Some longtime residents say the city, which is currently debating legislation that would label racism a public health crisis, is in the midst of a needed racial reckoning

Michelle Dudley relocated to Canal Winchester with her family a little more than 10 years ago, moving from her home in Olde Towne East to escape neighborhood violence and to provide her children with better educational opportunities. But while Dudley, who is Black, said that the overwhelmingly white suburban community has been generally welcoming of the family, her children have still been subjected to racist taunts on the sports field and occasional racist suspicion off of it. 

“My son has a good friend who lives close to the golf courses in Canal Winchester, and they were walking over to the friend’s house, and the Community Watch here, which [runs through] the sheriff’s department, literally followed them,” Dudley said. “They waved to the officers, and said they were just walking home, but the Community Watch still followed them all the way to the house.

“So it’s definitely a mixture. It’s a great area to be in, but you also have to have all of these side conversations, and you accept a lot of unease. You trade the violence of the inner-city for discrimination and prejudice. And what’s really safer? Is it safer to be possibly in fistfights and everything that comes with living in the inner-city? Or do you come out here where your kids possibly still can’t walk down the street because someone might take them as a threat? And that’s something I’ve debated, especially with everything that’s happened here these last few months: Did I make the right decision coming out here to small town U.S.A.? And have my kids been subjected to more racism, more discrimination than they would have been had we just stayed in Columbus?”

The greater racial reckoning that swept through America following the late-May killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police hasn’t been limited to just its racially diverse cities, extending into majority white Ohio suburbs such as Bexley, Upper Arlington and Canal Winchester, and even deep into rural areas such as Coshocton. In Canal Winchester, this movement has materialized via a series of marches and rallies, the formation of anti-racist groups such as the Greater Canal Winchester Community Action (GCWCA) collective, of which Dudley is a co-founder; a weekly Black lives matter sit-in outside of David’s United Church of Christ, which took place every Friday from early July through late October; and recent discussion among city officials centered on adopting legislation that would label racism a public health crisis within the town, versions of which passed this year in Columbus, Upper Arlington and Canal Winchester-neighboring Lithopolis.

But the growing movement has also inflamed racial tensions in the conservative town, which is more than 88 percent white, according to the most recent census data. On June 5, a peaceful Black lives matter march through Canal Winchester was greeted by freshly boarded up businesses, some guarded by armed white men, rows of police cars, and hecklers who countered the estimated 75 to 100 marchers, many of whom were local high school students, with shouts of “You don’t belong here!” and “All lives matter!”

“Before the march I was getting messages like: ‘This shouldn’t be happening here’; ‘Racism doesn’t exist in Canal Winchester’; ‘Take that Downtown [to Columbus]. Take that somewhere else,’” said Arnetta Davis, who has lived just north of US-33 outside of Canal Winchester for 10 years and is one of the co-founders of GCWCA. “People were not in favor of it. Businesses in downtown Canal Winchester were not at all in favor of the marches. We had community people come out, screaming at adults and kids, being racist toward everyone who was marching.”

A trio of high-profile racist incidents have further highlighted the long-simmering divide in the region. In August, Kelley Doerfler, one of the owners of Canal Winchester’s Loose Rail Brewing and Harvest Moon Craft Kitchen, posted a racist meme that featured a photo of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who shot and killed two during a Black lives matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which led to widespread social media blowback and the brewery being removed from the Columbus Ale Trail. (The brewery’s ownership group initially agreed to an interview, then backed out, instead submitting a statement that read, in part, “racism is not tolerated in our business.”)

In June, Canal Winchester made national headlines when a 9-year-old girl had the police called on her by a neighbor for chalking “Black Lives Matter” in the street in front of her house. Later in June, in neighboring Lithopolis, Tamasha Tennant, a resident of the city since 2015 and a member of city council since 2016, was assaulted by a white man, who spit tobacco juice in her face as she stood on the street corner scrolling through her phone. “People will kick a dog, but they won’t spit on a dog,” Tennant said in an emotional Facebook video posted a week after the assault. “It’s so vile.”

“It’s one of those things that’s almost subhuman,” Tennant said by phone in October. “For a while afterwards, I had to have my husband go with me to the grocery store and things like that. It was very tough to bounce back from.”

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Prior to moving to Lithopolis from Atlanta, Tennant and her family lived in several European cities, which made the move to rural Ohio all the more jarring. “My husband is white and I’m Black, which is pretty common over there, so it was never a big deal,” said Tennant, who started having more intense conversations about race with her children following the move to Lithopolis, instructing them that if they were pulled over by the police, their first words to the officer were to be, “My father is white.” “Coming [to Lithopolis], I’d have experiences of walking into establishments to pick up food, and all of a sudden the record stops and all eyes are on me. … I wish I could say I embraced it as my opportunity to show people that the world was changing, but I can’t. Honestly, I’d come home and say to my husband, ‘We may have picked the wrong spot.’ It really made me second-guess my decision to move, especially since we have three children, which was the whole reason we moved from Atlanta, because we wanted them to have the same small town experience we had growing up.”

Despite the initial discomfort, the family opted to stay, with Tennant heavily involving herself in the Lithopolis community in an effort to win over skeptics, becoming a board member with both the PTA and Lithopolis Honey Fest before making the run for city council.

“I wanted to get as involved as I could so that that other people — children, parents, teachers — could see someone of color who was absolutely devoted to the kids in our school system, or someone of color diving in and doing everything she could for Honey Fest, which is the biggest event Lithopolis has every year,” said Tennant, who co-sponsored the legislation passed unanimously by Lithopolis city council labeling racism a public health crisis. “I made myself very, very visible so that people who might not normally ... have communications with other people of color... I want that experience to be positive.”

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In Canal Winchester, the racial divide is geographic, as well. According to the most recent available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Canal Winchester school district is 72 percent white and 23 percent Black, and a majority of those Black students live on the north side of US-33, which is serviced by the city of Columbus (residents still pay Canal Winchester school taxes, and children attend school in the district).

“We vote Franklin County. We’re considered Franklin County. We’re served by Columbus police. But our kids attend Canal Winchester schools,” said Davis of GCWCA. “So there’s a huge disconnect. There are things we don’t have a say on, as far as [Canal Winchester] city council, because we don’t vote, so we’re often overlooked. And that adds to the huge racial divide. … My kids love playing sports … and there have been times they’ve been told by parents and kids alike that they don’t belong there. ... They’ve been called bad, horrific racial names.”

For years, Vangela Barnes has lobbied Canal Winchester officials to make greater efforts to bridge this divide, pointing to the large number of students who live north of US-33 but attend school in the town. Among other asks, Barnes would like to see the district hire more teachers of color, and she would like changes to be made to the current pay-to-play system for extracurricular sports, which she said can be more financially burdensome for some Black families.

“We really don’t get a voice on the other side,” said Barnes, who co-founded GCWCA and helped organize the June 5 racial equity march through Canal Winchester. “We don’t get a voice in Canal proper and it affects us tremendously. My kids work in Canal proper. They go to school in Canal proper. I go to the grocery store in Canal proper. Most of the time if I go to a restaurant, that’s what I support. I spend most of my money and time in Canal, and it feels like we don’t have any voice there.”

Barnes, along with five others interviewed, said they felt similarly unheard by mayor Mike Ebert and city council members in recent discussions centered on adopting a resolution that would declare racism a public health crisis within Canal Winchester, describing officials as unmotivated and indifferent. During a late August city council meeting at which the potential resolution was first discussed, the issue was shoehorned into the final five minutes of the meeting and the level of engagement from both the mayor and council members was noticeably lacking compared with earlier debate over whether bars and restaurants hurting from COVID-19 should be allowed to serve alcohol outdoors, an idea nixed by Ebert because of the extra policing it might require and his fears of potential violence against officers in this “current climate.”

“They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to do anything. They don’t understand what an ordinance means, or how it’s going to improve the city, or make it look any better,” Barnes said. 

“It’s a sense that we’ve all had, that it’s not important to them, that it’s not a priority,” Dudley said. “I think they know there’s a problem [with racism], but it’s not big enough that they feel like they have to do anything about it, because it doesn’t affect them.”

Regardless, it’s still likely Canal Winchester passes some form of legislation in the coming months, in part due to pressure from residents, but also because of recent outreach from the business community, most notably Scottish multinational beermaker BrewDog, which invested heavily in Canal Winchester when it opted to locate its U.S. headquarters in the city, opening a massive brewery off of Gender Road in 2017.

“We were contacted by members of the Greater Canal Winchester Community Action collective, and they reached out to us and made us aware of the anti-discrimination ordinance that was going up in front of the council, and, as a business, we are committed to taking a stand against racial injustice and inequality, so we wanted to be involved,” said Keith Bennet, special projects and business development manager for BrewDog, who, in addition to speaking with Ebert by phone, provided an on-record letter from the company in support of legislation to city council. 

“If businesses weren’t actively involved in the political environment of their communities, they need to be now,” said John Quick, BrewDog head of retail, who added that the brewer wanted to make sure that any ordinance passed had legislative teeth. “In our ideal world, it’s something that would create a better equality standpoint for all citizens of Canal Winchester. … It needs to be a progressive action, to make sure that all humans have the same rights, and there need to be laws built around it, as well, as opposed to just saying something and making it sound nice on a piece of paper.”

In a late-October phone interview, mayor Ebert said he wasn’t sure what form potential legislation might take. “I haven’t given it much thought,” he said when asked what elements he would like to see in a resolution. “I think we’re all in favor of something, but what that something is right now, I don’t know. … Two separate councilmembers are working on this, and it’s yet to be presented to the council or myself, but we’re willing to listen and see what they have.” 

As to the larger issue of racism within his city, Ebert admitted it was a growing problem, rating it a five on a scale of one to 10, “with 10 being the worst.” “I’ve lived here for 70 years, in Canal Winchester, and when I was growing up, going to school here and the whole bit, it was a farm community, and race was something we didn’t know,” said Ebert, who said he didn’t meet his first Black person until he got a job working south of Columbus following school. “Through the years, I don’t know what happened, to be quite honest with you, but it’s like we’re going backwards. … It’s not something that happened overnight, and I don’t think we’re going to heal things overnight, either.”

Residents such as Barnes, Davis and Dudley, among others interviewed, stressed that it should be incumbent on city officials to take a leadership role in this healing process, which Davis said leadership has appeared unwilling to do, at least to this point. “As mayor, [Ebert] has not come out to say that he denounces racism, that he stands with the community in fighting against racism, and that he will do everything in his position to assure that all community members feel equally accepted,” Davis said. 

Ebert has also pointedly refrained from making any public admission that “Black lives matter.” Asked if he had considered releasing any kind of statement to that effect, and if he believed that black lives did indeed matter, Ebert said that he wanted to withhold comment until city officials went through a forthcoming diversity training, which is scheduled for December.

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While the political powers have been slow to embrace this racial awakening, there are others within the Canal Winchester community who have made greater efforts to engage in the conversation. Jenna Acklin, whose neighbors called the police on her 9-year-old daughter, Mira, after she chalked “Black Lives Matter” in the street in front of the family’s Canal Winchester home, said that the incident, along with the greater movement for racial equity, had inspired her to become more outspoken against the injustices she perceived within her community.

“From the moment we moved in [19 years ago], it was apparent to me that this was a very conservative town, rooted in its traditions. And so most of the welcomes that we received from the people who grew up here, who raised families here, were, ‘Welcome to Canal Winchester. It used to be so much better here when I was a kid, before they built things up north of 33,’” said Acklin, whose family largely kept to itself as a result of these interactions. 

More recently, though, Acklin has been more engaged, attending city-held town hall meetings on race, helping found the GCWCA and lobbying officials in support of an ordinance labeling racism a public health crisis. “For the first time it feels like there is potential [for change] here, because there’s exposure, and I think there are a lot more people like me, people who have been uninvolved but are getting involved,” Acklin said. “The people who were involved were the lifetimers here, and I think those of us who have come into the community didn’t want to play those games, but now we’re seeing what that has led to, and the environment that has created.”

A similar spirit of outreach fueled the weekly Black Lives Matter sit-ins outside of David’s United Church of Christ, where, each Friday from July through late October, a dozen or so residents gathered, sitting in lawn chairs set up along Washington Street and holding signs emblazoned with slogans like: “Black lives matter here”; “All lives don’t matter until Black lives matter”; and “Breonna’s life mattered.”

On a pleasant Friday in late October, the mood among those gathered was familial, since many had attended together regularly throughout the summer. The protesters passed around a plate of brownies, one gently strummed a guitar and others cracked jokes befitting the church-side setting. (“Let there be light,” one gentleman cracked as someone turned on a spotlight just after sunset.)

“This is predominantly a white congregation, but we want our African American neighbors to know that we support them, that we’re speaking out on these issues, and that there is a welcoming place in the community that is working for change,” said David’s UCC pastor James Semmelroth Darnell, who, along with Erika Jackson, has organized the sit-ins, which recently concluded in late October and will resume again once the weather permits in early spring. “Within the walls of our congregation, people know these are our values, but we need to be outside saying, ‘This is where we stand. Black lives matter.”

Jackson and Darnell said it was incumbent on white residents within Canal Winchester to speak out on racial injustice regardless of the potential blowback. And while the group has been subjected to menacing stares, crude words and hand gestures, as well as one woman who drove by yelling, “Communist! Communist! Communist!” pointing to each individual protester as she repeated the word, Jackson said that she had overwhelmingly been pleasantly surprised by the warm response from the greater community, including from some unlikely sources.

“We had a sheriff’s car pull up in this driveway, which had us all wincing for a second, and he was like, ‘I’m not supposed to be here, but I just wanted to tell you this is very necessary, and I’m glad you’re doing this,’” said Jackson, who is part of the Central Southeast Diversity Coalition, a racial justice organization aligned with GCWCA. “We’ve had burly guys in trucks drive by and honk. It’s really led me to check my own biases.”

This person-to-person engagement among longtime residents, as well as the city’s gradually increasing diversity, has given residents such as Michelle Dudley renewed hope that this ongoing movement could lead to more meaningful, enduring and needed change.

“Canal is getting more diverse, and so you have more parents who may not have grown up having Black friends, or friends of color, but their kids do,” Dudley said. “There are people of color who these kids have grown up with, who they care about. So this generation is like, ‘Well, if I can do something, my Black friend should be able to do it. If I can walk down the street without a problem, my Black friend should be able to walk down the street without a problem.’ And that’s been such a positive, that feeling like this new generation isn’t going to stand for it.”