black people arrived here, primarily professors and teachers; approximately ten. From the 1970’s to 2000 the demographics did not significantly change.
According to Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, White discomfort and fear of Black autonomy and power begins when the population of Brown and Black people increases to a level that makes the majority population feel threatened.
Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis was studying dance with me at the Dancing Theater located on the second floor above Handmade. At first, she was the only Black person in the class.
“Suzie (that’s what she called me), as soon as there are more Black women, the White students will become uncomfortable and quit.”
I didn’t want to believe her. But she proved it. She brought students from her Black church in Poughkeepsie. One by one as Black attendance increased, the White students stopped taking the class. After a few months, I was the only Caucasian in the room.
Since 2000 the Non-white population has steadily increased in the town and on the SUNY campus, so have accusations of discrimination. It was reported in an article in this paper on June 6, 2022, “Some members of the community and a member of the Board of Education believe the New Paltz Central School District has a problem with racial equity in spite of the District’s stated efforts.”
It was also reported in the Huffington Post on November 18th, 2011, “After celebrating Black Solidarity Day on November 8, students found a sign reading ‘Colored Only’ above a drinking fountain in a campus building. Students and faculty at the State University of New York at New Paltz are planning to hold several forums after a number of racially insensitive signs were found around campus, triggering a police investigation.”
I have had my own experience with discrimination here. I was driving from Marshalls in Poughkeepsie with a girlfriend whose Afro was no more than one-inch long when I was pulled over on Main Street by a policeman. Given my white privilege, I asked, annoyed, why was I stopped?
“Well, you were so busy talking to your ‘boyfriend’ here, you were not paying attention to the road.” “Girlfriend” I said. “That’s no reason to stop us.”
Self-picture is a dangerous form of self-delusion. We can easily believe we are kinder, less racist and better than we are. Self-picture can also infect any town. Given the horrendous oppression and injustice against Black people historically embedded in our nation, no village, town, region or state could be free of racism. Vigilance and passion for change is needed.
Concerned Parents of New Paltz, a watch-dog group addressing issues of racism, was formed many years ago and is still viable and functioning today.
Many left-leaning, well-meaning White communities can fall victim to White savior complex, an ideology that happens when White people attempt to help (save) Black people without being aware this position implies consciously or unconsciously White superiority.
When Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis went to a teacher conference for her son, Chaka, she was told by his teacher, with kindness, compassion, bordering on solicitousness, “If you don’t understand his test scores, I will be happy to explain them to you.” Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis had a Ph.D. in Linguistics.
Race relations are complex. Often all parties trying to decipher the realities of uncomfortable situations lack nuanced complex inquiry. Are White saviors racist, or ignorant or both?
There is often mistrust and suspicion all the way around.
Nevertheless, there are many well- intentioned White people in New Paltz who, according to Lula Pearl, could benefit from more proximity with their non-White neighbors. Both of us believe discourse and friendship can close the gap on divisions.
Lula Pearl and I were next door neighbors in 1966 when I was 19. We lived on Huguenot Street in studio apartments so close I could smell through the wall what she was cooking for dinner. We spent many hours talking together. Recently, she told me about a stupid ignorant comment I made way back then which could have interfered with our friendship. It didn’t. If it had, I would not have had the privilege to write about her today, 57 years later.