People & Places

Then Again: 1968 Irasburg Incident showed Vermont's not-so-hidden racism

Irasburg Incident
The Irasburg Incident filled the pages of Vermont's newspapers in 1968, as evidenced by these clippings from the files at the Vermont Historical Society library in Barre. Photo by Mark Bushnell

Editor's note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of "Hidden History of Vermont" and "It Happened in Vermont.” 

Barbara Lawrence was sitting in the living room when the shot came through the window. She dove to the floor as more shots rang out. So did her daughters, Brenda and Yvette. Outside, the car carrying the gunman was turning around to make another pass.

The Rev. David Lee Johnson, whose house this was, came running. He called upstairs to his teenaged sons, David and George, to grab his pistol. The car returned and someone inside it fired again at the house, which stood about 180 feet from the road. Johnson ran outside into the midnight darkness with his gun, and fired nine shots at the car as it sped away.

During the late 1960s, many Vermonters viewed themselves as an oasis of racial tolerance. Gov. Phil Hoff had recently instituted the New York-Vermont Youth Project, which brought inner-city black children to live with Vermont families. But the events of July 19, 1968, shattered any belief that Vermont had overcome racism. Officials’ handling of the case only reinforced the idea that prejudice was not far below the surface. The episode, soon dubbed the Irasburg Incident, was the inspiration for Howard Frank Mosher’s 1989 novel “A Stranger in the Kingdom.”

The Rev. Johnson, who was 39 at the time, stood out in the small town of Irasburg in Orleans County. He was an African American in a virtually all-white town, having moved to Irasburg just two weeks earlier from California, ironically, to escape the racial turmoil then engulfing the country. According to a contemporary newspaper report, Vermont’s population of 500,000 included only about 500 black people.

The Caledonian-Record of St. Johnsbury reported in its July 19 paper that the “night raiders” had been driving a large red car with a white top. Inside had been three people, Johnson told police, one driving and the other two in the backseat.

The incident drew unwanted attention to Irasburg. “Citizens of this small, quiet farming town awoke Friday morning to find their community swarming with reporters and state police as they gradually learned of the shooting at the home of a Negro minister,” the Record wrote.

“I guess it was our welcoming committee,” Johnson told the paper, but added that the people in town had been kind to his family. “People treated us like we were their own children or like we had been gone 20 or 30 years. It was genuine.”

Others were less pleased, however, with the arrival of Johnson, his wife and four children, along with their friend Barbara Lawrence and her daughters, who were white. 

Emory Hebard, a local Republican state representative, said that people in Irasburg were “unhappy that a Negro family moved into town.” Hebard put the blame for racial tensions on Hoff, who Hebard said had “stirred up Vermont by bringing several hundred ghetto youngsters to live with white Vermonters this summer.”

Some of those “stirred-up” Vermonters wrote hate mail to Hoff. Earlier that year, the governor received an anonymous poem postmarked from Woodstock, railing venomously against him and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. The poem read, in part, “Hoff wants to bring (n-words) to the North Country, / and wants them to live with you and me, / But as any casual observer can see, / No (n-words) will be living near his family. 

…(H)e and Lindsay overlook one trifle,/ Every Vermont farmer owns a 30-30 rifle.”

The state police said it would post a guard at the Johnson house around the clock until the attackers were arrested. Three days after the incident, the Johnsons had a phone installed at their home. The night of the shooting, George Johnson had had to run to use the neighbors’ house while his father covered him from the front of the house. The state police, apparently deciding the phone offered sufficient protection, removed the guard.

The day after the incident, police identified 21-year-old Larry Conley of Glover as the probable shooter. Conley, home on leave from the Army, had been arrested two weeks earlier for harassing members of the New York-Vermont project at Barton State Park.

But police didn’t immediately arrest Conley. Instead they began to investigate the victim with the help of Burlington Free Press publisher J.W. McClure, according to historian Stephen Wrinn, author of “Civil Rights in the Whitest State: Vermont’s Perception of Civil Rights, 1945-1968.” The investigation found that Johnson had exaggerated his military record and had been convicted of carrying a concealed weapon 16 years earlier. 

Johnson, a Baptist minister who hoped to receive a pastorate in Vermont, also came under scrutiny of several of the state’s newspapers. Some Vermonters even accused Johnson of faking the shooting. A letter writer to the Burlington Free Press claimed that “My opinion is that the shooting incident in Irasburg was all done by the Negroes to create sympathy for themselves.” Blacks, the letter writer said, wanted to come to Vermont to take the jobs of Vermonters.

In early August, police arrested Conley in connection with the attack. But several days later, police also arrested the Rev. Johnson and Barbara Lawrence. They were taken at gunpoint and charged with adultery. Adultery was still a crime in Vermont, though it was seldom prosecuted, only when an aggrieved spouse pushed for charges. In this case, a state police officer claimed he had seen the pair having sex one night while guarding the house. Press scrutiny of Johnson intensified. Much of the resulting public furor, Wrinn notes, was that the supposed affair had been interracial, not that it had been extramarital. 

The state pushed the adultery case hard. Police interrogated Lawrence for several hours and she agreed to plead no contest to the charge, which meant that though she was not admitting guilt, she was willing to accept punishment in return for having her case closed. She paid a $125 fine, received a suspended sentence of six months to a year, and returned to California. Later she claimed police had coerced her into making the plea. Johnson continued to profess his innocence, and the trooper involved later admitted he was not certain of his accusation.

Orleans County State’s Attorney Leonard Pearson and an aide flew to California to request that Lawrence be extradited to Vermont to testify against Johnson. When a California judge rejected the request, Pearson dropped the charges against Johnson. The decision came after the state had already spent 2,256 hours and traveled 20,943 miles prosecuting the case, according to Wrinn.

The prosecution of Conley was far less thorough. It wrapped up on Aug. 22, little more than a month after the incident. Vermont Attorney General James Oakes had advised Pearson to charge the shooter with assault to kill, but Pearson saw the incident as relatively minor. He charged Conley with breach of the peace, for which he received a suspended sentence of six months and fined $500.

Gov. Hoff created a special commission to investigate the investigation. Led by U.S. District Court Judge Ernest Gibson Jr., the commission found racism in the state police’s actions. In one of his last acts before leaving office, Hoff told Public Safety Commissioner E. A. Alexander, who oversaw the state police, to discipline three officers singled out in the report. But Alexander refused. Hoff censured Alexander for his inaction.

Johnson and his family left the state in 1969, and wouldn’t say where they were going.

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