Sixteen-year-old Robert Cantu was walking with a group of friends on a Friday night when a pick-up truck with four white teenagers pulled up in front of him.

“We’re going fishing tonight, grab the n------!” they yelled from the truck to the group, which included black teenagers.

Cantu’s friends took off running. He froze.

“Get the f-----g Mexican,” the teenagers screamed at Cantu, who is Latino, as they hopped out of the car and pushed him to the ground.

Forcing a noose around his neck, they dragged him down the street, hurling racial slurs and threatening to hang him.

When two bystanders saw what was happening, they rushed to his defense.

The teenagers from the truck took off.

That was in May 2008. In July 2009, Dale Klein, who was by then 18, was the only person identified and charged with ethnic intimidation. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 10 days in jail with a $100 fine. The other boys who attacked Cantu were never identified.

Farm land in Knox County, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
Farm land in Knox County, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)

The incident took place in Mount Vernon, Ohio, a town about an hour northeast of the state capital, Columbus. Mount Vernon is part of Knox County, a county with just under 61,000 residents, 97 percent of whom identify as white.

Mount Vernon has a complicated history that spills over to today. To this day, the city celebrates Mount Vernon resident Daniel Decatur Emmett who wrote and starred in the first ever full-length minstrel show in 1843, where a troupe of white performers performed in blackface at the Chatham Theatre in New York City.

There’s a music and crafts festival every year in his honor. The Knox County Historical Society hands out coloring books depicting Emmett’s minstrel show. And Dan Emmett Elementary School is named after him, as are streets in the area.

Growing up in Knox County, 48-year-old Tamara Parson and her family were one of the few black families in the area. Her mom’s side of the family settled in the area in the late 1890s.

She often felt that her existence as a black woman growing up here was invalidated. In fourth grade, she was kicked out of Dan Emmett Elementary for questioning a teacher’s black history knowledge. In high school she would only swim at Hiawatha Water Park — the community pool — on specific days. It was an unspoken rule, she says, that people of color only frequent the pool at certain times.

And today, she finds that fellow Knox County residents who don’t know of her or her work in the community assume she must be affiliated with nearby Kenyon College.

Tamara Parson founded the Diversity Coalition a decade ago in an effort to spark discussion between different communities. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
Tamara Parson founded the Diversity Coalition a decade ago in an effort to spark discussion between different communities. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)

When the verdict on Cantu’s case was released, Parson was disgusted that his punishment didn’t go further.

“I was furious,” she says with a heavy sigh, tears forming in her eyes. “I began calling any news outlet that would listen. It blew up.”

Amid the media attention, she realized there was a genuine thirst to have thoughtful conversations about race and racism. She leaned into the opportunity, planning a Vigil for Justice with the help of the New Directions Domestic Abuse Shelter and Rape Crisis Center for women and the Knox County Democratic Women.

At the time, Parson worked at the women’s shelter and was part of the Knox County Democratic Women group. Both organizations were looking to be active participants in conversations about race and equity and saw the vigil as an opportunity to do so.

Busloads of people showed up from different parts of Ohio for the vigil. The support was overwhelming and unexpected.

“I felt like this was the start of something and thought: Where can we go from here?’ ” Parson says.

She took the lead and began holding town halls in the area. She put together a panel, made up of people of color, to speak about their experience in the community and answer questions about what it was like to be one of a few minorities in the county.

Downtown Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
Downtown Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)

“It showed people there were Asian and Latino people here,” she recalls. “It got people thinking about what experience minorities had here. It brought a spotlight to a lot of the diversity that already existed in our community.”

Those initial conversations convinced Parson to create the Diversity Coalition of Knox County.

When Parson first started the coalition, she received incredible support from people of color in the community. People showed up.

But then, it started to lose momentum and Parson found that more often than not, she was a coalition of one.

“This is a full-time job and if you can’t do it full time then who does it?” she explains.

“People get busy,” Parson says. And with community enthusiasm dwindling, she put the coalition on hold for a few years, but continued conversations on Facebook.

Parson says the community was under the “Obama effect” at the time.

“Obama won Ohio twice, there had been a lull in hate crimes in the area and it created this idea that we were living in a post-racial society,” she says.

The entrance to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
The entrance to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)

Then, in 2014, a Kenyon professor asked Parson for help with a project. She convinced her to reignite the coalition, this time with the help of Kenyon College’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“When we first got a booth during Mount Vernon’s First Fridays event there were a lot of jeers and scoffs, a few ‘Do we really need that in a place like this?’” she recalls. In the years since, she says, she’s received phone calls and threatening emails.

“My car has been trailed, my mom got her house broken into,” she says. “The risk is not just physical. My career, my ability to make money, my perception are all at risk as well.”

Then, Parson’s pastor Scott Elliot approached her with an idea for a class on racism.

“White, heterosexual males get to walk through this world with this swagger and no one really messes with us, so we do what we want,” he says.

“But the playing field isn’t level. I wanted to create this class so that we’d have a space to talk about it.”

They launched a six-week-long course in 2016 called Overcoming Racism. The courses were held at First Congregational United Church of Christ. Participants meet once a week for two hours to discuss a book the course focuses on, as well as their experiences within the community itself. Overcoming Racism has had as many as 80 attendants in one session, but Elliot says the attendance is normally between 30 and 50 people. Most, he says, are not affiliated with his church.

Reverend Scott Elliott stands in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
Reverend Scott Elliott stands in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
A sign outside of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
A sign outside of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)

“The coming together of people of color and white people and hearing the different experiences has been so important,” says Elliot. “The surprising thing to me was that African Americans in the class remembered things from the ’60s, but their white peers who were also in the area at that time didn’t remember those same incidents.”

Participating in the class through online discussions is how writer Jami Ingledue found her own passion for social justice.

Ingledue says she had a moment of clarity when talking with her 6-year-old son about law enforcement.

“I was telling him if he was ever in trouble that he could call the police and they would protect him,” she says. “Then it dawned on me. I can’t say that to my biracial daughter. My black friends can’t say that to their kids either.”

Jamie Ingledue, an activist in Knox County. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
Jamie Ingledue, an activist in Knox County. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
A civil war monument in Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)
A civil war monument in Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Lily)

“The problem is often times there is a lack of sensitivity to even the possibility that people could be offended,” says Ric Sheffield, a professor of sociology and legal studies at Kenyon.

That’s why Ingledue is campaigning for implicit bias training for teachers in the school system.

“We’re just getting started,” she says.

Parson, too, has her sight set on education as a way to enact change in Knox County. Her own son, Mickey, recently joined a diversity coalition at Mount Vernon High School where diverse voices can come together to discuss racism, homophobia and Islamophobia.

Since the election of President Trump, Parson says she’s noticed her community starting to take responsibility for racism in Knox County and across the country. Community members have gathered at the square in downtown Mount Vernon every Saturday. They hoist up signs of love and equality as a form of resistance. Parson works with an alliance of community leaders to create a space where racism can be addressed.

“When that boy was attacked, something shifted here where the community said we’re not going to ignore it anymore,” Parson says of Cantu.

Regardless of who is in office, Parson hopes the momentum to make central Ohio a more accepting place continues.

“This work has kept me going over the years, but now I’m exhausted,” she says. After 10 years of this work, and more than 40 years in Knox County, Parson admits she’s ready for someone else to take the reins.

“The happy ending [for me] comes from the fact that there is movement and people are willing to be involved,” she says.

She believes the Knox County she experienced 40 years ago is a place of the past. “It’s encouraging that all these people care about these issues now, that all of a sudden everybody woke up.”

Brittany King is a contributing reporter with the Fuller Project, a journalism nonprofit reporting on global issues impacting women. She reports on gender, race, and politics in the Midwest. This report is part of an ongoing reporting project on women, security and peacebuilding supported by the Women, War & Peace II broadcast series and the Fuller Project.

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