Racism in Ridgefield? The town has a history

A tribute to lost blacklives was set up in front of Ridgefiled Community Center by the Compassionate Ridgefield organization.

A tribute to lost blacklives was set up in front of Ridgefiled Community Center by the Compassionate Ridgefield organization.

Byran Haeffele / Hearst Connecticut Media

On Christmas Eve in 1978, Edward Browne and his wife were in the kitchen of their home on Old Sib Road when they spotted something glowing outside. They went to a window and saw that it was a six-foot-high cross, burning on their front lawn.

The symbolic message of hate was directed at Browne, a 35-year-old black man who had moved to Ridgefield with his wife six months earlier. “It’s easy to say that it is racial because I’m black living in a white neighborhood,” Browne told The Press. “It was a sick person, no matter if he is black or white. He has a lot of hatred.”

Police subsequently arrested five young men, and one of them had his misdemeanor charges raised to a federal charge of violating civil rights law. Speaking to The Press after his arrest, the self-admitted ringleader said, “I hate blacks.”

While that remains Ridgefield’s most notorious racial incident, more recent instances have also made headlines and drawn outrage:

  In October 2017, a racist image of a white teenager wearing blackface — with an arrow connecting the image to a racial slur — circulated at Ridgefield High School.

  In April 2017, members of the Ridgefield High girls tennis team used chalk to draw messages and pictures of love and acceptance over graffiti that included a swastika and the N-word.

  In June 2017, racist statements (along with a swastika) were found on the Ballard Park stage.

  In October 2019, a racial slur, the N-word, was written on lockers in the boys’ locker room at the school.

Prompted by the outrage surrounding the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, the topic of racism in Ridgefield has become a supernova on social media sites and in daily conversations.

Among the questions being asked: Just how prevalent is racism (intended, implied or unrecognized) in Ridgefield, a town in which 92 percent of the nearly 25,000 residents are white? What can people do about it? How comfortable (or uncomfortable) do black people feel living in Ridgefield?

“Ridgefield’s more racist than others places I’ve lived probably because of the lack of diversity here,” said a black student at Ridgefield High School who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s more casual and overlooked, but I can’t really blame residents because they don’t have a sizable POC (People of Color) community to interact with. Being in a bubble has more downsides than benefits.”

“There is racism everywhere,” said a black woman whose children have attended Ridgefield schools.

“However, with that being said, when racism rears its ugly head in Ridgefield it is met with resistance and denial amongst the Ridgefield public,” added the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.

The woman described one of her children’s experiences when her class read Richard Wright’s book Black Boy at the high school.

“My concern was not with the book as much as it was with the sensitivity or lack thereof in which it was taught to the class,” she said. “Do you understand how difficult it would be for a child of color to sit in the classroom where the N-word is said by the teacher or said by classmates because they are just ‘referencing the book?’ Can you even imagine how that child feels knowing that his/her classmates are giving them a side eye looking for a reaction?”

“Last year, I remember a fight that occurred between a black and white student,” said Collin Norcross, a white student at Ridgefield High. “I don’t have the full story, but it’s my understanding that the white student sent the African-American student a picture of a black man in a cotton field over Snapchat and told him to go back to where he belonged. That was mind-baffling to me that a freshman could be filled with that much ignorance at that age.

“Another example would be two days ago, actually,” Norcross added. “One kid was suspended from online school after he sent a meme mocking George Floyd to a random white girl at the school.

“I don’t believe the majority of students at RHS are racist, nor do I believe the majority of Ridgefield residents are racist. However, prejudiced and racist remarks and comments do occur ...” continued Norcross. “I’ve seen kids stand up to racist language/comments that were directly intended to offend a minority. It doesn’t happen that often just because it’s uncommon at RHS for someone to walk up and purposefully bully and degrade someone based on their race.”

During the last week, residents have engaged in lengthy discussions (some heated) about race on several social media sites, including the RidgefieldCT Facebook page.

“If anyone honestly believes there’s no racial tension in Ridgefield then they are incredibly ignorant,” wrote one white man. “I’ve seen so much racism in this town growing up. To say there’s no racial tension is being part of the problem.”

A few residents said they were unaware of racism being an issue in Ridgefield.

“I’ve always thought since living here since 1966 and watching Ridgefield evolve from an ultra conservative to an ultra liberal town, that people would be welcoming diversity,” wrote one white man. “I guess I was wrong.”