Windsor Black History Month event speaker seeks to engage audience in conversation

Joe Major attends a Juneteenth event at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction, Vt., Saturday, June 19, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Joe Major attends a Juneteenth event at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction, Vt., Saturday, June 19, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photo — James M. Patterson

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-26-2024 8:31 PM

WINDSOR — Famous figures such as Martin Luther King and George Washington Carver are often the faces of Black History celebrations. But in a talk this week in recognition of Black History Month, Joe Major wants to focus on people his audience probably hasn’t heard about.

Americans are increasingly “confronting aspects of history that may make them uncomfortable,” Major said in a recent interview, and he wants the event to be as much a discussion as a presentation. “I want to have a conversation with people.”

Major’s own father served in a segregated unit during the Second World War and wasn’t allowed to take part in combat. And yet his father maintained a deep patriotism and respect for the military throughout his life, Major said: “In 2024, that’s something you can’t wrap your head around.”

Major will give his talk, “The Black Experience During Black History Month,” during a Black History Month celebration hosted by the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (JEDI) along with the town of Windsor.

Major is a former Hartford Selectboard member who is the executive director of the Upper Valley Aquatic Center and Hartford’s town treasurer. In addition to serving on the boards of the Upper Valley Haven, Northern Stage and Junction Arts and Media, Major is a member of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion (HCOREI).

“Black history is American history,” Major said, and he wants to explore what it means to celebrate Black history in Vermont, where African Americans make up around 1% of the population.

“There’s more racism going on in Vermont than I expected,” HCOREI Chairman Pat Autilio said in an interview Monday.

Originally from New Jersey, Autilio moved to Hartford about six years ago and became involved with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance before joining the Hartford committee.

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“Not everyone on the Selectboard or in the town at large believes there is a racism or equity problem in Hartford, or in Vermont as a whole,” he said.

The committee tries to raise awareness of issues related to equity and inclusion and provide a sounding board for the community.

“I don’t believe there is any malice, but if the population in the state is 1% African American” that will limit interactions between people of different cultural backgrounds, Major said last week.

To help increase exposure to African American culture in Vermont, Major helped establish Hartford’s Juneteenth celebration in 2020. Now a federal holiday, Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from slavery following the Civil War.

Last year, Hartford and Lebanon collaborated to hold a joint Juneteenth celebration at Lyman Park in White River Junction. The celebration “seems to work better jointly,” as a regional effort, Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland said Monday.

“Our minority population is growing, and when you are a minority coming into an area that is culturally different, that can feel unwelcoming,” he said.

Mulholland helped shepherd the creation of Lebanon’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission in 2021.

Windsor’s seven-member JEDI Committee was founded in the fall of 2021 and advises the Selectboard on “issues of systemic oppression or marginalization,” committee member Moira Hershey of Windsor said. It also hosts community forums and cultural events.

Discussions about racial equity and inclusion have often been sources of contention in Windsor. In 2020, Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley was fired over comments she made on social media regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. She later sued for wrongful termination, resulting in a $650,000 settlement.

In 2022, the Windsor Selectboard voted against planting a Pride Tree on the Town Common, and last year the board rejected a suggestion to adopt a municipal flag policy after a “thin blue line” flag flown over the municipal building garnered complaints.

“Looking forward, a big goal for 2024 is to sponsor a Juneteenth event for the town of Windsor,” Hershey said.

It is Major’s commitment to “enhancing the quality of life and cultural vibrancy of the community,” that prompted the JEDI committee to ask him to host Wednesday’s celebration, Hershey said.

“I want to have a bit of community; to talk to people about their experiences and what they believe,” Major said.

For those interested in a bit of sleuthing, Major and Vice President Kamala Harris share a common link to Vermont and he challenges the audience to figure out what that link is.

The event takes place Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Windsor Welcome Center at 3 Railroad Ave., Windsor. There is no cost for the program. Light refreshments will be provided by Covered Bridge Cookies, a worker-owned bakery in Windsor.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.