Local protesters organized in front of Mike's Barber Shop, Saturday morning, to express their anger and disappointment after reading a letter in the Reformer Nov. 3 by a visitor to the village who implied he was denied service at the local barber shop because he is black.
Though they were upset about the circumstances that brought them together, the concerned local residents actually spoke relatively little about the incident itself.
Instead, what started as a protest quickly turned into a discussion about civil rights, prejudice and how to keep perceived racist acts like the one at Mike's from happening again.
"We all have a duty every day, when we witness something like this, to bring it to account," said one woman.
Many people agreed that the key to preventing racism is to start within schools.
Nina Kunimoto, a student intern at Bellows Falls Union High School with the program Spark, which is run through Marlboro College, said she would like to see more done within BFUHS to address the issues of prejudice and discrimination.
"Right now we're planning on just doing a survey at the school to see what the level of interest is in presenting it, and then we'll see how to proceed and if we can get some other community member involved," Kunimoto said.
The incident was brought to light by Darryl Fisher, of Silver City, N.M., who described himself in his letter as "a black physician looking for a change of scenery after 30 years of working in a major U.S. city."
He wrote that while visiting medical practitioners in Bellows Falls, he stopped at Mike's to get a haircut and found two men playing cards. He was told that the barber was not in.
"So I returned an hour later and the same person who said that the barber was not in was cutting a Caucasian patron's hair," Fisher wrote.
"I am very pleased to know that I would not want to work or live in Bellows Falls with the above behavior of your local businesses," he wrote.
Protesters who braved the morning chill to gather around 9, said they are upset that one man's behavior caused accusations of racism that seem to encompass the entire village as a whole, lumping all its residents together under the category of "bigot."
"The doctor was grouping us all as racist, and that's simply not true," said Ann Dibernardo, vice-chairman of the Rockingham Selectboard.
The barber, Michael Aldrich, 69, of Rockingham, does not deny that he told Fisher the barber was not in.
He said that he and several of his friends were present at the shop when Fisher walked in.
"I was trying to avoid cutting his hair without embarrassing him or myself," Aldrich said.
But, he said, if the man had come back inside the shop to inquire further the second time he walked by, rather than just looking in the window, he would have explained that he wasn't comfortable with his ability to cut African-American hair.
"For five years I tried (to cut African American hair)," Aldrich said. "I ordered special equipment and everything; their hair is entirely different."
He's encountered this type of situation before with different results, he said.
"Three months ago, a black gentleman came in and said ‘can you cut this hair?'" Aldrich said, grabbing a tuft of his own gray locks. "I said, ‘no, I'm very sorry,' and he thanked me and walked away."
Over the course of an hour or so, as he cuts one man's hair, then sits down to eat a muffin as he talks, he doesn't hesitate to use the word "Negro" more than once.
He also seems angry that Fisher spoke out about what happened.
"What does he have to go stirring this up for?" he said, adding that he believes black people are more racist than white people.
The barber shop itself has been in Bellows Falls for more than 50 years. Aldrich said he bought the shop in 1983.
He said he's not worried about the negative publicity affecting his business. A few customers mentioned the letter in the paper, he said, but they tended to bring it up as if it was "a big joke."
But judging from the two dozen or so people at the rally, it seems that other Bellows Falls residents are taking Aldrich's actions very seriously.
"I'm glad he wrote the letter, or we never would have known about it," said Cathy Bargmann, of Bellows Falls, during the protest.
"If you're going to run a business in this community, you need to run it on the values of the community," she added.
Francis (Dutch) Walsh, Rockingham town manager, said he spoke with Aldrich about the incident last week.
"He realized he made a big mistake," Walsh said.
He added that the protest brings to light issues that can be dealt with within the community if people are willing to come together in a productive way, such as the communitywide event to discuss bullying, which is already scheduled for later this month.
"I think there's the potential for a lot of good things to come out of this," he said.
The barber sounds like a real winner, let me tell you.
And OK, black members on ontd_p, how many of y'all have been turned away from hairdressers and barbershops because they claim they can't do black hair? I have, and it's humiliating.