How Two Friends Navigate Being Young Black Men In A Mostly White N.H. Town

Aug 30, 2018

Nick Sanderson, left, and Will Krug, right, have been friends for more than 15 years. The two are high school seniors, and together they've navigated life as young black men in a predominately white area.
Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR

Schouler Park sits in the middle of North Conway, right along the main strip of shops and restaurants. There's the scenic railroad station. Families throw baseballs and couples sit and chat on benches.  

On this field, Will Krug and Nick Sanderson have made lots of memories playing flag football.

“Will had the ball, and he was running full speed, and I was running full speed,” Nick grinned as he described this play by play. “And we full on collided, smacked each other… It was pretty fun.”

Nick and Will laugh. They’re both high school seniors, and they’ve been best friends for pretty much for their whole lives.

“He’s always there for me,” Nick said.

Will considers Nick his brother.

The entrance to Schouler Park in North Conway.
Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR

The two have also had to deal with the fact that they live in a town and area that’s 94 percent white.

They’re both black, both adopted by white parents.

The incidents of racial bias began early. Will can remember someone calling him a racial slur when he was just five.

“They called me a nigger. I was in kindergarten. They were in first grade. There was a fence in between the kindergarteners and first graders, and they came down and said it to me. I didn’t know what it meant,” he said.  

Once Will got to high school, moments like that started happening more often.

“Kids would definitely lose something, and then come up to me and tell me I stole it because I was black.”

When this would happen, Will and Nick would turn to each other for support. They’d talk about what happened, deal with it together and calm each other down.

I asked them, what would life be like if you didn’t have this other person to talk about these things with?

“Pretty rough,” Nick said.

“I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now. I’d probably be in a much worse position,” Will added.

Conway’s Kennett High School, gets students from eight surrounding towns.Socioeconomically, the school’s diverse. But when it comes to race, not so much.

Last year, of a student body of about 800, just 12 students identified as black according to the state's Department of Education.

Will and Nick say there was an incident that was pretty challenging for them.

A couple of years ago, a handful of students started flying the Confederate flag on the backs of their trucks. Some wore shirts with the flag on it.

One student, who is white and now graduated, posted a video on Twitter of a truck with the flag, sitting in traffic, revving its engine.The caption read quote “racist and proud. #justkennettthings #stoprednecks2015 #ihateyou”

At the time, Will was a sophomore and Nick, a freshman.

School officials banned students from displaying the flag  on their trucks or on their clothes.

But the ban didn’t stop students. Some would wear shirts with the Confederate flag under a flannel. They’d approach Will, Nick and other students and ask:

“‘Do you like my shirt it's just a Confederate flag?’” Nick said.  “It's just like why are you asking me like specifically? And then they'll be like, ‘Oh,’ like they don't really answer it. They just kind of like try to brush it off and play it off as they ask anybody else.”

Kids put Confederate flags in Will’s backpack. But Will and Nick said they’re not offended every time they see a Confederate flag. If someone’s flying it in their yard or on their truck that’s fine.

It’s when people started targeting them that those feelings started to change.

“When it started to interfere with my everyday and out of school, that's when it became more of an actual issue because it became personal,” Will said.  

A group of students, including Will and Nick, wanted the school to address the issue head on.

They wanted the school to host a forum to talk about the flag’s history and why some people would see the flag as offensive.

That forum didn’t happen though. Principal Neal Moylan said he didn’t think a school wide meeting would maintain civility.

“If I was to put 500 kids in an auditorium and have a school wide discussion, my concern was that the discussion would turn into a shouting match, and we certainly didn't want that,” he said.   

Moylan adds he did talk with students individually and in small groups, and that teachers could have discussions in class.

It's very difficult to learn when you're more worried about your skin color, and like who's going to say what to you and the next class versus like your school work.

He said the issue was resolved once the image of the flag was banned.

I told him I had heard differently from students. They said that the school’s underlying issues were still there. So I asked him what role he thinks schools play when it comes to addressing bias.

“Our role is to address it, each and every time we see it, and not to ignore it. We don’t intend to ignore it. I do think it’s addressed contrary to what you believe or may have heard.”  

For Will, the school’s response wasn’t enough. He saw the whole confederate flag episode as just the latest example of a hostile environment at Kennett that was beginning to wear him down….

There was barely any peer support in the school. Will had few teachers or administrators to confide in. These incidents have followed him since his kindergarten days.

"It's very difficult to learn when you're more worried about your skin color, and like who's going to say what to you and the next class versus like your school work, " he said. 

Will had disciplinary issues:  in school suspensions, out of school suspensions, detentions.

It got to a point where his parents, Theresa Beckett and Matt Krug,who are white, were starting to wonder if their son was being treated differently because of his race.

“That was the really hard part was figuring out is he being discriminated against? Is he being a difficult person? Is he a difficult student? I wasn’t sure,” Beckett said.  

They asked the high school for a racial breakdown of the school’s total suspensions, but the school doesn’t keep track of that.

Nationally, studies have found that black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys.

“Is he getting the same expectations of any other kid. Is he being looked at like any other kid?” Krug asked.

These questions, the consistent slurs and stereotyping Will experienced, feeling that Kennett High School was unresponsive to their questions or requests, plus fears for their younger child who’s also black pushed his parents to leave Conway to Fryeburg, Maine a town that’s just a 20 minute drive across the state border.

They had heard good things about Fryeburg Academy, a private school that’s free to town residents

When this past school year wrapped up, they sent a letter to the Conway School Board about what they saw as a quote “prevalent discriminatory culture.”

Here’s an excerpt of what they wrote to the school board.

“These students go to an majority white school, lead by a majority white administration and staff, in an overwhelmingly, though increasingly diverse, white community. If you are not in the minority, or intimately connected with this population it is easy to overlook the situation. Yet the bias is there and needs to be addressed. We are calling for you, the leaders of the community, to address it.”

“There are other people who are going to come up through the school that I hope they don’t have to go through the same thing.”

In recent months, SAU 9, which Kennett High School is a part of, has started an anti-bias response team.

But Will’s skeptical about this group.

“What do you think would take to make an actual change?” I asked.

“To have some school administration who are African American and make the school more diverse. Just like the teachers and everything,” Will said. “I feel like it needs to be more diverse so kids know what’s ok and what’s not. If you're not exposed to it, you're not going to know what to do when you see a black kid. That's basically what we're dealing with.”

Will and Nick do have some hope that things will change, and they know there will still be challenges.

At the very least, they’ve had each other to rely on to go out and ski, longboard, or play some football to clear their heads for a bit.