Does Harrisonburg have a race problem?

Recent racist acts beg the question, is Harrisonburg really inclusive or are JMU students living in a bubble?

Part of the reason I chose JMU was for the community surrounding its campus. Being from a small town, I was uncomfortable with the idea of living in a large city. Harrisonburg seemed to be the perfect mix of college town and small town for me to not only feel comfortable, but thrive.

Harrisonburg is a home-away-from-home for all JMU studentsa relatively safe and fun place that offers plenty of outdoor activities, dining option, and shops as well as a conducive environment for our studies.

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Unfortunately, Harrisonburg has gotten a bit of a bad reputation lately. Over the summer, Sadie Elledge, an 18-year-old server at a local favorite, Jess’ Lunch, was left a hateful, racist note saying, “We only tip citizens” instead of a tip. This heinous act went viral, so much so that even CNN picked it up. Though Sadie is Hispanic, she was born in the United States and is every bit as much a citizen as the couple she served that day.

Luckily, locals rallied around Elledge. CNN reported: “When locals heard what happened, a group of residents wrote a note to the waitress” including “a substantial” tip.

I was ashamed that this awful act happened in the ‘burg, but proud that our town rallied behind the poor waitress effected.

However, this was not the only act of its kind to happen in Harrisonburg recently.

On September 8, WHSV reported a racist survey left on a car in the parking lot of the Walmart on Burgess.

“The survey lists several questions about couples in a[n] interracial relationship, calling women ‘white trash’ if they love an African-American person,” reported WHSV.

WHSV also included a link to the full survey in which it can be seen, just under the title, “Since it is obvious to everybody that your not the sharpest knife in the drawer, we are going to ax you these questions in words you can understand, providing you can read!”

Throughout the note, incorrect grammar and offensive slang are used in an effort to mock the African-American race. The note is ended with, “Please answer ASAP, we are trying to prevent other girls from becoming white trash, thanks.”

These two racist acts committed so close together are appalling and, luckily, I’m not the only one that thinks so.

WHSV reported, “Harrisonburg Mayor Chris Jones says the note is very concerning, and is an issue he will bring up to the NAACP as well as the next city council meeting.” He was also quoted as saying, “I want people to know as the Mayor of Harrisonburg, we welcome all people. We welcome all forms and shapes and sizes, cultures and backgrounds and this is a safe community.”

Harrisonburg should be a community in which all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or sexual preference should feel welcome and at home, but how do JMU students feel about that? It is my personal experience that Harrisonburg is a welcoming and inclusive place, however, my experience isn’t the same as others.

Mike Jarvis, a senior religion and music performance double major, said he felt that these were isolated incidents.

Mike Jarvis

“It’s like 99% of Harrisonburg is inclusive, but there’s that 1% that are doing things like this,” Mike said. “I don’t think that very many of the people that live in Harrisonburg proper are bigoted. But we tend to forget that we are surrounded on all sides by the South, a region that continues to struggle with a legacy of bigotry.”

Mike is also no stranger to bigotry in the area, having experienced anti-Semitism when a person refused to tow his vehicle because he was Jewish. Speaking volumes to the region’s overall inclusive attitude, Mike stated that those he knew from the area responded much in the way they did to the recent fiascos: appalled and infuriated.

Kyle Van Fleet, a sophomore international affairs major, agreed: “I believe that Harrisonburg is pretty inclusive, at least at JMU. I would say JMU is probably more inclusive than the town of Harrisonburg, itself [due to the generation gap]. It makes sense that universities tend to be more inclusive than townships since it’s overwhelmingly young people.”


“I am concerned,” Kyle added, “that these incidents happened so close to each other. I don’t think this means Harrisonburg is an intolerant place, but it shows we have a lot more work to do here than maybe other places.”

Rachel Gonsalves, senior anthropology and modern foreign languages major, said she felt Harrisonburg was inclusive. “[Harrisonburg] has many people from different backgrounds. Even the public schools cater to that.”

She added: “Diversity includes many things; however, when minority students feel isolated in classrooms, that’s an issue. For example, there have been instances where I have been the only black person in a class or there are a handful of black people in a huge lecture hall. We often feel alone or isolated.”


“I would say in most aspects [JMU is more inclusive than Harrisonburg]. As far as gender equality, inclusive of people with disabilities, people with different religions, etc. [however] I would count the enrollment by ethnicity negatively. Last year the African American population was 4.43%, the American Indian/Alaska Native was less than 1%, Asian was 4.35%, Hispanic was 5.75%, and the white population was 77.78%. For JMU’s motto to be ‘creating diversity,’ to many minorities, they think that we haven’t been doing a good job on this part.”

I think I can speak for most of Harrisonburg when I say that the people who did these things are the exception, not the rule. Harrisonburg, overall, is a welcoming and safe place. However, that does not mean it has reached the pinnacle of acceptance. There’s always room for improvement and starting a dialogue is the best way in which to do so.

James Madison University