NAACP Vermont director talks upbringing, race relations in her home state

Posted

WALLINGFORD — Tabitha Moore loves Vermont for the same reasons pretty much anyone does: The beauty of the Green Mountains, the small, close communities, the connection to the earth and one another.

And yet, the 41-year-old Vermont director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wonders how much longer she can stay in a state where 95 percent of the population identifies as white, and where her biracial identity has set her apart since childhood.

"I'm exhausted," Moore said. "When you're hypervisible and invisible at the same time, there's a lot of energy that goes to just surviving and navigating that territory."

That territory — race in America — is even more tiring, she said, because of the work she has chosen. In addition to overseeing statewide NAACP activities, she is president of the Rutland Area NAACP and provides coverage for Bennington County. Moore has been especially active in greater Bennington since Vermont's only black female legislator, Bennington resident Kiah Morris, resigned from her House seat after racist harassment.

Beginnings

Moore's white mother, Heather McIntyre, met her black father, William Flemming "Virgil" Moore Jr., when they both were serving in the U.S. Army in California in the 1970s.

The pair planned to marry a little less than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling Loving v. Virginia, which struck down all state interracial marriage prohibitions in 1967. Moore Jr.'s superior wrote a letter to McIntyre's, however, concerned about the couple and whether their relationship could outlast the scrutiny of the civilian world.

"Because of the nature of the military itself," Commander Edwin M. Nores wrote, "it breeds a type of fraternity, at times, which you, unfortunately, don't find on the outside."

McIntyre and Moore Jr. did marry, and they had two children: Moore and her older brother, Bill. When Moore was three, the family moved to northwest Kentucky. That's when her father's mental health worsened. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Moore said.

"He was very violent," she said. One time, she added, the police came and had to drop her out a window to get her out of the house.

McIntyre divorced Moore Jr. two years later. She brought the two children to Rochester, Vermont, where they moved into McIntyre's childhood home.

On the farm

Moore admits that she romanticizes the part of her childhood when she lived in her grandparents' small, old farmhouse.

"My grandfather was born in that house in 1914, and he died in it in 2012," Moore said. "All my aunts and uncles lived around us."

Also around them: a pond good for catching frogs and floating rafts, a brook good for fishing and a barn good for jumping from the rafters and into the hay. Moore called the farm's 100 acres of woods her "sanctuary." She fondly remembers the stray cats people used to drop off, and the bond she and her new step-dad, Bruce Eldert, had over their shared love for one cat, Angel.

In addition to play, Tabitha and Bill Moore and their new younger brother, Stephen, helped the adults with work on the farm. Their grandfather, Earl, raised cows, pigs and chickens, logged and sugared. Their grandmother, Bonnie, baked donuts and sticky buns for the local market and sold wreaths for the holidays. Starting in 1986, their parents — Moore said she eventually started to call Eldert "dad" — opened a carpentry business together.

"Growing up on the farm ... I'm grateful that I had that," Moore said. "It's the simplicity of what life should be: it's all relational."

While Moore reveled in the simplicity of the farm, life in Rochester wasn't free of complications.

"We dealt with racism," she said. "I remember people touching my skin as a kid. [Asking], 'Why does she look like that?' Touching my hair in church. Just stuff you deal with when you're a brown kid in Vermont and around any group of white people that's never seen anybody that doesn't look like them."

As Moore approached puberty and her brother Bill entered high school, the ways in which they were treated differently became more pronounced.

"My mom started noticing [Bill] was getting blamed for things in school, whether he did them or not," Moore said. "My mom wanted us to move to a place that was more diverse, in Vermont, which is hilarious."

Wallingford, it turned out, had several more children of color.

"All of a sudden, we went from a school that was 200 people K-12 to a seven-12 school that was almost 1,000 students," Moore said.

While she liked high school and involved herself in all kinds of activities, Moore said she continued to deal with racism.

At Mill River Union High School, she heard about a substitute teacher's bigoted comment through a friend.

"She told ... her younger sister's class that the reason black people have brown skin is that they descended from apes, and white people descended from gods," Moore said. "[Mill River's] response was that I didn't have to go to biology until the teacher came back. I missed instruction. They didn't know how to deal with race."

Moore also experienced discrimination in the wider community. Once while she was at the mall in Rutland, she said she was in a store, buying something, when her two white friends stole items. As the three of them left, the store manager approached the group and demanded Moore turn out her pockets, even though she had paid.

"He never questioned the white people," she said. "Even being your kind of all-American teenager, it still made me feel like I didn't fit in here."

Leave and return

After high school, Moore didn't think she'd ever return to southern Vermont. She moved to New York state, attended Wells College and designed her own bachelor's degree on the psychology of Latin America. After that, she earned a master's degree in marriage and family therapy/counseling from Syracuse University.

Moore said she knew she wanted to study mental health long before she reached college age — ever since living with her biological father.

"Going away from him at such a young age and knowing he was schizophrenic, I just knew I needed to understand people," she said.

What she didn't always know was what she missed with the absence of her black parent. But when Moore joined the Syracuse branch of the NAACP, she said she found black mentors for the first time in her life.

"I was just immersed in ways I'd never been," she said. "I decided at that point that I needed to be working with my people."

Article Continues After These Ads

This work took several forms: supervising a mental health program to prevent gang and gun violence, providing cultural competence training for law enforcement as a probation officer, and improving services for youth as an assistant director of a juvenile detention facility.

"I realized that my true work was really around examining all the systems that impact identity development ... how these systems either prohibit or promote messages of love and affirmation and connection within the self and then within the community," Moore said.

In the meantime, she had two children, and it was for them that she changed her mind about living in Vermont.

"I loved Syracuse, but I wanted my kids to be raised around nature," Moore said. "I wanted them to have those same experiences that I had, that rooted them to the earth."

New roots, old place

Moore and her children moved to Wallingford in 2009, when she took a counseling job at Mill River Union High School. She stayed for eight years, and in that time, she said the staff, the curriculum and the school's handling of race hadn't changed much since her own high school days.

She said she received a number of complaints about a teacher who, while teaching "To Kill a Mockingbird" for a unit on slavery, used a racial epithet and forced students to use it, too. Moore added that several students refused to go to class because of it.

"I brought it to the attention of [the administration] for seven years and nothing was done," she said.

Mill River Union High School principal Tyler Weideman said he couldn't comment on "employee relations" due to school board policy.

"If a complaint of racism is brought before administration, a designated employee is assigned to investigate the complaint," Weideman said. "If the complaint is substantiated, then appropriate consequences are put in place."

Near the end of Moore's time working for the school, she began thinking about starting a Rutland chapter of the NAACP. Mary Brown-Guillory, then-president of the Champlain Area NAACP, told Moore that Rutland generated the most complaints statewide.

"This was an opportunity for me to succeed in ways I had not at Mill River," Moore said. "I got a mailbox, and a Gmail account, and I was like, okay, what's next?"

The Rutland Area NAACP held its first meeting Aug. 3, 2016. Six months later, after recruiting the required 100 members, the branch was officially charted by the NAACP's national board of directors, becoming Rutland County's first racial justice organization.

Six months later, white supremacists marched down the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and a 20-year-old Ohio man drove his car a the crowd of counter protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 28 others.

In response, Moore organized a rally in Rutland's Main Street Park to stand against violence and white supremacy.

"I said some things," Moore said. "But people were like, well we want to sing. I just started belting out whatever I had in my heart and it was just amazing — just this moment of vulnerable connection. I don't necessarily know what I'm doing, but I know that as a leader my job isn't to tell people what to do but to make space for people to do whatever they need."

This approach became the model for how Moore led NAACP activities, such as organizing a panel of black men to speak at a "know-your-rights" event, creating a series for white people to interrogate their whiteness and writing a joint letter with the American Civil Liberties Union calling for state officials to continue a previous investigation into the Bennington Police Department.

The letter, from February of this year, concerned the police department and its response to former state representative Kiah Morris following her allegations of racist online harassment by self-described white nationalist Max Misch. Morris cited both the ongoing harassment — which Misch has acknowledged — and her husband's health for why she stepped down in September 2018.

The Vermont Attorney General's office conducted an initial inquiry into the local department's handling of the case, and announced that, while Morris had been a victim of racial harassment, there was nothing that met the threshold of a criminal offense under current state law. Later, following a subsequent Vermont State Police investigation, Misch was charged with two counts of unlawful possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices, to which he has pleaded not guilty. State police say the charges are unrelated to the Morris case.

The letter claimed Bennington's police withheld unspecified information about Misch from state investigators — a claim town officials have denied.

On the Attorney General's recommendation, the Bennington Select Board has since sought proposals for independent consultants to assess the Bennington Police Department. Moore said the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Division has also contacted her and presented the possibility of submitting a federal complaint.

In Vermont

On a warm Saturday in the middle of spring, Moore could be found in the center of Wallingford, in a two-story home surrounded by a white picket fence, in the midst of five dogs, one cat, one turtle, several goldfish and her children, who now number three: Reese, 16, Brynn, 11, and Hadley, 7.

The pets were quiet except for the dogs, who barked and scampered and eventually settled on any available lap. Children argued over chores, visited the Wallingford Bike Safety Day at the elementary school across the street and hung out with neighborhood friends.

Moore sat on the couch as she reflected upon her racial justice work. She said it looks different in Vermont than it does in a setting such as Syracuse.

Racial justice organizations are a relatively new phenomenon in Vermont: Moore doesn't remember any from her childhood. Without this institutional history, Moore said the NAACP in Vermont acts less like the establishment it is in other parts of the United States, and more like the grassroots organization it was during the Civil Rights Movement.

"The ability to make an impact to change things on a state level, the ability to ripple through the fabric of our state and our culture here, is so much more than in Syracuse," she said.

The other major difference: the organization is, unsurprisingly, much whiter here. When she started the Rutland branch, Moore said she had to do a lot of work to educate white people and let them know they didn't have to be black to join.

"People don't understand and don't realize that the NAACP was founded in 1909 ... by a multiracial group of people," she said. "Ultimately, white people will end white supremacy if it is to end peacefully. They have to start dismantling the system while we build up systems that are more equitable and representative and accepting and loving of diverse populations."

Building up those new, more inclusive systems, though, is tiring work. Moore said whenever she gets together with other people of color in Vermont, they all ask one another how much longer they'll stay. Moore takes twice-annual trips away to somewhere with a majority non-white population to reset and recharge.

"You can't be in it all the time," she said.

Moore is still energized by Vermont and what it offers beneath the complications of white supremacy and racism: The mountains, the small neighborhood where her children can play, the simplicity she learned from her grandparents' farm.

"It's about living," she said.

Elodie Reed is a frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes.


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.



Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions