Dexter Trogdon Jr. poses for a portrait in the shadow of a Confederate statue at the Randolph County Courthouse in Asheboro, N.C., in December. Asheboro has experienced an uptick in racial tension. (Andy McMillan/For The Washington Post)

The first unpleasant tug of history came before the election, when the yards around Dexter Trogdon Jr.'s house started blooming with Confederate flags. Then last spring, the Ku Klux Klan announced plans to burn a cross in town. A man apparently irked with his black neighbors hung a noose in his yard, and Trogdon started hearing a disturbing new view from some white people: that slavery wasn't so bad for African Americans.

The 49-year-old bail bondsman knew racial division would be part of the picture when he moved back to this rural, majority-white town where he grew up. But there was one factor he did not expect: the presidential election.

"We were actually getting better," said Trogdon, picking at his egg whites and fruit at David's Restaurant, a throwback diner here, noting that the city had been making strides toward improving race relations — until a year ago, when racism and bigotry seemed to rush out of the woodwork, especially here, in the South. "That stuff came to a halt. . . . If you live here, you can feel it. It's just the way people treat you every day."

More than a year after President Trump took office, many people of color are coming to terms with what his presidency has exposed, and what it has wrought, on matters of race.

Some white supremacists and white nationalists have seen the administration's first year as emboldening, leading them to hold rallies such as the deadly August gathering of Trump-supporting neo-Nazis in Charlottesville or those in Portland, Ore., that preceded a fatal commuter train attack by a white man who was spouting anti-Muslim hatred at minority passengers.

For many people of color, the effect also has appeared in more subtle ways, insinuating itself into everyday interactions with whites.

"It really does make you wonder about people, about everybody," said Donald Matthews, president of the NAACP here in Randolph County. "The mind-set of some of these good old boys who live here — Trump actually opened the door for them to express openly how they feel."

The issue erupted again last month, when Trump expressed his preference for immigrants from places such as Norway rather than Haiti, El Salvador or African nations, which he disparaged. It was the latest, and perhaps most crude, in a long line of actions and remarks that his critics see as evidence of racism.

For his supporters, it is simply Trump rejecting "political correctness" and showing a desire to revive American greatness. Many of his backers say that Trump is no more to blame for stirring up racial tensions than was President Barack Obama.

"He's a guy who does not have a filter and says what's on his mind," said Mike Jones, 63, a Trump supporter and owner of Mike's Chicago Dog, a hot-dog joint in Asheboro. Jones, who is white, believes that Obama widened racial divides with his "rush to judgment" in the case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was killed in a confrontation with a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012, and in instances of police shootings of African Americans.


A roadside shop sells Confederate and Trump paraphernalia side by side in Asheboro, N.C. (Andy McMillan/For The Washington Post)
A changing home town

Racial relations have soured in recent years in this county of 140,000 people scattered with crumbling textile and furniture mills. The Republican stronghold overwhelmingly supported Trump in the election.

Last spring, a Ku Klux Klan group that celebrated Trump's victory announced it would hold a cross-burning in Asheboro. After an outcry from city officials, the group moved the event to private property nearby. In the summer, a man was arrested for posting racist signs and hanging a noose in his yard — allegedly to intimidate his black neighbors.

In August, a debate erupted about a Confederate statue that has been a fixture in front of the courthouse since 1911. The local NAACP held a vigil near the monument to honor the protester killed in Charlottesville. Rumors circulated that the demonstrators planned to tear down the statue, leading self-appointed "guardians" of Confederate history to turn up.

The two groups exchanged insults, but the event went on without incident, said Asheboro Mayor David Smith, who is white. But he knows the conflict could have taken a turn like it did in Charlottesville. He thinks Trump has unnecessarily riled people up here and across the nation.

"For everyone who thinks he's doing right stirring the pot, there's someone who thinks he's not," said Smith, who is unaffiliated with a political party but says he supports aspects of Trump's political agenda. "There's a way to accomplish the mission without constantly creating divisiveness."

Growing up in Asheboro, Trogdon was no stranger to racism. His father, Dexter Trogdon Sr., had participated in the lunch counter protests in 1960 that spilled over from nearby Greensboro, and was once arrested demonstrating outside of Hop's Bar-B-Q. Later, Trogdon Sr. became the city's first black police detective. He left the force after suing the department for discrimination, saying it had passed him over for a promotion.


A view of Hop’s Bar-B-Q in downtown Asheboro, where Dexter Trogdon Jr.’s father was arrested in the 1960s during a sit-in. (Andy McMillan/For The Washington Post)

Trogdon Jr. had planned to follow the long line of young people who left Asheboro. He joined the Navy and went on to college in Greensboro, where he studied pre-law. But his then-wife got pregnant, and he dropped out of school. After the marriage dissolved, he moved back to Asheboro and joined his father's bail bond business.

The younger Trogdon was surprised that he liked the community he came home to. Town leaders seemed to be trying to turn the page on race relations. African Americans were elected to the school board and city council. The crowd that turned out for a summer concert series downtown was racially mixed — a sight he thought he would never see. He started scoping out land outside of town where he could build a house for his large family, including his new wife and baby.

But something changed during the presidential campaign in 2016. Trogdon, who had supported Hillary Clinton, struggled to understand how people with whom he grew up and interacted daily could back a presidential candidate he considered racist. Their support continued after Trump took office and seemed to prove his racism further — particularly with the remark that there were "very fine people on both sides" of the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally.

Old classmates started expressing sentiments that made his jaw drop. In one Facebook exchange, Trogdon said, one suggested that slavery could not have been so bad for black people because a few of them fought alongside Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.

"Why," Trogdon thought to himself, "would anyone be idiot enough to defend slavery?"

Trogdon's family members also started running into these notions. One day last fall, Trogdon's 11-year-old stepson, Naheem, had been talking about what he described as "really stupid stuff that's racist" with his friends in the cafeteria before school. A girl butted in: If you have such a problem with racism, go back to Africa, she told him, adding that he was lucky whites brought him to the United States.

In retrospect, Naheem said the girl probably took offense to his references to the Confederate flag. Although many view the flag as racist, some here consider it a proud symbol of their heritage.

That night, the principal called Naheem's mother to apologize and to assure her that the girl would be punished. The principal seemed stricken, recalled Natalie Trogdon, stunned that people could harbor such sentiments in 2017. She found herself in the incredulous position of having to console the white woman.

"It almost sounded like she was crying," Natalie Trogdon said. "I explained to her that unfortunately for the black community, we do experience this from time to time."

Superintendent Heather Vuncannon, who is white, said the school dealt with the problem swiftly.

"We do not tolerate behavior of this type, and we recognized the seriousness of the situation and immediately handled it using our disciplinary policies to the satisfaction of all parties involved," Vuncannon said.

Last straw

The more difficult conversation would happen at home.

Natalie Trogdon, 36, a community college instructor, always had taught her kids about history. But Naheem was confused by what the girl had said. "She said she brought us over here," Natalie Trogdon recalled Naheem telling her. " 'If it wasn't for us, you wouldn't even be here.' "

She struggled to respond in a way that conveyed the unvarnished truth without further degrading her son.

"Yes," she finally said. "Over 400 years ago, thousands and thousands of black people were put on ships and made to come to America. Stolen. Tricked. But this has been many, many, many years ago. And black people in America came from everywhere, in many different ways."

It was the last straw for Dexter Trogdon Jr., who is thinking of moving to Cary, a suburb of diverse Raleigh, where he and his family can be less conspicuous. It's affordable enough that he could buy a plot of land for a house, although perhaps not quite as big. And there are lots of places where Trogdon could eat without feeling as if he were being watched, such as P.F. Chang's and Carrabba's Italian Grill.

With its avocado walls and vinyl booths, David's Restaurant in Asheboro takes him back to a time when, as a young black man, the eyes of white diners would swivel his way when he walked in.

"They're always looking at you," Trogdon said. "It's just a mentality that wears you down after awhile."

Sometimes, Dexter and Natalie Trogdon say they should stay in Asheboro, doing their part to improve the town rather than flee it. Dexter Trogdon Jr. has thrown his support behind a candidate for sheriff — a Republican — whom he says has pledged to improve the department's relationship with the African American community.

Both have taken on community service. Natalie has started to home-school her daughter and invited another girl who was recently expelled from high school to join. Dexter is helping to start a community center in the black neighborhood and serves as a local mentor. Occasionally, he says, he bails out black teens from jail using his own money.

But they worry about what will happen to Naheem if he stays here. And then something else happens to convince them a move is the right decision; lately, Dexter's Facebook feed has been full of stories about people being called the n-word.

"I told my wife I'll commute," he said. "I just don't want to lay my head down here."


Dexter Trogdon Jr. is considering a departure from his home town as he grapples with growing racial tensions. (Andy McMillan/For The Washington Post)