People & Places

The often untold story of growing up Black in the second-whitest state

The Providence family of Guilford includes, from left, Justin, Rohan, Sherry, “Prov” and Aaron. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

GUILFORD — Brothers Rohan, Aaron and Justin Providence had learned only months earlier that a neighbor boy was leader of a hate group — the N----- Hanging Redneck Association — who had flashed a gun at minority schoolmates. 

But rewinding back to Jan. 20, 2009, the three recall the hope and history of seeing Barack Obama — like them, the son of a Black father and white mother — inaugurated as president.

“I could relate to his speech,” then 18-year-old Rohan told this reporter at the time, “because it’s what I want to do — change the world to be a better place and bring peace and prosperity to everyone.”

Summing up many Vermonters’ optimism at the start of the Obama era, the brothers landed on the next day’s front page. Proud, their mother packed it away — only to pull it out last spring after the Minneapolis police killing of Black Minnesotan George Floyd.

Sherry Providence eyed the old newspaper as she remembered a 2008 public forum where locals speculated about how the neighbor boy turned hate group leader must be uneducated or underprivileged. She knew that he had grown up visiting her home. That he learned to play soccer from her dark-skinned Caribbean husband. That he helped their oldest son when the family car slid into a ditch.

She knew that it was more complicated. That she abhorred racism. That it nonetheless was real.

“We have to teach our children of color,” she was quoted at the forum, “to step above it just a little bit and have a thicker skin.”

Rereading those words amid last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Sherry cringed.

“When I really thought about what I said — ‘you have to have a thicker skin’ — it was definitely from my white perspective.”

That’s when her now-twentysomething sons revealed what they hadn’t told her growing up.

Take the time an armed police officer manhandled and handcuffed her youngest at age 17 when riding in a car in neighboring Massachusetts.

“He pulls me out like a rag doll, slams me against the hood and cuffs as tight as he can,” Justin recounts today. “My whole body is shaking and my mind is racing and all I can say is, ‘I’m scared, sir.’”

Only then did the officer stop and say he had pulled over the wrong car.

Sherry, learning that a decade later, asked why her son didn’t speak out earlier.

“In my mind, it’s just how it is,” Justin replied.

“It’s our normal,” Rohan continued. “You see it in the news and think, ‘Oh, that happened far away or one time, maybe two,’ but that’s my life. We see ourselves as targets. We have to see ourselves as targets.”

The revelations set their mother reeling.

“It’s mind-boggling to me,” Sherry says today. “With everything that’s happening now, I wish I’d said we need to move faster to get rid of racism and then let these guys talk. Because it’s not my story, it’s theirs.”

And so the Providence brothers, awaiting Obama Vice President Joe Biden’s swearing-in as commander in chief, are setting the record straight about growing up Black in the nation’s second-whitest state.

‘The life they live right now’

First, however, a bit of background: During the Revolutionary War, the southeastern Vermont town of Guilford — current population 1,997 — was home to Lucy Terry Prince, considered the first African American female poet. Yet when Sherry Houghton was a teenager here four decades ago, diversity was limited to where in Europe one’s ancestors came from.

“My history can’t be any whiter,” the seventh-generation Vermonter says. “The first Black person I ever knew was in college.”

Earning a nursing degree at the University of Vermont, she joined the Peace Corps in 1987 on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, where new coworker Rohan “Prov” Providence invited her to his homeland’s annual carnival.

By the end of her two-year assignment in 1989, the two had exchanged wedding vows.

Sherry Providence holds a photo of her then-young family on a Caribbean vacation. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“When I left Vermont, I had people joke, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, don’t come back with a Black husband,’” she recalls. “I gave everybody one opportunity to tell me what they thought about the fact that I was marrying a Black man. I knew my family needed a place to put their concerns on the table and get them out of the way.”

Namesake son Rohan was born a year after the ceremony, Aaron in 1991 and Justin in 1993. Each was most often the only student of color in his elementary school class, but none recall blatant bias.

Then came Brattleboro Union High School some 10 minutes north. The school had 79 students of color — nearly 8 percent of its 1,000 students in grades nine through 12 — when the oldest Providence boy arrived in 2005. (That figure has since doubled to 16%, compared with a current state average of 10.45%.)

Educators, having then just retired a Southern colonel mascot that had inspired some students to wave Confederate flags, thought they had quelled racial tensions. But by Rohan’s senior year, a handful of teenagers started a hate group on social media, spray-painted the initials of the Ku Klux Klan on public property and threatened a group of Black classmates with a gun.

None of the Providence brothers felt targeted, but they knew those who did. Days after the 2008 gun incident, 200 people attended a public forum. Many said the community needed to send a strong message of intolerance for intolerance.

Sherry, standing up, said it wasn’t so simple.

“Without a doubt, this is not a kid who sits around his whole life with racist parents drawing nooses,” she was quoted at the time. “Something has happened.”

Sherry urged the crowd to focus inward, relaying a conversation with her oldest son.

“I said, “Don’t be an angry Black man. Figure out how to deal with the angst you are feeling without reacting. Figure out how to deal with it in a proactive way,’ which is really what their dad and I have tried to do,” she told the forum. “It’s not fair, but it’s the life they live right now.”

‘Always going to be the Black guy’

The storm cloud seemingly evaporated with Obama’s election that fall, spurring the new president to invite the Brattleboro High marching band to serve as Vermont’s representative in his 2009 inaugural parade.

“I think it’s ironic,” Rohan said at the time, “that a school that just a year ago had such big problems with race is going to have its band go to the inauguration of the first Black president.”

Rohan “Prov” and Sherry Providence stand outside their Guilford home in front of their sons, from left, Rohan, Aaron and Justin on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Photo by Vyto Starinskas

The Providence family hoped the day’s blue skies would continue forever as they welcomed a reporter to watch the swearing-in, packed away the resulting press coverage, and went on with life.

A cellphone video of Floyd’s 8 minute and 46 second killing last May changed everything. Sherry pulled out the comparatively old-fashioned newspaper of a decade earlier and, rereading her “have a thicker skin” quote, listened as her sons revealed their untold story.

Take Rohan, a student leader who capped his senior year by delivering an address before a capacity crowd at Brattleboro’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. program.

“When I graduated, I didn’t want to be here anymore,” he recalls today. “I wanted to get far away, and part of that was because I thought that if I went far away, race wouldn’t have to be an issue.”

Rohan discovered otherwise when he went to Wisconsin’s Beloit College, where he was both pulled over by police and recruited to help promote minority-owned businesses. He’s now back in Vermont working for Families First, an area nonprofit helping special needs children.

“I’m always going to be the Black guy no matter where I go,” he says. “At least here, there are enough people I know where it feels less like that.”

Ask Rohan for his most striking racial memory of childhood and he recalls an argument with brother Aaron, a football, lacrosse and soccer player who likened color to a team jersey and wondered why others couldn’t see past it to the person underneath.

“That’s impossible,” Rohan recalls responding. “The first thing anyone sees is your skin.”

Aaron, however, isn’t a black-or-white guy. Bookended by his older and younger brothers, he views the world from the middle.

“I don’t really see things one way or the other, because it’s not always so clear-cut,” he says. “I try and see everybody’s side.”

Take the time Aaron was stopped by police.

“It has happened,” he says, “but all he did was just let me off with a warning.”

Some who know him wonder if that’s because of luck or his mellow vibe.

“A lot of people thought it was awesome I had dreads coming out of the back of my helmet,” he recalls of his school football days.

Then again, even Aaron wonders about that warning.

“You never know if you could say the wrong thing or you’re just in the wrong place and you meet the wrong person …”

‘Only gotten a taste of the racism that goes on’

Then there’s Justin, the youngest and quietest of the three. He was the only one his father felt the need to sit down for “the talk” about police.

“You’ve got to be careful,” Prov remembers saying.

Justin would learn firsthand — but not tell his parents until a decade later. In a Facebook post last summer, he recalled being a teenager riding home from a concert when Massachusetts police stopped the car.

“Show me your IDs, hands in the air!” he says an officer with a gun and flashlight yelled over and over.

“That door swings open and then fear struck full force,” Justin went on to write. “This big adult in uniform with a pistol within arm’s length of my face ... He pats me down asks if I have guns or needles and I manage to say no … He turns me around, gun still pointed right at my face … I thought I was a ‘man’ but in that moment I felt tiny, I felt powerless, confused and mistreated.”

That’s when the officer said the car wasn’t the model he was searching for.

“I did my best to hide the handcuff marks in school because I didn’t want that kind of attention and I told no one important,” Justin went on to write. “I felt it needed to be a secret even though I did nothing wrong. But I left the experience with a new kind of fear of those who I thought were the nice protecting type.”

Justin would graduate to a job in Brattleboro, where police — recently reported to overly target minorities, according to a new study — repeatedly following him as he walked home from work.

“Once there was a lady 60 feet in front of me, and I intentionally kept that gap because I didn’t want to scare her,” he recalls. “A cop car saw her and then saw me, put its headlights on and waited until she got home. I see so many people on Facebook say, ‘These things won’t happen if you’re not doing something wrong.’”

Justin knows otherwise.

“I feel blessed to have grown up here and only gotten a taste of the racism that goes on even when we don’t realize it’s happening,” he concluded his post. “I can only imagine how people feel when they experience these situations x100 and almost daily. At a young age, I guess I was conditioned to just accept — accept that I wasn’t Black enough to be offended but also Black enough to be judged. That’s the problem. I shouldn’t have to accept it, and it needs to change.”

‘You have to take a step back and just listen’

The brothers’ parents sat shell-shocked as their youngest finished his story.

“We had no idea,” Sherry says today.

And so the family started talking. Really talking.

Talking about how Prov — a 56-year-old systems administrator at the Brattleboro Retreat — knows locals who say they might be scared to see him if they didn’t hear his Caribbean accent.

“It’s kind of a sad way to think,” he says. “Nobody should have to explain their life, but it’s just so normalized, we never pay much attention.”

Talking about how Rohan feels pressure to smile or hum in public so others won’t assume the worst.

“If you get upset, you’re the ‘angry Black guy’ and people are scared of you,” he says.

Talking about how Aaron believes the farthest poles of the political spectrum can be problematic.

“There are people on both sides who are too extreme to the point they make it hard to sit down and talk,” he says. “Sometimes people just don’t know what’s appropriate to say or do, only what they’ve grown up with. In order to move forward, everyone can’t always jump to the negative. Someone has to be the bigger person. You never know if you’re the first person of color they’ve actually spoken to.”

Talking about how Sherry thinks she has more to learn.

“I’m living in a family of color, but I’m not a person of color, and my perception of the world is based on being white. It’s very easy to say ‘it’s not happening in my backyard’ or ‘I don’t have to deal with it.’ The point is, no one has been paying attention until we saw a police officer in uniform murder somebody for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. This is not the first time it has happened; it’s just the first time we’ve seen it on video. We can’t ignore it anymore. We can’t pretend it doesn’t pertain to us. Because it’s somebody kid. It’s my kids. And it’s not OK.”

Sherry and Prov, now boasting two grandchildren, are set to welcome two more — adding to the reasons the family is speaking out.

“It’s now coming to the forefront for a lot of people, but this has been the normal in America for 400 years,” Prov says. “What people want is acceptance and to live as equals. That’s the way it has got to be.”

Aaron, Rohan and Justin Providence, from left, at Rohan’s wedding in 2019. Family photo

Rohan points to his own recent Facebook post.

… I’m tired of being told Black people are lazy, but I’m an exemption.

I’m tired of feeling genuine fear when I get pulled over, not knowing if this is it.

I’m tired of pretending that I’m in a good mood all the time, because if I’m not, I become a super predator ...

He’s also tired of all the talk. He wants something more.

“White people can say how much they believe in Black Lives Matter, but you don’t understand it until you’re treated the same way,” he says. “You have to take a step back and just listen.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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