Growing Up Black in Guilford
In an attempt to provide a platform that shines light on the many opinions, ideas, and voices of Guilford, the Courier is publishing the shared experiences of Black Americans who grew up in Guilford in the 1970s and 1980s. The Courier is also seeking feedback from anyone of a similar background who grew up in Guilford in the 1990s and/or 2000s. Contact Staff Writer Ben Rayner at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested in sharing experiences for a future article.
The following are excerpts from responses by three individuals who grew up and went to Guilford public schools in the 1970s and into the 1980s as gathered by Ben Rayner.
Juanita Pleasure is a graduate of GHS class of 1982. Her father Robert Pleasure held several administrative positions in the Guilford school system, most notably as principal of A.W. Cox Elementary, and was one of the founders of the Guilford ABC Program. Juanita Pleasure spent her career in retail management and is a mother and grandmother. She currently lives in New Haven.
What was it like growing up in a school system where your parent was employed?
“My dad was tough and strict, but he was fair. My parents came from Louisiana, it was during, and they lived through the whole Jim Crow thing. They sat at lunch counters and were really present during the racial parts of the sixties and seventies. They understand what it’s like to have to use a “Black Only” fountain or a “Black Only” bathroom, or not being able to go to certain restaurants, or even get gas at certain places. So, coming to Connecticut for them had to almost be…it must have been a whole shock…
“School-wise we couldn’t get away with anything. I couldn’t get away with anything. The school was just a phone call away so we learned early.
“What we were told early on, especially once we moved to Guilford was that we were not going to be able to get away with anything. We have to be on our best behavior because everyone’s going to know it’s you. We couldn’t hide…we’re Black. No one’s going to mistake your identities. There’s only three families or four (Black) families that live here. I definitely knew I wasn’t going. That’s how they parented us.
“We were also taught that you are going to have to try two or three times harder to finish the same.”
Did you recall any acts of discrimination or racism you witnessed growing up in Guilford?
“I never heard anything offensive, although I guess maybe something border line offensive. I do remember being at a picnic one time of family friend and one of the girls there had said something like ‘Yeah, our dad doesn’t like Black people, but he loves your dad, because your dad is only Black on the outside.’ So, what is it being Black? What does something like that mean? Was it a stereotypical analogy of what we were going to be like and my father wasn’t that? I was certainly too young to know what to say in the moment. I look at it now and being a Black teenager was difficult for me. All you want to do at that age is be like everyone else. The one thing about Guilford is that everybody looked the same, everybody dressed the same, at Christmas time everybody decorated their house the same. So, it makes for beautiful picturesque town, but it doesn’t allow for the celebration of diversity. Culturally it was different and I didn’t have a clue how to embrace the quote-unquote ‘African American’ culture. My hair was different. My skin was different. But there really was no one else to talk to about that.
“I don’t think people were prejudiced. I didn’t experience any straight on threat, discrimination, or ill feelings. But people didn’t talk then, they way they talk now. There were things you wouldn’t say in public back then, that I think people are comfortable saying now.
“So, I can’t speak on how other people felt or saw us, I can only see how it was for me. My father had stature in the community. He was involved in the community, he was involved in school…so people knew him. My growing up there may have been a little different than other families at that time because people knew my father-’Oh, Bob Pleasure works over here, Oh, Bob Pleasure sings over there.’”
Overall, what the experience of growing up Black in Guilford like?
“I would not have wanted to have grown up anywhere else. It was great—you have every amenity that you could’ve found growing up there. You have the shoreline, and swimming, and boating, and the high school curriculum is second to none. It would rival a private school. People are invested in the arts. I would not have wanted to grow up anywhere else, for those things. Could anything else be added into that? Without a doubt. We need to learn how to become more of a melting pot. Guilford would only be better for it.”
Do you have an opinion on Guilford’s recent discussions/disagreements on diversity and curriculum?
“There’s no easy conversation about race today. But it is a necessary conversation. It is something that has to be talked about. It can’t be taboo. Because if we don’t have these conversations, we can’t grow. We can’t hear what another person feels, thinks, dreams, or aspires to if you don’t have that conversation. When we say we don’t want our children to feel guilt, or feel bad about who they are or their whiteness, I get that. We don’t want anyone to feel that, but [slavery] is something that happened. I personally don’t believe in reparations. I don’t believe in holding people accountable for what their ancestors did. I am no more responsible during slavery than you are responsible for what happened during slavery, but we do have to learn from that. African American history is American history. It’s not a just part off to the side. That history is integral to who we are as Americans. We have to look at that. We do need to teach the facts as they are…Nobody wants anybody else to feel bad, and you can’t undo the past. If we take the conversation away, it doesn’t allow us to learn. I don’t know what the right answers are, but for me it is just trying to keep the conversation going.”
Did you ever face overt racism in sports that you played or with matches or games in other towns?
“I didn’t encounter my first wave with racism honestly until I went to UConn, and it was because I wasn’t Black enough. I got there and I didn’t dress like them. I dressed in my Bermuda shorts and layered Izod shirt and matching shoes that we all wore on the shoreline at the time. I didn’t speak like them…I had to learn to be a little more rough around the edges in some ways.”
Sloan Chapman is a GHS graduate from the Class of 1982. He was a standout football player for the then-named Guilford Indians. His son was raised in Guilford and was also a stand out member of the football team. Sloan is a commercial truck driver and currently lives in North Haven.
What was your experience like growing up in Guilford in the 1970s and 1980s?
“My mother grew in West Haven. My father grew in New Haven, and I went to school in Guilford from the fourth grade on. People who’ve never dealt with color just don’t see it. They don’t realize that there is a problem. I have always been a minority everywhere I go. But my mother and father always taught me to live a certain way, be the same with everybody. I don’t see that color and I think that’s the main problem with everything. If people just looked at people for who they are, and not the color…it happens in the Black race, too. Darker skin, versus lighter skin.
“Growing up here in Guilford wasn’t bad at all, but there were things that happened. It wasn’t bad, But I have to say that I was an angry person back then. I was an only child, so I obviously didn’t have brothers or sisters. So, if something happened, Sloan had to take care of it. There was no one else to blame if something went wrong. My way of doing things was violence in a way. If you called me a certain name and I didn’t like it, I would retaliate. That’s not the right thing to do, but sometimes it’s the only thing you can do. As far as retaliation my point of view on that is, if you’re going to retaliate, you need to make sure the person understands this isn’t going to happen again. Some of that is still in my head. Back then it was hard to move from West Haven in fourth grade and come to Guilford. There were times I got into [incidents], even with teachers. I can remember one incident when I was waiting for my mom to come and pick me up at school. I had one teacher tell me, ‘Sloan you have to get on the bus and get home to New Haven.’ I said, ‘I don’t have to get on the bus. I live here.’ [At that time, Guilford participated in an exchange program with New Haven schools and an ABC program as well.] She said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ and this teacher actually tried to put me on the bus, and then my mother pulled up in her little red Mustang and set it straight…This teacher had just assumed because I was Black, that I was part of the New Haven students.
Do you recall acts of discrimination? Especially in light of the fact that it was so apparent that you were different from everybody else in town and being in what essentially is an all-White school system?
“I can only count maybe four good teachers that I had. In fourth grade I had Mrs. Thompson—you can ask anyone who went to Cox about Mrs. Thompson. She was like a little a hippie chick, she used sit in a rocking chair and wear all this tie-dye stuff. But she was really down to earth. If I ever had a problem with someone, she was always there by my side. Mrs. Garber at the high school. I loved her, she was great. Mrs. Lathrop, who passed away, she was another one. She was great, too…Most of my really good friends, I’m still really good friends with today. And they’re mostly White. The one thing I can say about Guilford is that most of my really good friends understand. That’s one of the great things about Facebook. Today, people come out now a day and let you know exactly who they are. That is the best thing about Facebook. You find out who people are, both good and bad. I will say, that most of the women we went to high school with, and in our class are pretty unbelievable people. They stepped up online. These women are unbelievable. I’m glad they’re friends with me and I wouldn’t change that for anything. Anything. I’m thankful for all of that. My true friends are people I went to school with. That’s one of the things that’s really good about Guilford, you can make that happen. Sometimes when I meet other people they’re like. ‘You’re still friends with people from high school?’ and I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!’ We were that close. A lot of people would say to me, ‘Sloan you’re different.’ Well, how am I different? ‘Well, you don’t act like other Black people.’ I’ve actually had parents who said that to me. I would ask, ‘So, who do you know that’s Black?’
“That’s one thing that you can’t take from Guilford. It’s home, man. And it always will be home for me no matter where I go. There’s no place like it. It’s changed a lot…but it’s still a great place. I really have nothing bad to say about Guilford for the most part. I’ll put it to you this way, there’s more prejudice in West Haven than there ever was in Guilford-Madison-Clinton…”
Why do you think that was?
“Prejudice gets taught. If your parents teach it, someone people are like, ‘Well, I got to do what my dad says,’ even when they got older and when they knew it was the wrong thing. It’s ignorance, period. You’re taught that. Little kids don’t know if somebody is a different color when they’re born. They get along just fine. That right there is a lesson that everybody needs to hear. Put two little kids together they won’t fight. Well, they might fight, but it’s not over the color, it’s over a ball or kid stuff, but not over color. They don’t figure this stuff out or believe that unless somebody tells them that. A majority of prejudice is ignorant people. And it’s sad because it’s still going on. Go down south—it’s still going on.”
In a nutshell, how was this experience for you in a town with very, very few minorities, but from what you said, one that was still seemingly accepting?
“I learned a lot. I’ll put it to you this way: I wouldn’t change it for anything. I have no regrets on that, no regrets whatsoever. But then, the thing about it is that, that can flip on you, too. I can go and move to a totally Black neighborhood and get the same treatment, or even worse—’Oh, you’re White boy now.’ It just comes from people being ignorant, but you can get it from both sides…It can happen when you aren’t ‘Black enough.’ It happened to me when I went to UNH. The problem with me was, people in Guilford knew that I didn’t tolerate that stuff and that I’d use my hands. My father, when I first moved here to Guilford, said, ‘You may have some problems, so your ass is taking martial arts’. So, I ended up becoming a third-degree black belt [in] Korean Taekwondo, and it teaches you how to defend yourself, but it instills a lot more. When to use it, I had an unbelievable teacher—that was the hardest test I ever had in my life. I was only thirteen, and it was hard. If you cannot defend yourself, you can’t fight. It’s like any sport, defense wins. It teaches you not to smash people up, it teaches defense. But I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up any place else. I really learned a lot. It’s better to learn it at a young age than finding out later on in college, or going down south, going to southern states. Remember that was all in our lifetime, can’t drink from a water fountain, go to the back of the bus. Down there things are different, I know this. You know what people are thinking. They will tell you to your face. But hopefully that will change.
“I can tell you one story…I had a cousin come stay with me one summer. He was from Mississippi. You remember when [Scotty] Tucker used to have those swimming parties? I think must have been freshman year  and we went over to Tuck’s house. Now remember my cousin was from Mississippi, when he came in he thought ‘The Klan is gonna be here’-and when he came to the party, he couldn’t believe that he was in a swimming pool with White people. He had his Bible with him and everything…but it’s still like that down there. Believe it…but I see it getting better, but I’m always on the alert. Cautious optimism, I guess. But I know my friends have my back…”
Troy Chapman (no relation to Sloan Chapman) was class president of the GHS class of 1980. He attended Tufts University as an undergrad and graduated Harvard Law School with both former President Barack Obama and current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. He holds numerous degrees including a masters in education. He lives in Queens, New York, runs a non-profit, and manages and referees a soccer league with more than 250 teams and 10,000 members.
What was it like growing up in Guilford?
“Growing up in Guilford was idyllic, it really was. I was born in Guilford, I grew up in Guilford…My mom was from Bermuda, she was a maid and a cook. My father left when I was seven and my mom was a single mom working as a maid and a cook...[T]he thing about Guilford that was so amazing was, when my mother passed, we thought we were going to leave, and then the Moores [another Guilford family, renowned for fostering a number of Guilford children and who took in Troy and his brothers so that they could finish school] took us in. The Moores took all three us of in. To this day I tell everyone—I’ve worked with a ton of non-profits, again I’ve worked all over—and to this day I tell everyone that all of it is possible because of them. Most kids don’t get to grow up with their heroes and I did. My brothers did, too. Statistics show that only three percent of foster kids go to college and only one percent graduate from college. My brother Roger went to Harvard, I went to tufts and Harvard Law, my brother Derrick went on a full scholarship to URI, so how is that? Guilford was a real center for foster kids who all went on to do incredible things…I recently just found out about how other Guilford families had helped us back then. How they helped Roger in his education and a lot of this was behind the scenes, people just helped.
“There were a few incidents, but for 95, 98 percent of the time we were treated just like everybody else and we were dirt poor. Besides being of color, we were dirt poor, but in my classrooms I believed I could compete with anyone, because nobody treated me differently. I could show that I was just as smart as anyone else. If these people I was seeing could do it, the I knew I could, too. And no one made me feel like, ‘Hey you can’t do this because you’re Black.’
I will tell people this and they really don’t believe it: I lost my mother, I lost my father, he left at seven, and died when I was 17 right before my prom. I lost my foster parents by the time I was 21 and people don’t believe, but I had the greatest childhood I could ever imagine. But, I can tell you the one bad thing that [name redacted] said to me? I was in Los Angeles helping [him on his second album]. He said to me, ‘You know what? I wish...’—and this has come up with me, too—’I wish I had never grown up in Guilford.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because in Guilford, everybody treated us the same. And they set us up to believe that White people all over would be the same and they have been the complete opposite.’ I feel that, too. He said, ‘I wish I had grown up in Harlem and knew how it would be and knew I would get screwed over, because I trust people, because people in Guilford were so trustworthy.
“I said I know exactly what you mean. We all realize how lucky we were. I’ve worked in some of the worst high schools in New York and Minnesota…and hope is so bleak at these high schools, but in Guilford we had the opportunity every day to hope and to dream, just like all of our peers, and these kids don’t.”
Why do you feel that is?
“I was in Cub Scouts, I was in Boy Scouts, baseball, track we everything to keep busy. We went crabbing, we jumped into the sandpits, we went in the woods, we built forts. It was like living your life like Tom Sawyer. Guilford has that much to offer. When I go back now I just see this beautiful town that I took for granted growing up. Thinking that everybody grew up this way. You know Paul Dostie, who just passed away, I met Paul in third or fourth grade, and he took me home to his house and went swimming in their pool and we became best friends. We all caught the bus together. Paul was a perfect example of how we were treated in Guilford. I mean, I had friends who treated me just like everyone else, with no color factor at all. We got treated the same, I really never thought about it. It came up occasionally, I mean we had a few run ins, it wasn’t perfect, but for the most part…look, where else do you have a class a school with 1,200 people, a graduating class of 220, and there are only 10 or 12 Black people, four or five that are bused in from the ABC program, and yet you have a Black class president, a Black vice-president, Mike Reagan who was all-American, Derrick [Chapman, Troy’s brother] who was All-American, and born in Guilford and was a national semi-finalist in the SAT, as was Morris [Morris Pleasure, Guilford’s acclaimed musical virtuoso and brother to Juanita]?”
Why do you think that was? Was there something different about Guilford?
“One, people didn’t feel sorry for us because we lost our mother or anything, they simply treated us the same. Two, people treated us the same no matter what color we were.
Do you recall any overt acts of racism growing up?
“Oh yeah, I can’t remember his name but the family lived up in North Guilford, it all started one day when…one thing I have that I’ve tried to work on is my mouth. If I don’t catch it time, it can do some damage if I don’t filter it…but my father, my foster father went up to the school and told them to get it settled or he would fix it and they did. But other than that really bad thing, we didn’t face it in Guilford, but we did face it outside. What I tell people is that…you know we saw it in other towns, and we did face it other places. So, when people stand up and say, ‘This never happened,’ that simply isn’t true. My foster family told me that the most racist places they ever traveled wasn’t to the deep south it was up here in the northeast; it was and still is here. But in Guilford/ we never had those issues. I competed here on every level…
We asked Chapman to comment on Critical Race Theory (CRT), a looming topic here in Guilford, as he has actually studied it during his law education at Harvard.
“What folks don’t realize is that CRT was started in law schools. When I went to law school that was huge. All it is, is telling the truth. A friend of mine, who is Black…says, ‘Until the lion tells his story, the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ When you control the media and you control the texts, what do you think you get? When Guilford changed the mascot name, I came to town and met with the superintendent, I sat down with him and Mike [Reagan, Chapman’s childhood friend, a Guilford resident and principal of Adams Middle School] and they asked me, ‘What do you think?’ and I said hundreds of thousands of Native American were slaughtered, and we don’t just say the Washington White men, we don’t even say the Washington Blackmen…but we can say the Washington Redskins or the Indians? I think it comes down to that issue that people fail to be able to put themselves to walk in other people’s shoes. They say there’s no disrespect, but it is not up to you to decide for someone else what respect is. I’m not sure sometimes if people understand how afraid of White America Black people are. We didn’t create the Holocaust, we didn’t wipe out the native peoples, we didn’t enslave people for 400 years, but when it turns around, White people are the good guys in the cowboy movies—the native Americans are the bad guys and cowboys are the good guys. The narrative has been so twisted that people believe it, and they simply don’t want to hear anything else. ‘I’ve got to be good person and you can’t call me a racist because it means I’m a bad person.’ No, you may have said something that is racist, you may not be a racist, but you can say a racist thing. Or they take it personally and take it defensively, and when that happens you can never grow and learn because you’re always defending tour position instead of listening.
“CRT is simply setting some facts straight. I consider myself a fairly learned person, but I never knew about Tulsa and Black Wall Street…I was a history teacher and a history major and I went with my kids down south to a plantation and learned so much. The reasoning behind so much of this is history but it’s not in the history books anywhere. For example, I have a friend who I went to school with, he is a history professor. His first book is called The Monkey Suit. He went back and researched all these legal cases where race was never mentioned but was able to discover that the cases were predicated on race. So for years we say, ‘This is law,’ but it was law based on racism and sexism. People think they know their history and so much has been left out, and all CRT is saying is let’s look at some other points of view.”
In speaking about some recent on-line vitriol from the last few years in specific Guilford-oriented groups and chats, Chapman said he has encountered a disturbing level of hate.
“I even had [an old friend], and there was a comment posted that ‘We should put all Black people on an island, so they can kill themselves…’ What I wrote back was, ‘This is Troy from Guilford, the same guy who you went to high school with, that you drank beers with, did all this stuff with—I want to bring my daughters to Guilford and have you say what you just said to their face.’ Of course, they all got quiet after that, but [one of the friends] said, ‘Hey Troy-I’m sorry. I know it was wrong. I just got caught up’…and I said ‘[name redacted], I appreciated that and I accept your apology.’ I’m not sure what happens to people online, I just they forget where they sometimes just get caught up in it…
You’ve known, met, studied and graduated with a number of today’s top politicians and jurists, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, former President Barak Obama, and Minnesota AG Keith Ellison among others and have such a unique perspective. Are you hopeful about the future, pessimistic, a little of both?
“I lived and worked all over the country. I’ve lived in Chicago, Los Angles, Minnesota, Seattle, Portland, I lived in New York, Boston and I’ve lived in some of the worst neighborhoods you can imagine and I’ve never had a problem, because I think I try to treat people all the same way. I work and know people from all over the world and I think living is giving. That’s why I run a non-profit. I’ve been paid a hundred times over seeing people’s faces light with joy. I think in some respects as Americans we’ve lost some of that. One thing that Morris taught me and something that I think we as a country have lost is when you give, you live. When people stop giving and want to fight over stupid stuff we’ve lost something. I am hopeful about the future, because if you don’t have hope, you don’t have anything. But I fear it might take another world war, it might take us destroying parts of the Earth before we come to our sense again. That seems to be man’s M.O. I feel so lucky growing up with the Moores. They raised 27 kids! Five of their own and 22 foster kids over the years and they had the greatest life in the world. Hopefully I can leave the world with a positive experience, too. I wouldn’t trade the family that the Moores gave me and values I was taught. I feel lucky and wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.