LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. (WPRI) ─ A picture of a Little Compton parent in blackface standing near two Parent Teacher Student organization members prompted them to resign, and several parents claim the photo is a symptom of a growing racial divide in the town.
The photo was taken at a local Halloween party about three years ago but caused a stir recently when it was released in July on social media. One man in the image is dressed as a criminal with his face covered in black makeup.
Little Compton, a seaside town of just under 3,500 people, is about 95% white, according to census data.
PTS organization members Kim Cannon and Kimberly Chartier, who were both dressed as police officers in the picture, have since stepped down from their volunteer positions.
“I deeply apologize for any hurt that this unfortunate incident has caused,” Cannon said in an email. “I do not condone racism in any form. It is not part of who I am or my values.”
Chartier said the makeup, “seemed like a simple and non-controversial decision” for the individual in the photo to avoid wearing a mask for a “cops and robbers costume theme.”
“Again, to anyone the picture has offended we offer our deepest apologies,” Chartier said in an email. “We will move forward from this moment with a better understanding and appreciation of all of our neighbors.”
Keith Stokes, Vice President of the 1696 Heritage Group which promotes ethnic understanding, said the history of blackface recalls horror, not humor.
“At the time when the use of blackface or black stereotyping was peaking in the early twentieth century, so was the Ku Klux Klan,” Stokes said. “That was the peak of lynchings. It is a horrifying reminder for everyone, especially African Americans.”
Several parents of the town told Target 12 the picture resurfacing is the latest race-related incident that includes an altercation last fall.
One student was suspended, and a half-dozen others implicated in an October bullying incident involving racially charged names aimed at a student whose thumb was broken in a physical confrontation. Little Compton police did not find evidence that a crime was committed.
But since then, parents who asked not to be identified for fear of exposing their children to retaliation, say racist bullying from children and adults has continued, and in some cases gotten worse.
“My child no longer wanted to go to school,” one parent tells Target 12. “[They] were afraid.”
Another parent said, “You don’t have to be a person of color for this to affect you. It’s affecting all of our children.”
Yet another parent said commenting about the controversy might make it worse in a town that has only a few families of color. But they said something needs to be done.
“It needs to be out in the light to stop it. It’s affecting the children,” that parent said. “The adults can deal with it but we have to stop hurting the children.”
The group of parents who discussed the issue with Target 12 specifically blamed members of the school board for being part of the problem.
We reached out to every school board member to comment on claims they’ve worsened the racial divide but none of the five responded.
School district attorney Jon Anderson refuted parents’ claims board member Polly Allen distributed the picture, causing a “backlash against families of color” that was blamed on a parent.
“Polly was set up,” Anderson said. “[A parent] asked Polly for the picture.”
Anderson emphasized the PTS operates independently of the school department and school committee.
“The photograph is very disturbing, very inappropriate,” Anderson said. “But the Little Compton school department is not in the position of policing adults, whether it’s photographs or involving who raises their child, in what way.”
The town council has since passed a resolution condemning racism.
Andrew Moore said he proposed the measure before the picture surfaced, but added he was “disgusted” when he saw the image.
“Even one incident is one incident too many,” Moore said. “And even if it’s one person in town who has been victimized, we need to stand up for that person and stand with them and learn how we can do better.”
Moore said he hopes to help foster an environment for parents to feel safe enough to come forward and discuss the issues, and one parent said they are hoping for the same thing.
“We’re really trying to heal the community,” they said. “It’s intolerable for all of us, not only people of color, and it is stemming from school board members.”
Superintendent Laurie Dias-Mitchell said the district is committed to bringing the two sides together.
“The school already has rich and impactful programming in place and will be introducing additional diversity programming,” Dias Mitchell said. “The work is never done, and we all need to continue to support each other and challenge each other.”