HYANNIS, Mass. — A stinging racial slur, along with a crude phallic symbol, was spray-painted on the African Meeting House on Nantucket last month, generating global news coverage.
Nancy and Paul Thompson, of Hyannis, say they were having lunch at a local restaurant this past winter and were told by another patron, “Black jerks, I hate you.”
Pastor Brenda Haywood, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Provincetown, says she was called a racial slur on a regional transit authority bus headed to Harwich last summer.
Think this type of blatant racism could not be happening on the Cape and Islands in 2018, 50 years after the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
Hate-fueled acts — some more high-profile and egregious than others — are indeed occurring here, some say now on a more frequent basis given the country’s current political climate and the mass adoption of social media as an often anonymous communication platform.
As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination Wednesday, the Times spoke with more than two dozen people of color on the Cape and Islands to gauge the current state of race relations and civil rights here.
The resulting message was unanimous, resounding and clear: The fight for equal rights is far from over and racism — albeit, mostly subtle these days — is alive and well.
“I probably let my guard down in some ways,” said Charity-Grace Mofsen, director of the African Meeting House on Nantucket, who moved with her husband to the island in 2015 from North Carolina. “There are certain things I didn’t expect to experience here.”
Despite the island’s history of diversity and being welcoming to African-Americans for centuries, most people of color on Nantucket have experienced subtle racism, but nothing as brazen as the spray-paint attack, according to Mofsen.
“There is racism everywhere, and Nantucket is not immune,” she said. “But I never thought a historic building would be targeted. It’s sacred and very visible. For someone to have the audacity to do that and not care — all of these factors are concerning.”
Mofsen considers Nantucket a welcoming “old-school” community where she hopes to raise a family but says it is a totally different — and often sad — experience during the summer because of the influx of tourists.
“I have to laugh at it,” she said. “You have to have a good sense of humor and thick skin in the summer.”
At Nantucket Memorial Airport last summer, Mofsen recalls a white woman asking for change for a dollar bill, but Mofsen’s offer to help was rejected. Shortly after, a white man offered the same thing and the woman accepted it.
“It was like he gave her water in the desert,” said Mofsen, who speculates the woman may have somehow felt, especially noticeable by her body language, threatened by taking money from a black woman.
“There’s a warped image that Nantucket is supposed to be white and wealthy,” Mofsen said. “They don’t know there have been black people thriving here since the 1700s. It’s not all about shingles, white trim and cocktail parties.”
Provincetown is known the world over as a tolerant and diverse community, especially for gays and lesbians, but racism remains a factor in town.
“Because we’re LGBTQ-friendly doesn’t mean we have it figured out with race yet,” said the Rev. Kate Wilkinson, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, which has sponsored the Racial Justice Provincetown group for five years.
Just ask Haywood, the 80-year-old pastor who had a racial slur hurled at her on the bus.
Haywood was in Washington, D.C., in 1963 when King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. She recalls feeling inspired and encouraged by the experience.
“From the day we are born, we face death from different aspects of our life, such as economics, gun control, housing and education,” she said, noting many laws were changed as a result of King’s work. “A lot has changed, but not enough to make equality.”
Haywood, who remembers having to sit at the back of her school class in Newton because she was not supposed to “amount to anything,” said racism continues to be prevalent in the town at the tip of Cape Cod.
It includes being called a racial slur on the street, being insulted at Racial Justice Provincetown’s monthly vigils outside Town Hall, being followed in stores and, most recently, trucks displaying the Confederate flag driving through town.
Haywood said she is often asked “Why do you live here? It is so racist here” by people of color who visit on bus tours during the summer.
The Racial Justice Provincetown group also had its Black Lives Matter banner outside the church vandalized in recent years.
“The Police Department was very supportive, but it was still hurtful,” Wilkinson said.
A majority of Racial Justice Provincetown members are white and are being guided on how to serve as allies and advocates for people of color when they become aware of injustices occurring, according to Wilkinson.
During the racial attacks on Haywood and the Thompsons during the past year, it was witnesses similar to the allies being cultivated in Provincetown who rose to the occasion after becoming aware of the incidents.
After Haywood was called a racial slur, a fellow passenger notified the driver, who told the offender to get off the bus, she said.
When the Thompsons were verbally assaulted, staff at the restaurant overheard the comments and packed up the offender’s food off the table and asked her to leave, they recalled.
“I loved the way the staff handled it,” said Nancy Thompson, who noted the woman was not a local resident.
“People come here from all over the world, and they bring their hate with them,” she said.
On display at the Zion Union Heritage Museum in Hyannis are meticulously kept books of newspaper clippings chronicling milestone moments of the civil rights movement on Cape Cod.
There is documentation of the late Eugenia Fortes, founder of the local chapter of the NAACP who is commonly referred to as “the Rosa Parks of Cape Cod”; establishment of affirmative action hiring programs in local towns; and even a successful protest campaign to get a chain restaurant with the racially insensitive name “Sambo’s” to pack up and leave Hyannis.
Despite the detailed record of impressive events and accomplishments, local activists say it is not enough.
A half-century after King’s assassination, the original keeper of the books, Dolores DaLuz, says many more pages must be added before they can be considered complete.
“The beat goes on,” said DaLuz, a sprightly 83-year-old, as she sat in her Hyannis living room last month with three other community leaders of color who have witnessed the evolution of civil rights on the Cape.
DaLuz, along with John Reed, a local NAACP leader, and Nancy and Paul Thompson, a retired couple originally from Boston, gathered to reflect on King’s vision, discuss his influence on their lives and express hope for future generations.
“We are the children of the dream,” said Reed, a former Barnstable High School teacher and supervisor for equity and attendance for the school district.
All four participated in a 1965 march led by King from Roxbury to downtown Boston, where he delivered a speech on the Common.
“King was an inspiration,” said DaLuz, who recalled that a charter bus took marchers from the Cape to Boston. “We needed a safe community to live in.”
DaLuz, along with her husband, Joseph DaLuz, a local civil rights pioneer and longtime Barnstable building commissioner who has since died, arrived on the Cape in 1957, moving here to get away from the overt segregation in her native Delaware.
By no means was Cape Cod a utopia, though.
“It (the segregation) wasn’t as blatant here,” said DaLuz, although at the time, she recalls, there were no black teachers or police officers in Barnstable.
“Town Hall was all white except for the janitor,” she added.
There were also issues with real estate and housing, according to DaLuz, with some properties not being available for rent or purchase to people of color.
“That’s why we formed a fair housing committee here,” she said.
The Thompsons recall visiting family on the Cape in the 1960s and ’70s and the only black people they would see were their aunt and uncle.
“Look, there’s a black person,” they would say when riding around Hyannis and spotting a person of color.
Not much has changed in the ensuing years.
According to U.S. Census figures for 2016, the most recent year available, Barnstable County is 94.1 percent white, 3.4 percent black or African-American, with the rest broken down by other races. The dial has not moved much since the 1970 Census, the survey taken closest to the time of King’s death, which showed the county as 96.7 percent white and 3.3 percent “Negro” or other races.
When the Thompsons retired here 10 years ago, they had to make an effort to network with local organizations, such as the NAACP, to establish a social circle of other people of color.
“Everybody was welcoming,” said Paul Thompson.
Reed came to Barnstable in 1973 to teach in a school system he says was “in flux,” with most students of color being counseled to take vocational courses.
“I’d take the kids to events off-Cape to teach them the world is a larger place and there are other people like you,” he said. “I was getting them ready for America’s promise.”
Although retired, Reed continues work to recruit teachers of color to work in Cape school systems, most recently speaking with potential candidates in Cambridge last month.
The efforts are paying off, according to Reed, who said Barnstable and Falmouth schools now have more teachers of color than any other district in Southeastern Massachusetts.
Last week, nearly 20 members of the Zion United Church in Hyannis gathered to discuss “What can I do to keep the dream alive?” sharing stories of struggles faced as people of color on the Cape and before they arrived here.
After an hour of discussion, the consensus was in line with other recent conversations about race relations on the Cape and Islands: Incidents are still happening, and King’s mission remains unfulfilled.
Patricia Cruz, of Hyannis, recalled her son, as recently as the 1990s, playing a high school sport here and not being allowed in the clubhouse if the team needed to get out of the rain.
Jonathan Thompson, also of Hyannis, suggested the town of Barnstable presents special challenges when schoolchildren from diverse neighborhoods meet up with students from primarily white areas such as Osterville and Cotuit in the higher grades.
“These kids have never been around people of color,” he said, joking that they need to be told that not all people of color like watermelon.
“Because we had a black president, people said we’re finished (with MLK’s dream),” said Andrea Kelton Harris, wife of the Rev. Bernard Harris Sr., the church’s senior pastor. “We are not in a post-racial society.”
“My desire is we all need to be at peace with each other,” Harris said.
Whatever happens in the days, months and years ahead with efforts to improve race relations on the Cape and Islands, the octogenarian Haywood is in it for the long haul.
“I hope to live toward 100 and continue to fight for equality for all people,” she said.