On Monday, June 22, Rev. Zayna Thomley stopped by the First Congregational United Church of Christ office in Platteville to quickly check the mailbox while she was running errands.
There, in the office mailbox, sat a nine-page letter, filled with racism and hate, addressed to Thomely, a pastor at the UCC.
“I think at first I was really shocked,” she said. “It felt like a punch to the gut. I had heard about these letters being sent around in Platteville. But everything I had heard of had just been photocopies of stuff, and this had a letter personally addressed to me in it. So I think it took me off guard at first.”
In addition to the letter addressed directly to her, the anonymous sender included photocopies of excerpts from other materials used as evidence, and copies of newspaper clippings from this year with a racist phrase written on them.
Thomely was not the first person to receive a letter.
Thomely said photocopies depicting a racist view of the Black/white achievement gap as well as murder rates by race had been circulating the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus over the past few years. These photocopies had been going specifically to professors who taught anything related to systemic racism, she said.
“What changed when we got this mail was the addition of the letter that was written just to me, and then the newspaper articles that were included with it,” Thomley said.
When these letters started showing up a few years ago, the UW Platteville Police were made aware of them and have been investigating since.
This year, in the midst of the worldwide protests following George Floyd’s killing, people in the larger Platteville community who displayed Black Lives Matter signs started getting the letters as well, including the UCC. Thomeley took hers to the Platteville police.
The Platteville Police Department already had a letter turned in by the time Thomley submitted hers. Since mid-June, the Platteville Police Department has been working with the UW-Platteville Police Department to investigate the letter.
Still, there are no suspects.
“We have several working theories that we’re going off of,” Sergeant Josh Grabandt said. “Now it’s just a matter of following up with those theories and working through those.”
Sakara Wages, a Black PhD student at UW-Madison School of Social Work, lived in Platteville for a while before heading to Madison for her PhD. Wages, who is originally from Chicago, heard about the letters, including the first one on campus, from other Black people in Platteville.
“I don’t think anything came of it,” she said. “At the time, it wasn’t such a popular thing to be vocal about. It was treated like an isolated incident, versus now, we’ve seen the same letter and we’ve begun to develop a community online folks (who have said) ‘oh, I’ve received that letter too.’ so now we see that it’s never been an isolated incident.”
Wages lived a range of experiences in Platteville, she said.
“I started in Platteville basically homeless and I didn’t have any degrees and I was vocal about disparities and access to things,” she said. “But once I got in school, I saw a shift in how folks would associate with me and it began to be less of a question of ‘why are you here?’” she said. “I definitely feel like Platteville got a distinct experience for educated Black folk than they do for folks who aren’t talking the ways that white folks necessarily align with.”
The letters left a bittersweet feeling in her.
“While I’m happy that somebody is actually listening now,” she said, “I wish they would’ve listened when the first Black folks were being terrorized. When you get a letter to your home or to your workspace that means that person knows something about you. So it is bittersweet. I appreciate the folks who are listening and trying to talk about the discourse but why didn’t y’all listen when this matters? The white churches, y’all got protection. Black folks ain’t calling the police if we feel threatened, you know?”
Still, it was not surprising to either Thomley or Wages that these letters existed in Platteville.
“So it’s not surprising because of the conditions in the way white supremacy operates,” Wages said. “Anytime we’re saturated with white folks and Black folks is the minority, the public racial discourse is louder than the Black person’s voice.”
“I think if I would have gotten it a few years ago,” Thomley said, “I might have been a little more surprised. But especially over the last several months, I think I’m continuing to learn about the experience of being Black and living in Platteville. That this kind of thing is something that happens very often.”
After receiving the letter in June, the UCC responded with an internal statement to church members the following Thursday. Since then, other members of the church who displayed pro-Black materials have also received letters.
However, Thomley is hopeful that the conversations surrounding the letters and broader Platteville community can continue.
“I’m hopeful to see these conversations being had in Platteville. I think there is a large group of people openly talking about race. And there’s a large group of white folks openly struggling with white privilege and systemic racism. So I hope that continues. I hope this doesn’t get pushed under the rug as it has, apparently, for a really long time,” she said.
“This black community network has emerged,” Wages said. “in response to so all it is that’s going on, and taking a stand against many things. It’s really just us, we’ve stood up and said ‘look, no matter what credentials, no matter who I am, I have a voice that’s gonna be heard.’”