Weekend Wanderlust: Visiting your hometown in a time of protest

Kevin J. Elliott
Downtown Troy, Ohio

This is where I’m supposed to write a travel column. Somewhere in my notes, I intended to write a lengthy essay about returning to my hometown and basking in the narrative warmth of walking the streets where I grew up. 

Columbus was a transient city when I moved here for college in the autumn of 1995. And though I’ve now called Columbus home for more than a quarter century, digging through its history and building my own, there’s a huge part of me that still connects to where I was born and raised: Troy, Ohio.

Many Columbus citizens have similar hometowns dotted throughout Ohio and the greater Midwest region. I, for one, have a love/hate relationship with the place where I was born. It’s a quintessential small Ohio town built on Hobart Manufacturing (inventor of the famous mixer), WACO airplanes, agriculture and a river. I love returning home and walking by the architecture that composes our Southwest Historic District, the sweeping views of the Miami County courthouse from the levee and the distinctly different neighborhoods that surround the (decaying but still beautiful) elementary schools. I love stopping at K’s Hamburgers for a double with everything; it’s been there since 1940, and it is one of the best burgers in Ohio.

Should you not want to return to your small hometown, that’s understood. A lot of your these towns are filled with Trump signs and Confederate flags. Troy, Columbus and Newark are not the same, but when it comes to issues of social justice and entrenched white supremacy, they could be.

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Troy is a bubble of white privilege (just look at any Ohio map from the 2016 election). About 10% of Troy’s modest population of approximately 26,000 are people of color. African-Americans make up a little less than half of that. Look at your own high school yearbook. Those of you returning home to bathe in nostalgia and comfort should also return home asking questions.

Recently, though, I saw much hope. The Troy Daily News was live streaming a Black Lives Matter protest in my idyllic downtown. I was euphoric that this was happening in, of all places, TroyTwenty-five years ago, when I graduated from Troy High School, this wouldn’t have happened.

I distinctly remember one protest in Troy. In 1986, after police murdered Kerry Helton (a white teen with a knife) with 17 bullets, protesters occupied our downtown for several nights. It took all 39 officers of the Troy police at the time to arrest a record 27 people.

I remember an incident when I was 10. I brought our African American neighbor, my good friend, to a club where my parents drank cheap beer and my brothers and I played arcade games. The place had let us in for a number of years, but turned us away this day because of my friend. Needless to say, we never returned there.

When I saw a protest in the bubble of Troy (and now in other small Ohio towns), I realized there were people in my hometown who have always felt the pressures of white privilege and systemic racism. Only now, that pressure has been given a megaphone. The community of Troy is falling in line with the calls across the country to “do better.”

Bailey Williams is a fellow Troy High School alumnus. He was born and raised in the city. During the pandemic, Williams was forced to return home in his senior year at Ohio University, where he was to graduate with a degree in Economics before moving on to law school at the University of Cincinnati in the fall.

The recent Troy demonstration that I watched live, which showed two students arrested for lying down in the street, wasn’t Williams’ first experience with protests in a small town. Williams led less-publicized protests in response to the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Troy in 2016. Back then, he would stand in front of the Miami County Courthouse downtown, with few interested parties and very little media in his wake. With the murder of George Floyd, and a need to be home from Ohio University because of the pandemic, Williams and a local friend, Tre Hudson, saw the national outrage and decided Troy needed the same attention and the same outrage.

A recent protest in Troy.

Should you visit Troy purely as a tourist, you’d see our downtown as one of the greatest in the nation (Mumford and Sons even picked it for the folk-rock band's iconically white, Lollapalooza-esque "Gentleman of the Road" tour). But on this night, you’d have seen peaceful protesters. Williams sat outside of the same theater in which I saw "E.T." as a child and spoke to the crowd from a picnic table. He had a fluid dialogue with the Troy police. He spoke truth to power. He wondered aloud why simple reform couldn’t occur for the simplest of police forces. There were pointed questions, but there were no riots, no projectiles, no obscenities, no “fuck the police" (although that kind of anger would have been justified). 

The only vitriol that erupted during this protest came from social media comments that might double as hate speech. “There’s been a great deal of negativity spewed by some people in the community,” Williams said, referring to the comments on the Troy Daily News Facebook page. “Some of it was outright horrifying. Nobody, though, was bold enough, or dumb enough, to actually do something towards any of the demonstrators. We did get some [people] driving by screaming 'all lives matter' out some windows, but that was the extent. There wasn’t any counter protest.”

Someone in Troy decided to print out some of the hateful online comments and post the flyers all over downtown. Underneath the header "Local Racists," names were highlighted next to the comments. It showed change.

A culling of Facebook “friends” was in order. Acquaintances from high school posted tone deaf responses like “all lives matter” and “black lives matter, too.” Heated arguments ensued. I did some more culling and connected with friends who, like me, escaped the bubble and searched for knowledge, higher education and places with inclusivity.

It can certainly be said that Troy is not a place of diversity. I had one teacher, for three months, who was a BIPOC in my 12 years of Troy education. I don’t remember any curriculum that dealt with black history; I let the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Public Enemy teach me that. That’s not an indictment of where I grew up, just a realization of white privilege and a guilt I couldn’t understand. Surely some of that’s changed in Troy, but not by much.

“A huge issue of race that lies right under our noses in Troy is the segregation of our neighborhoods,” said Williams. “A lot of people of color live just within the downtown area, and that’s something no one discusses. So the Wendy’s that’s there is called the ‘black’ Wendy’s, and the one near the interstate, in a more affluent area, is the ‘white’ Wendy’s. We see it, we recognize it, but we don’t acknowledge that. We don't do anything to challenge that.”

In the last few weeks, an Ohio State Senator, Steve Huffman, from Troy’s district, made overtly racist comments from the legislative floor(he should resign), and a state representative, Jena Powell, voted to not ban confederate flags from flying at county fairs (keep in mind the Ohio State Fair and plenty of other states not in the confederacy have already banned this). Incidents like this show that the town where I feel a certain sort of civic pride is still entirely flawed and built on systemic racism, even if it’s not always a surface reality. And in many cases, it’s right out in the open. Just look at the ugly display that occurred recently in the town of Bethel, where protesters were threatened and harmed.

This is where change happens. At the local level. Of course, should you look at the comments of a local issue in Columbus, you are certain to find the same small-minded denizens and trolls who inhabit these rural pockets of Ohio. They are everywhere.

White Ohioans like myself need to go home. Confront your racist relative, neighbor, Jena Powell, and let them know Ohio is not like this. Support the black-owned businesses in your hometown. Help protect black protesters. Take seriously the platforms and policies of politicians of color. At the same time, take note that you are still white, and it’s not your story to tell. So go home, but make sure it’s for the right reasons.