EXETER, N.H. — It was the 2015 massacre of African-Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina church that made local activist Ken Mendis take action.
“We had a memorial service and invited people from different churches,” said Mendis, of Stratham. “We remembered the nine people that were killed. After that I was sitting there and I said, ‘That’s not enough.'”
From there, the Racial Unity Team of Exeter was formed. At first a “loosely-held group,” they began to form a community vision.
“We decided to look at history in Exeter and create a Walk a Mile for Racial Unity,” Mendis said. “That’s what kicked it off.” The walk, in its third year on Oct. 21, is a guided one-hour tour exploring how race has shaped Exeter’s history. The walk highlights sites of importance in the racial history of town, where Native American, African-American and Chinese-American lives made contributions or experienced discrimination.
The group, who pairs with organizations and institutions such as the NAACP, Phillips Exeter Academy and We The People, doesn’t have a religious focus but meets at various churches in Exeter including the Red Brick Church and the First Unitarian Universalist Church.
“The nine people that died (in South Carolina), that is our focus here,” Mendis said. “Dylann (Roof) wanted to start a revolution of hate, this group is a revolution of love and unity.”
Member Joy Meiser Mendis, also of Stratham, said slowly others started joining the group, which now has seven core members and at times up to 12.
“This is pretty much a white area,” Meiser Mendis said. “Some people think, ‘Well this isn’t an issue,’ but it is. For those people that are non-white living in the area, it definitely is an issue.”
Meiser Mendis said one focus of the group is reaching children in the local school systems and creating awareness of race, identity and diversity.
“The children in our school systems growing up in this mostly white environment are at some point going to have to go out in the world and live in contact with people of all races,” she said. “One of the focuses we’ve had is how do we educate schoolchildren on the issues of race.”
Mendis said when he first moved to the Exeter area, he was struck by a quote in the newspaper stating the SAU 16 school district “didn’t have a diversity problem.”
“Clearly the educators don’t get it, in my view,” he said. “They need to understand our kids are the ones who are going to go out and face the world. They need to understand that racial identities are many in this country. It’s difficult for me when I look at the school system. The future generation of this world is unaware.”
Group member David Weber said since the Racial Unity Team was founded after the Charleston massacre, it tended to have a focus on white/African-American relationships. “It’s now much broader,” he said.
However, racism towards blacks was something prevalent in Exeter’s history, and a rooted stigma the Racial Unity Team grapples with in their efforts. The Ku Klux Klan had a brief presence beginning in 1989 when a recruiter moved to town. The white supremacist group staged several marches down Water Street and counter-demonstrated a racial unity rally in 1990.
When the IOKA theater first opened in 1915 with a heavily publicized viewing of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” two horsemen rode around town dressed in KKK regalia to advertise the event.
“There are these episodes in history here,” Meiser Mendis said. At one point, she said, “black face” was an accepted form of entertainment at Town Hall. Photos in possession of the Exeter Historical Society depict shows from the 1950s to 70s. The fraternal organization, Improved Order of Red Men, would put on a minstrel show each year. The photographs depict white men, some dressed as Native Americans, some dressed in blackface, onstage at the Exeter Town Hall.
The Racial Unity Team was instrumental in holding the Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast event at the Red Brick Church in January, where a Phillips Exeter Academy student shared he had experienced being called a racial slur while crossing Front Street.
“Part of our work is to give people a place to tell their stories because that’s what gives people their dignity back,” said member Sylvia Foster, of Durham.
Weber said he has lived in Exeter since 1970 and “that kind of anecdotal reporting of racist verbal abuse has been a low-level background noise for 40 years.” Weber said the Exeter Police Department has stepped up policing efforts against offenses as such.
“This past year the department responded pretty aggressively to two cases of that kind,” he said. “They’re engaged.” Weber said members of the police department have met with the Racial Unity Team.
“I do this work because I hear bias spoken and acted on daily,” Foster said. “I wish that this group and others could build to have a community where we are all respected and valued for whatever we have to offer. We have a great deficit of empathy and trust, I think that’s owed to the debt that white people have for what they’ve taken. It makes me feel very sad about all of the things that people are missing. They’re missing their language, their religions, customs, cultures have been erased. We need to get to that road of where everybody has a chance to express who they are and have a chance for liberty and justice.”
Mendis said a personal long-term goal for him is to reach young children in the area schools and ensure education on different racial identities.
“They are going to have a hard time if they don’t understand,” he said. “We don’t want to lose those cultures. Kids need to feel comfortable with other people. Yes, every race has their problem people. But just because of the way someone looks, you don’t run.”
Weber said he hopes for a “universal human flourishing,” as originally stated by a former student once part of the group.
“I like that phrase but we’re a number of light years away from that,” he said. “In the meantime, we look for opportunities. I think about this group as being project-based. If we could find a way to get some traction in the schools, that would be great.”
Foster said she hopes to see “all voices at the table, and equitable chances for all to thrive.”
“Exeter hasn’t always led the way in race relations,” wrote Exeter Historical Society Curator Barbara Rimkunas in a 2015 column. “It’s still a town where racism expresses itself in both casual lazy conversation and even more alarmingly in occasional drive-by outbursts. We’re not a very diverse community. For this reason alone, we need to be reminded that racism exists and should not be tolerated.”
For more information about the Racial Unity Team, visit www.facebook.com/unity2030/ .
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com