It had been nearly two months since Johnson’s grandson, a 16-year-old African American wrestler named Andrew Johnson, was given an ultimatum by a white referee before a match: Your hair covering doesn’t conform to the rule book, so cut your dreadlocks or forfeit. Soon a viral video of a white female trainer cutting off Johnson’s hair transformed the teenager into a new symbol of racial tension in America.
Inside this little wood-paneled break room in the back of the church, where a cook sizzled eggs and grits, the group of men from Buena Vista tried to unspool the same tension that had wracked towns such as Baraboo, Wis., and Apex, N.C., and Park Hills, Ky., after racially charged moments captured on social media drew the attention of a divided nation. Maybe more so than in those places, this small community is nowhere close to closure months later.
School administrators have gone silent. Multiple investigations have been launched, including a civil rights probe, and Johnson himself has not spoken publicly about the incident because his family is eyeing potential litigation. The referee, Alan Maloney, likewise has remained silent but sent a notice of tort claim to 12 possible defendants in March, claiming defamation of character and emotional distress. But in this town, one of 53 in New Jersey that went from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to backing Donald Trump in 2016, the conversation has continued without them.
“The students don’t have a choice. Where was the coach? Where was the athletic director?” one man asked during the fellowship breakfast. “If they weren’t there for Mr. Johnson, does that not mean there’s other kids they’re not there for?”
Another man shouted, “The woman who was cutting his hair, she looked like she was enjoying it!”
“She was told to do that. … She’s a good person,” said John Williams, a Buena Vista Township committeeman.
The church’s 80-year-old pastor, the Rev. David Mallory, stood up and lifted his hand. “When something like this happens, we have to start a conversation,” Mallory said, finally giving the floor to Ted Dempsey, who works for South Jersey Legal Services, for closing comments.
“Hopefully something good comes out of this,” Dempsey said. “What is missing is the voice of the young man.”
Looking for answers
Johnson’s voice still has not been heard publicly. The lasting images from the incident were photos of Johnson emerging victorious during his match that night, his lip bloodied and his right arm raised by Maloney.
Those images — and the video of Johnson’s dreadlocks being cut — spread quickly across social media and the Internet. By the end of the night, news trucks were parked outside the family’s home. Their lives would be different from then on, and what has followed provides a glimpse into what happens to a town caught in the middle of a viral racial incident.
While countless politicians, celebrities, athletes and activists defended Johnson, from Chance the Rapper to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to the Rev. Al Sharpton, some in the New Jersey wrestling community quickly defended Maloney, too.
“In my opinion, only a racist could consider the incident involving the Buena Regional High School wrestler as a racial incident,” New Jersey resident Mike Dillich wrote in a letter to the editor in the Daily Journal in late December. “I know the referee, Alan Maloney, and I know that he has a great deal of respect for all high school wrestlers with no regards to race.”
Those who support Maloney will point out that, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, a new point of emphasis for wrestling officials this year was to ensure all equipment worn on the mat, including hair coverings, fit “snug” to a wrestler’s body. But to many watching the video, the ruling would not have been applied to a white wrestler with hair of a similar length and forced Johnson to choose between his team and his personal identity.
Walter Hudson, a New Jersey civil rights activist, said he noticed fractures in Buena after the incident, hearing that students were blaming Johnson for bringing unwanted attention to the town. Some of those emotions spilled out during an emergency school board meeting the day after Christmas as residents shared opinions on both sides of the issue.
The gathering also presented the opportunity to point out other examples of racism in the community and the systemic issues that might have led to the Johnson incident. Fatima Hayes, an educator in southern New Jersey, presented racial demographic data that underscored how difficult it can be for black students to excel in a school system that has few black teachers and administrators and is 60 percent white, according to the latest Civil Rights Data Collection in 2015.
“The systemic issues, in my opinion, are why an incident like [Andrew Johnson] could take place in Buena,” Hayes said later in a telephone interview. “When you don’t have a diverse staff or people who look like the students who they coach or teach, incidents like that will continue to happen.”
At the meeting, she also was struck by other stories of racial bias at Buena, students and past students speaking on why they believed they could relate to Johnson. One student spoke about the growing racial tension inside the cafeteria during the school’s lunch hours. A former student and football player, Rajhon White, a higher education staff member at the University of Denver, spoke about the racial injustices he had endured at the high school.
“There were the people who were speaking out against [the incident] and saying, ‘This isn’t right,’ but who were also saying, ‘I’m not surprised that this took place,’ because of what they experienced in the school district,” White said.
In the weeks and months since, the Johnson family and Maloney have turned down overtures to be interviewed by media outlets. Both parties are waiting out the investigations being conducted by the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association and the state attorney general’s office’s civil rights division. Maloney, who has not responded to a request for comment, was accused in 2016 of using a racial slur during an altercation with a black referee.
Most have wondered why those probes have taken so long after the Dec. 19 incident. Others have wondered: What will happen to Maloney? Will the coach and trainer be punished?
“The panel’s investigation has been active and is ongoing, with additional interviews planned in coming weeks,” NJIAA spokesman Michael Cherenson said. “The process has been steady and deliberate while also allowing the wrestling season to proceed without additional distractions.”
Some have viewed what happened to Johnson as part of a broader issue — what they say is an amplification of racial rhetoric following President Trump’s election in 2016. In a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of respondents said that they feel it is more common to encounter racist or racially insensitive views since Trump took office. During the men’s fellowship gathering at First Baptist Church in February, the conversation eventually veered to Trump.
“Ever since we had a change in national leadership there has been an emboldening of this kind of racial expression,” Mallory, the pastor, told the group. “My family moved here in 1944 — that was not a good time for racial relations. We are not a perfect community, but we are better than we were in 1944. I think this is part of the event’s background. We just don’t see this as one event. We see this as a broader social situation.”
‘It hurt him real bad’
Charles Johnson Jr. wasn’t even planning to attend his grandson’s wrestling match that December night but ended up going after another of his grandchildren picked him up and brought him to the gym.
He loved going there and always beamed with pride when he stepped inside. He was part of the first class when the high school opened in the early 1970s, and he starred in football and track. He watched his father become a beloved janitor there in the decades after. Charles “Pap” Johnson was so cherished that after he died in 2009 following a bout with colon cancer, the school held his funeral in the auditorium. The next year, the school decided to name the gym after him. They call it “Charlie’s House.”
Three generations of Johnsons were there to watch Andrew wrestle that night. But once Johnson laid eyes on Maloney walking into the gym, he said, something didn’t feel right. “You know what, that referee guy, he’s prejudiced. I don’t know, there’s something about him,” he whispered to his older grandson sitting next to him, and as Andrew went on the clock to decide whether he should cut his hair, his grandfather stood up and nearly went down the bleachers and stopped it. He can’t explain why he didn’t. He stayed in the crowd. “I kept my composure,” Johnson said, even as people started booing after the trainer started cutting Andrew’s hair.
“It hurt him, too. I could see it in his face. It hurt him real bad,” Johnson said of his grandson, who eventually retreated to a corner of the gym, his mother running down from the bleachers to console him as tears streamed down his face. The image of Johnson hurting has not left the national conscience.
“If you remember how [Johnson’s shoulders] slumped, the kind of humiliation he experienced and what that would mean or might mean for his relationship to the country,” said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., chair of the African American Studies program at Princeton University. “There are these moments repeated that we are seeing repeatedly on social media where one wonders: What is happening to the young people who have actually witnessed it and who are victims of this stuff?”
Andrew would go on to advance to the district tournament before his sophomore season ended in late February. The men in the fellowship group at First Baptist Church have talked about his future often, vowing to keep his story at the forefront of the change they want to see in their community. “That kid has a wrestling career ahead of him, and I hated to see it tarnished by racial overtones,” Martinelli told his brethren during the meeting.
“You have people that have mixed emotions,” said Johnson, Andrew’s grandfather. “I don’t think it’s going to be forgotten quickly. I think there will be more of an understanding of how refs have to look at things.”
Charles Jr. hopes his grandson will one day join them and tell his story. They talked the night before the March meeting because it was Andrew’s 17th birthday. Charles told him he would give him a few dollars the next time he saw him. That weekend, he saw a photo of Andrew celebrating that the family had posted on their Facebook page. His dreadlocks were beginning to grow back.
“He’s still got them. He’s still got them,” Charles said. “Wrestling season is over now, anyway.”