Johnson City’s racial demographics overwhelmingly tell the story many southern towns experience — that the white population far outnumbers any other ethnic group.
According to the 2010 census, the white population outnumbered all others combined. Blacks living in Johnson City make up 7 percent — approximately 4,500 — of the 60,000-plus residents living here.
It's something Michelle Treece, a retired teacher and newly elected Johnson City Board of Education member who is black, is well aware of.
"I think the first thing that our community needs to understand is that the Tri-Cities area caters to the predominately white, Christian community," Treece said. "This needs to be understood and accepted as true by everyone. Not just minorities (because) we already know that. We may not be able to put it into words or feel comfortable doing so, but we live it every day.
"Once an individual accepts the culture of the Tri-Cities area, then it is the responsibility of all who care to begin to make changes toward a community that caters to diversity — a community that is always aware of and prepares for a diverse population. The Tri-Cities is missing out on a vast group of people who are diverse and eager to contribute to the success of our community."
Treece said even she has a hard time finding blacks in the community. She knows there are "black folks in Johnson City, but said, "I can go for a day or two without seeing a black person besides my family."
Her theory is that blacks in the Johnson City community may not feel the need to leave their comfort zone.
"I am not sure about the reason except I think black folk are satisfied being with their families, however they may look. There may not be a reason to be involved in our community and they are fine being at home," Treece said.
"I would love to have a better answer and/or be convincing enough to bring more black folks out into the community," she said.
One of the first things that is good to know is how to properly refer to ethnic groups. Through the generations there have been many offensive names applied to various ethnicities. So what is the proper way to identify someone's race? What's it like to be in a crowd of people and see few, if any, people who look like you?
For Treece, the preferred name of her ethnic group is black, but she said it varies from person to person.
"I believe it is a personal preference," she said. "That means what you may say to one black person may not be easily received by another. I personally prefer black. I do not get upset if someone uses African American. The word Negro is very outdated and I would suggest not using it. My concern with using the phrase African American is at this point, how do we know that we are of true African descent? There are other races that also have dark skin, so who are we to assume that our skin color is from African ancestry?"
For Ralph Davis, president of the local NAACP — National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — he's OK with the term African American, but when people refer to specific neighborhoods in Johnson City the actual name of that community is more appropriate.
"I will say I would prefer if we are identifying areas, let's use terms like the Carver community or the Carnegie neighborhood," Davis said. "Johnson City has such a mix that it is hard to pick out a so called ‘black’ neighborhood."
Both Treece and Davis said they feel welcome in Johnson City, and they're involved in the overall Johnson City community, but that welcoming hasn't always been their experience.
"I personally feel welcomed, but I have actively made it a point to be involved in the Tri-Cities community," Treece said. "I participate in several different circles in the community and feel welcomed and appreciated by those individuals. As for other black folks and people of color, I do not think they feel as welcomed and invited into the different aspects of our community.”
Some of that boils down to the history in the area, which Treece said has a reputation for not being so welcoming to minorities.
"The historical nature of this area, in general, has a reputation that says people who are not like the majority are not welcomed," she said "There is an unspoken rule of tolerance but not accepted — 'You can live here, just don’t bother anybody.' I am confident that not everyone in the Tri-Cities feels that way, but there are enough folks who do to make it uncomfortable for minorities of any type."
Treece also said she used to feel like she needed to try to dispel any stereotypes of blacks when she first met new people.
"I would usually say something to make a stranger laugh so they would quickly know I am a nice person, and there is not need to be afraid or defensive of me," she said. "I do not feel that way anymore. I like to say 'I am comfortable in my blackness.' I had to mentally process a lot as a black woman growing up in East Tennessee.
"Sometime in my mid-30s, I came to understand that trying to make white folks feel comfortable with my blackness was not being honest with who I was. I can remember that exact moment," she said. "Now I really do not care if a stranger feels comfortable with me around them or not. If a stranger finds themself in a social circle that interacts with me, at some point I would hope that my true nature would be worthy of acceptance and stay and share that experience. If they do not feel that way, they will have to make a decision stay or go. In the past I would be the one to make the decision to leave. Today, I will stay in that social circle, I will be my true self, and, if needed, I will entertain a conversation about what options they have about their discomfort. I will no longer lose me for their gain."
Treece hasn't always felt welcome in Johnson City. One experience that stands out in her mind occurred in 2007 as she was driving onto the Science Hill High School campus where she was a teacher.
"A blue pickup truck with two white males inside passed me as I was turning and yelled out the window 'Nigger’," she said. "I was so very upset about it. That is part of the character image of the Tri-Cities that needs to be over-powered by actively inviting, welcoming and accepting diversity into this area."
Davis said he feels welcome in the Johnson City community, but has also experienced racism.
"I do feel welcome in the community, (but) I have had some negative moments here," Davis said. "I was told one time to give my car back to the white man it belonged to ... had a incident one holiday at a store where it was so obvious that I was not being served because of my color that I had to get vocal to get their attention. This is a great area to live, but I can feel the tone changing somewhat."
Both Davis and Treece said stepping outside of comfort zones is one way for different ethnic groups to mingle more.
"I have always chosen to think of this community as our community," Davis said. "People are friendly and for the most part accommodating. I feel we tend to stay in our so called lanes too much. We need not fear each other. Let's reach out and see each other as more alike than different.
"I want you to get to know me for who I am," Davis said. "If you spend a little time with me, and I with you, those things take care of themselves. There are a number of groups trying to get us all to break down these walls of fear. I believe most of the problem is we do not take time to learn about each other. We have too many groups that we feel are only for the white community such as Rotary and Lions and groups that are only for African American, such as NAACP and Urban League. Let's get out of our comfort zone."
Treece had a similar message about stepping out of comfort zones.
"I think many black folks are comfortable being with their church families, nuclear and extended families and friends, and I think some members of the black community do not feel fully invited to public spaces for fear and concern of being disrespected."
Treece said she would like to see local establishments and businesses take the time to cater to the black community to draw in those customers.
"I would like for local establishments to extend an extra special invite and welcome to members of the black community," she said. "Consider hiring more people of color in your establishment, provide entertainment that would appeal to the black community, invite guest speakers of diversity to your establishment. And give us time to see that we are truly accepted and, like anyone else, if we see it is worthy of our time and expense, we will be back again."
Editor’s note: Recent events regarding minority groups in American culture, politics and law enforcement prompted the Johnson City Press to take a deeper look at ethnic, religious and gender/sexual identities in the Johnson City area. Today, we begin a three-day series of articles regarding that spectrum of marginalized populations.