October 26, 2020
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Lifting Black Voices

Eight current and former residents share their stories

It’s time to listen. Evansville Living has and always will be a platform to celebrate the good things about our city. Now, with the current climate of Black Lives Matter protests and learning about and fighting against systemic racism, we feel the best use of our platform is to amplify the voices that can speak directly to the Black experience in our country, city, and community.

Throughout the month of June on our social media channels we shared personal essays from several community members to help us all learn and grow together. Below, eight community members share their stories.


 

DeAndre Wilson

In the summer of 2019 I started rolling a tire in honor of my father to raise awareness for cancer, to live by my own example as a pillar of health, and to serve my community by engaging in conversation with people I meet.

Most people will read this and feel motivated, empowered, or curious about what is now called the Keep Rolling Campaign. As an African American, this story cannot exist solely as beautiful, because it exists with a parallel of the embedded racism I experience on a daily basis.

The first time I was stopped by the police the officer asked me the same question several times, becoming increasingly disrespectful as I answered. He told me it was “stupid.” He eventually said to go home and stay out of the street with no explanation as to why. The second time the officer questioned me and found my endeavor “not meaningful.” The third time I was asked to show my identification. My experiences are a combination of what could be considered “bad” and “good.” The fourth time the officer asked to take a picture with me. The fifth time the officer handed me a Gatorade through the window.

People want my perspective and experience on racism. What I really want to tell you is I wish for us all to take ownership of our health, to do research, to live with the courage to be daring, and challenge ourselves to be our best selves. In my community, we are a melting pot with people of all colors — people who are disenfranchised, forgotten, overlooked. We have to learn for ourselves, because we know that no one is going to do it for us. I challenge you to think about your personal mission and how you will better yourself to impact the community we all live in, together.

— DeAndre Wilson is a native of Evansville and the founder of the Keep Rolling Campaign.


 

Lori Sutton

When I think about my story, it is hard to limit it to just one. When I think about my story, it reminds me of those who have come before me, my family, friends, and even those who may never cross my path. I am reminded, because their stories have become my stories. I could have simply written about a single moment in my life, but what is a true story if you leave out multiple, important parts? Here is just a glimpse into my world as a Black woman.

I live in a world where:
• No one in the room looks like me
• I hear doors lock when I walk by a car
• I am followed as soon as I walk into a retail store
• I have been told my entire life that I have to work 10 times harder than everyone else
• I cannot wear my hair in its natural state without fear of being judged
• I see people grab their purse and look at me with fear in their eyes
• I have been told that the color of my skin automatically makes me ugly
• I have been told by others that I would never amount to anything except a statistic
• I have felt the need to call someone to witness the conversation between me and a police officer
• I automatically begin to feel nervous when a police officer is behind me in traffic
• I have received different treatment in a similar situation as others, and the only thing that was different was the color of my skin
• I am viewed as an angry Black woman rather than assertive
• People have used expletive words toward me but act as if they are doing nothing wrong
• I was approached as a new mother by an older woman and was asked if I was the nanny
• I have been told that I am articulate with a surprised glance
• Others feel I was selected because diversity was an issue
• I continue to have discussions with my children about race
• I do not always feel accepted in my neighborhood
• My child’s name is mispronounced and followed by a snicker
• My husband had a gun pulled on him by a random person
• A sheriff walked into my garage yelling because he said we ran a stop sign
• My daughter’s teacher assumes she doesn’t have the support or resources to be successful in school
• My heart aches daily for the males in my life
• The list could go on and on…

While some of these things could happen to anyone, the accumulation of them can truly affect the way someone sees the world and themselves. I have encountered many things in my life that I know were a result of me being Black, but I have used them as an opportunity to educate others and stand as a change agent. Many of the situations described above really hurt me, but I refused to let them define me. Instead, I used my energy to empower others through my volunteerism and work in diversity and inclusion. I am committed to fighting social injustices of any kind and truly believe this to be my purpose in life. It hurts me deeply that the world is in such turmoil and people feel helpless, defeated, and hopeless. The continued narrative has really hit me and left me emotionally drained.

Do I think that all police officers are racist? Absolutely not. Do I condone the aggressive looters and those promoting violence? Absolutely not. In every situation there are two sides, and I stand behind those who want long-term positive change.

There have been days when I have struggled to put my thoughts into words, but my faith will not allow me to quit. I challenge everyone to have tough conversations, build allies, support each other, admit your biases, and strive for positive change to heal our world. Until then, we should all work to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table or there is enough room to bring your own chair.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”— James Baldwin

­— Lori Sutton is a native of Evansville and the director, corporate human resources/director, diversity and inclusion at Berry Global.


 

Royce Sutton

I was born and raised in Evansville. My wife and I reared four children there, and I served as a community leader and elected official for 20 years before relocating 10 years ago. During this time of national awakening, I am deeply saddened and have felt broken, and it has been a struggle for many African Americans to maintain comportment through another senseless death of a Black man. Yet, I am hopeful for a desired path that repairs the damaged systems, which for far too long celebrated or ignored the disenfranchised pain. Pain caused by both virulent and subtle racism and indifference. As I speak of my experiences in Evansville, admittedly, I know I have been blessed to have many special successes, recognitions, and support evidenced by being selected to lead several important Evansville initiatives affecting public policy, education, health, housing, and economic development. My race experiences and perceptions are not every African American’s, but mine were markedly uneven over the years, though. Early, I saw few paths for progress for African Americans in the city and was well aware that I had to be two times better and had to too often get accustomed to being the only African American in the room. Vivid memories of growing up with unnecessary incidents like being called the N-word at the Fall Festival, regularly being followed by retail store staff when shopping, or not being allowed in certain stores are not how I want to remember the early years, but I do. If asked today, many African Americans would disagree with many Evansville whites who say the city’s best feature is that it is great place to raise a family. Life for many African Americans in Evansville is to know division and to expect unreasonable difficulties. However, it is also a place where support, success, and meaningful relationships can and have happened despite the racial divides.

My parents frequently discussed how they were mistreated and insulted by whites on their jobs. We were urged to be two times better in all things. We were cautioned that we would not be given second chances if we “messed up,” because second chances are rarely given to African Americans. As I prepared my post-secondary plans as a senior at Reitz, I met with my academic counselor to discuss my college options. She told me to remove an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) from my college list because she warned that those schools were inferior and “you wouldn’t want to go there.” I was a part of the first group of African American students bussed from my South Side neighborhood, called Oakdale, to Reitz back then. There were race riots three of my four years; African American students were harassed, called racial slurs, intentionally bumped into in the hallways, and overlooked for mainline activities and academic experiences. Reitz was a very strange place then, as I spent my first weeks terrified there, yet ready to fight on most days. Ironically, though, it was a white teacher, Mr. Fay, who encouraged me, against my own hesitations, to run for a coveted commencement day speaker position against several of my white peers. To everyone’s surprise, I was selected for this great honor in a graduating class of 419 with a mere 20 Black students. I left Reitz relieved and went on to obtain my undergraduate and master’s degrees, but I vowed to never ever return to the high school whose motto was/is “Where it’s a pleasure to learn.” Yes, I struggled to find my place there, but I was greatly inspired by special staff members like Mrs. Fields, Mrs. Miller, Ms. Snyder, and Mrs. Thompson.

As an adult, I was asked to speak at a West Side event about the great prospects for the city, but on the outside, someone had vandalized my car. I was reminded of the city’s divide when seeking to sell my home, as it was suggested that we remove family photos and ethnic-looking effects, because whites, we were told, would not want to buy our home if they knew Blacks lived there or they would intentionally submit unreasonable, low-ball offers. Sad and true.

Now, as fate would have it, I have returned to Reitz every day for the last two years. Right now, every Reitz student uses an industry-leading digital financial literacy curriculum I developed and that is also used by more than 150,000 other students across the country, annually.

I look forward to meaningful progress, serious efforts, and changes on our country’s unresolved, destructive race issues. The city and our nation deserve so much more. All of our children should be able to dream, aspire, lead, and succeed unhindered by racism and the color of their skin. My Evansville experiences molded and guided many of the successes I have enjoyed spiritually, personally, and professionally. Presently, I am a senior executive building community and economic development strategies across the state of Ohio at the Fifth Third Bank headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. I get a thrill when I return to the city each summer where I host an ice cream day for all of the kids in my old neighborhood.

— Royce Sutton is an Evansville native and currently resides in Fairfield Township, Ohio, where he serves as the senior vice president and community and economic development market manager for Fifth Third Bank.


 

Jeremiah Patton

"You sound white when you talk” and “You don’t act Black, though” are phrases I often heard growing up. I never quite understood what phrases like these meant exactly. Are all Black people supposed to act or talk a certain way? As a Black man in America, I do not get the privilege of being judged by my actions first. It makes me cringe thinking about being initially judged by the color of my skin rather than me as an individual. Constantly hearing phrases like these made me realize there is already a preconceived notion of how I am supposed to act/talk as a Black man, and that is simply unjust.

Upon graduating from Harrison High School in 2015, where the student demographic was relatively diverse, I continued my education at Purdue University, a predominantly white institution (PWI). With only about three percent of the total population being made up of Black students, I had to force myself to be comfortable with being uncomfortable every day for four years. In the majority of my classes, except for the ones specifically geared toward minority students, I was one of the only, if not the only, Black students in the class. Being surrounded by white students and faculty almost every day, I encountered quite a few microaggressions and stereotyping, but I never let any of it alter my perception of myself and who I am. Instead, I used it as motivation. I finished my undergrad career with a bachelor’s degree in finance with a concentration in international business and was fortunate enough to land a full-time position immediately upon graduating in my field of study. Yet, even as a full-time employee in corporate America, I still have to continue to be comfortable with being uncomfortable every day and feeling pressured to limit my mistakes, so I am not seen as inferior to my colleagues.

I say all this to say, no matter how educated, qualified, or accomplished I may be, I will always first be judged by the color of my skin rather than my character as an individual, and that is not OK. I have been stereotyped one too many times and called many racial slurs throughout my life, but I have not been a victim of police brutality thus far; however, I do know the feeling of driving and becoming nervous when a police car is behind me even though I am not breaking any laws. Becoming fearful and anxious around someone who has sworn to serve and protect their community should not be an issue. Unfortunately, this is the case for not only me, but also for many others in the Black community. Seeing my fellow Black people fall victim to police brutality on social media may not affect me directly, but it is unsettling to know that it could always be me, or someone close to me, every time we leave the comfort of our homes.

From a young age, Black children are taught unspoken rules on how to succeed in a white society. One can agree that we are all taught to be kind and treat others as we want to be treated. We are taught to give respect in order to get respect. We are taught to stand up for ourselves and for what is right. So why is it, as I continue to grow older and go through life, it seems as if those basic principles and teachings do not always pertain to the treatment of the Black community? Why is it that in the year 2020, my people and I are not always treated with respect or kindness, and when we do stand up for ourselves and for what is right, it is never the “right way to do it?” One Black life too many has been taken by police for people to finally open their eyes and realize that racism and police brutality is, and always has been, prevalent in this country, and justifiably, I am tired; WE are tired. The fact that I have to sit here and share my Black experience in this country just goes to show we are noticeably being treated differently and seen as subhuman, yet, a lot of my white counterparts continue to remain silent on the issue.

SPEAK UP. You as a person know the difference between right and wrong. Racism is wrong and is still very prominent in our society today. If you see it happening, correct it. If you are ignorant to the facts, research and educate yourself on it; however, if you continue to remain neutral on the issues at hand, you are a part of the problem. Be the change you want to see in this world and never stop standing up for what is right. Your actions matter. Your voice matters. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

— Jeremiah Patton is a native of Evansville.


 

Justin Allan Coures

I am a biracial 27-year-old man living in Evansville, Indiana, and was born to a white mother and a Black father. Growing up, my parents were not together, but over the years of my childhood, I lived alternately with both halves of my family. Even though one side was African American and one side white, I never felt much difference between them.

Attending school in Evansville and Warrick County, both, even though my friends were mostly Black, I never felt any discrimination aimed at me from white kids in either place. Maybe it was because I was fairly quiet. The only experience I had with any serious prejudice or felt alienated was a brief time I lived in the state of Georgia with family during a portion of junior high school. It was during that time I felt confronted with race, and I was very glad to come back to Evansville.

In Evansville, I met and married someone who is white but who has a deep interest in African American history and culture, and being with him has made me more aware of my Black heritage than I ever learned about in school. We attend events at the Evansville African American Museum, and I have encountered some wonderful people in this city who I would have never met otherwise.

We attended the recent protests in support of George Floyd and racial harmony, and I was very glad they were peaceful. I have two cultures in my genes, and I think I am very lucky to be exactly who I am and live in a place that not only accepts me for who I am but also be married to a government official who is also a supporter of Black culture. I think I could not find a better place to live at this time in my life.

— Justin Allan Coures lives in Downtown Evansville and is a proud biracial native of this community and a childcare worker at Rising Stars Daycare.


 

Courtney Johnson

I attended a Memorial and Mater Dei football game with a friend of mine during our freshman year of high school. We were the only people of color there. I remember having fun as we hung out with some students from Memorial, but toward the end of the game, they told us we were different from what they thought and were not like everyone else who attended Bosse.

What did those students mean by that? How were we different? One of them proceeded to say they had heard our school was just all Black people and that it was ghetto and dangerous. I truly couldn’t believe that was how they viewed and judged us initially. How many more people felt the same way these students did? Here I am, at 31 years old, and still having to deal with the same type of judgement. I could go on and on about my stories of slurs, mistreatment, and discrimination I’ve experienced. Why and how does someone’s skin color change how you view and treat a person?

I truly feel like a shift is happening right now, and everyone is finally starting to question everyday racism and seek solutions. We need to engage in conversations, educate each other, speak up, and do our part in creating racial equality because silence can be a deadly weapon. It can destroy some, and it can allow others to stay ignorant.

Being honest with ourselves and acknowledging that systemic racism is embedded in our system and keeps inequalities alive — only then will our eyes be opened to the atrocities of the current system, so we can work together to build a new one for a fairer society.

— Courtney Johnson is an Evansville native and the founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Young & Established.


 

Rita Prior

My husband and I transferred to Evansville in December 2007 from Georgia for work. I had re-entered the communication industry, leaving behind a career in social services. Even though we had no family in the area and had never heard of Evansville, the location change was an opportunity for career advancement. On our first day in the city, an apartment manager said, “We really haven’t had you people live in our community before, but times are changing, I guess.” A fear fell over me. I was already anxious about the new city and now was nervous about how two new Black employees would be received at our new job location.

The next day at a local restaurant, as the only other Black couple was leaving, they paused at our table. The man put his hand on my husband’s shoulder, and the woman stood next to me. “It will be OK,” she said quietly but with authority. We gave each other the “I see your Black person” nod and they left. What was understood did not need to be explained. I settled in my heart our new home was not welcoming to Black people. I told myself to be prepared for racist comments and actions but not let them change my love of people nor my desire for social justice.

Over time, we had many experiences that did not need explanation. During a birthday party for a coworker, a grandfather pulled us aside. “I’ve always liked coloreds,” he said. “I never had an issue with them, and they were always nice people. If you ever have a problem, let me know. I won’t stand for coloreds to be hurt because I can tell y’all are nice people, too.” The humiliation on the face of our friend, and his family, was palpable. We were the first Black people to be invited to their family gatherings. I knew our response carried weight. I considered his age and intention before putting my hand out to shake his. He pulled me in for a hug.

As an ordained minister, finding a church home was imperative. I wanted to find another “safe place,” so we visited all the Black churches we could find. I met a lady, who was also a transplant to the city, during one of my visits. She invited me to Church of the Harvest (COTH). I told her I had researched the church, but it was not a Black church. She told me to give it a try, and I did.

During my first service, so many of my stereotypes were challenged. It was my first experience worshipping with white people, outside of a Black History program. The music, style of worship, and order of service were different. However, the spirit was the same. I felt the presence of God, the peace of God, and the conviction of God. My husband and I decided to stay at COTH, because the messages being preached were more important than the safe place we thought we needed. I worshipped through my fears, discomfort, and even my stereotypes.

In the past 10 years at COTH, we gained a family. We’ve had many difficult conversations with the understanding we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. We have been asked why we prefer sweet potato pie over pumpkin pie, why we continue to have anxiety when being pulled over by the police, and why the sight of my son wearing a black hoodie causes me to immediately go into a prayer of protection. I have asked why people put raisins in potato salad, the history of the KKK, why the West Side and East Side are divided, and why there are so many more police at Bosse games than Memorial games.

I have unconditional love for my COTH family and am keenly aware this season of uncovering systemic racism is difficult for most of us. I know some are being challenged by my social media history lessons and my declaration that Black Lives Matter. As I travel to rallies and protests to speak and/or participate, I am constantly praying I keep the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. When the news continues to highlight the looting instead of the injustice, when I receive texts berating me as a racist, and when I am disappointed with the lack of support from people I thought I could count on, I allow myself to grieve. I allow myself to weep. I allow myself to mourn.

I once heard an elderly woman at a church declare, “Lord, we are tired of crying. Lord, we are tired of fighting. Lord, we are tired of praying to be seen. Just take me home, Lord, for this land cannot be my home.” In the last 90 days, I have understood that pain as never before. However, my prayer ended differently. “Lord, we are tired of crying. We are tired of fighting. We are tired of praying to be seen. Give me strength for this battle, Lord, for this land is also my home.”

— Rita Prior is the board vice president of the AIDS Resource Group, student ministry director of the Church of the Harvest, and lead solutionist/founder of Risk Living, a personal life coaching service.


 

Janay Sharp

I don’t often dwell on my place in the world or my community, so jotting down thoughts about my experience as a Black woman born and raised in Evansville was a challenge. As I ruminated on what I could say that might bring some measure of positive change, I focused on what I’ve experienced that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t Black or any variation of different. I have a white father and Black mother who both grew up in poor parts of Evansville. They worked very hard to give my brothers and me opportunities they didn’t have. For me, this meant participating in a competitive dance company for 10 years, multiple sports and camps, and attending an expensive private school from sixth through 12th grade. To me, I was just like everyone else and doing the same things as the other kids, but to many others I was — at least at first — different. And as I got older that became more and more clear, and it did not feel good.

What I don’t think many of my fellow Evansvillians understand or have perspective on is that when you’re a racial minority, being made to feel like “the other” is pretty common. I don’t think the people who made/make me feel that way do it purposefully or are bad people. They just haven’t taken the time to think about what it might be like to be the only one who looks like you in the room day in and day out. It can be isolating and frustrating and turn into conversations that are embarrassing. I need my Evansville neighbors to understand we are limited on diversity here, so there is extra work required to being informed and respectful. The preconceived notions you may have about Black folks may not be based on reality, and blackness is not one, fixed, defining concept. A general understanding of those notions would save me from having to respond to humiliating questions like “Do you talk differently when you’re around Black people,” “Can you teach me how to twerk,” “Is your hair real,” and “Where are you from originally?”

I’m from Evansville. I’m from a place that’s made up of a lot of good people. I wish more of those good people would take the time to try to understand what it’s like to be me, or a person of color they care about. That’s the first step toward a more positive, cohesive, and respectful environment for us all.

— Janay Sharp is an Evansville native and serves as a regional development officer for Youth First, Inc.

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