Controversy over Vermilion sirens seen as symbol of racism

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VERMILION, Ohio (WJW)– Each day, like clockwork, sirens sound at 6 p.m. at the Vermilion Volunteer Fire Department and at Vermilion City Hall as part of a daily test.

Mayor Jim Forthofer said the sirens serve as an extra alert for volunteer firefighters, who are also notified about emergency calls on their cell phones and pagers.

“When the siren goes off, that means one of two things: Either report to the fire station or check the fire station for where the location of the emergency is and get there right away,” Forthofer said.

The mayor said during a Black Lives Matter march in Vermilion on June 6, he was approached by members of the group who were concerned about the sirens.

“They had heard there was something that suggested the siren meant that people of color should get out of town, which certainly concerned me and was news to me. I had not heard that,” he said.

But some Vermilion residents said they grew up believing the city was a so-called “sunset” or “sundown town,” and that the sirens were a warning. The terms are used to describe a racially-segregated communities, where people of color must leave by sunset.

“When we were in high school, some of the teachers told us that it was originally to warn any outsiders in the town any minorities to leave the town,” said Carey Hillman, a 2009 graduate of Vermilion High School.

Other residents said the story about the hidden message behind the sirens is a myth that is now being exploited.

“Because every time somebody whines about something, they get their way and I don’t believe in it. You can’t take something away from people that’s been around here as long as I can remember, it’s not right,” said Lynne MacLean, the wife of a Vermilion volunteer firefighter.

Forthofer said, after discussing the issue with a local historian and longtime residents, he found no evidence the sirens are anything other than what they appear to be.

“Certainly, there is racism in Vermilion, as there is in just about any town, and the case against racial injustice is absolutely worthwhile pursuing. But our siren really does not play in it,” he said.

As a result, the sirens will continue to sound each day, and according to the mayor, they are not symbols of racism, but rather the volunteer spirit in Vermilion.

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