'Cancel Culture' In Coal Country: Two Trump-Voting Brothers On A Mission To Fight Racism

Feb 10, 2020

Andrew Barrow sat down to dinner with his wife, his teenage daughter, and a gnawing question. What does it mean to be a ‘snowflake’? 

Someone had dropped the word in a comment on his post on Nosey Neighbors of Schuylkill County, a hyper-active local Facebook group. Usually, it’s a snapshot of rural Pennsylvania life: burglaries, missing pets, fundraisers for sick neighbors, and fires. Every few days, it seemed, another fire.

But, lately, things had gotten personal.

“Well dad, usually old people say that if you’re being soft about something,” his daughter translated.

That struck a nerve. No one had ever called Andy Barrow, 52 — a former police officer, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan — soft before.

It almost defied belief. After all he’d done to try and shine a light on a problem in the community, Andy and his brother were being painted as weak — as if somehow they were the bad guys.

But Andy had no intention of backing down. He couldn’t let Schuylkill County off the hook that easily.

  

Andrew Barrow, 52, left, and his brother Ronald Stanley 'Stosh' Webb Jr., 44.
Credit Matt Smith / Keystone Crossroads

Andy and his younger half brother Ronald Stanley ‘Stosh’ Webb Jr., 44, have a lot in common.

Both could be poster children for Schuylkill County: They were born here, grandsons to a coal miner in the heart of anthracite coal country. They are Donald Trump voters, in a county that gave the president 69% of the vote. And they’re both veterans — right at home in an area where nearly a tenth of residents have served in the military, with the sometimes caustic, less-than-PC sense of humor to prove it.

But there’s a key difference. Andy is white. Stosh is Black.

Now, these model ‘Skooks’ have become unlikely champions for so-called ‘cancel culture,’ on a mission to hold their neighbors accountable for racism they say has been too easily overlooked, both past and present. Their campaign has brought the issue into local public debate in an election year that feels, to many voters, like a referendum on President Trump’s treatment of non-white communities.

For Andy and Stosh, it all started on a Sunday afternoon in July 2019. Stosh went out drinking with two buddies, a weekly tradition. They rang the doorbell at the Port Clinton Fire Company. The bartender checked the camera and buzzed them in, and they dropped down three steps into the fire company bar.

Of the dozens of firefighter bars in Schuylkill County, Port Clinton was one of Stosh’s favorites, a cross between a fire station, a sports bar, and a church basement. Santa poses for photos with the kids in the social hall upstairs; the dart league competes in the bar. Similar spaces are scattered across the hills of Coal Country: semi-public, vital, part of a proud tradition. Sometimes known officially as ‘hose companies,’ locals call them ‘hoseys.’ At Port Clinton, the $2 slices of pizza and $7 yearly membership fees help fund volunteer firefighting, paying for the fire engines in the bay next door.

This afternoon, the place was unusually empty. A baseball game played on a TV above a shelf of liquor bottles. The fire chief camped on a stool at the end of the bar. Stosh and his friends ordered rum with orange soda and flicked through the jukebox.

Stosh noticed that Port Clinton’s music player didn’t have all the same songs as the other fire companies. He could play 2 Chainz, but not Elvis. So he and his friends joked around and typed in song titles, just to see if they were there.

The bartender, Michael Berk, 63, interjected. “Why don’t you look up ‘N****r Lover’ by David Allan Coe?” he said.

“Excuse me?” said Stosh, certain he misheard. His friends looked up from their phones. They’d been at the bar just a few minutes.

“N****r Lover,” the white bartender replied, “Look it up.”

Stosh thought to himself, “That word just kind of rolls off the tongue, like you’ve said it before.”

Stosh had heard a lot of racism in mostly-white Schuylkill County, but this sort of overt confrontation was new. His dad, who’s also Black, told stories about local police arresting him time and again while working as a foreman for Pennsylvania Power and Light in Shenandoah in the 1960s. Through school, Stosh was one of the only Black kids in his class. At 18, he enlisted in the Navy and left for Virginia Beach, where he stayed for 20 years amid nine foreign deployments. Over time, he came to see his hometown of Cressona as a little backwards, perennially a generation or two behind the times.

Then, in 2014, he retired from the Navy and moved home. His mom got sick, so he stayed. He learned to brush off the occasional prolonged stare at the grocery store, the jokes, the ‘Did you come here to rob us?’ comments when he walked into a hosey wearing a ski cap.

Stosh chalked it up to ignorance and doled out dry humor. Once when a white guy at Port Clinton kept pressing him, “Where are you from?” and wouldn’t accept ‘Cressona’ as an answer, Stosh tried to convince him he was Māori, until the guy was so confused he let it go. It was a crude solution, but it worked.

This felt different. Berk made his comment and then stared at Stosh across the bar. It felt like a calculated provocation.

“It’s not about the song title. It’s how he took the opportunity to throw that word out,” Stosh said.

If he had looked it up, the song really might have sent Stosh, mild-mannered as he is, hurtling over the bar in a rage.

David Allan Coe is a country musician who recorded some very obscene, offensive songs. The one the bartender was referencing, N****r F****r, is sung from the perspective of a white man, disgusted that his ex-girlfriend is now dating a Black man. It’s graphic, racist, misogynist.

“Johnny Rebel has some really bad ones too,” the bartender continued. Rebel is the stage name of country musician Clifford Joseph Trahan, a white supremacist who frequently used the n-word in his songs.

Stosh’s friends, one white, one Asian, leapt to their feet.

“I was so caught off guard, I thought I was hearing things,” said one friend, a lieutenant at a different fire company, who asked not to be identified. “Obviously we were offended. We stood up and I’m like, ‘What the hell are you saying?’”

 

But the message seemed unmistakable. Berk looked Stosh straight in the eyes until he and his friends stormed out.

All the while, Stosh said, Port Clinton’s volunteer fire chief, Harvey Henry, listened in but didn’t say anything at all.

 

Ronald Stanley 'Stosh' Webb, Jr., at his home in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. Webb was subjected to racial slurs while at Port Clinton Fire Company.
Credit Matt Smith / Keystone Crossroads

The fire chief’s silence has stuck with Stosh and Andy for months.

Andy was in first grade when his mom remarried Ronald Stanley Webb, who moved to Schuylkill County from South Carolina in the 1960s. Andy has no memories of his biological father and Stan became the only dad he has ever known. Being a white kid with a Black father in Schuylkill County made Andy an outlier in the rural community.  He doesn’t want to overstate the case, but it wasn’t easy. Andy remembers his grandfather, an Irish coal miner, spitting out that notorious word about his dad: “I don’t want that blank coming into my house.”

Andy has never been able to take it in stride the way Stosh could. That time Stosh convinced the guy at Port Clinton he was Māori — Andy was sitting right beside him, cringing at the question, his blood pressure skyrocketing. He admired the way Stosh handled it — he’s so good with people, even jerks — but Andy couldn’t be so calm. He never backed down from a fight.

And this was their community. Everyone knew the brothers, at every fire company — bars, sure, but the bartenders are paid by the fire companies, institutions of public service that often receive state grant funding.

So when Stosh called on the night of the jukebox incident, Andy’s simmering anger at all those little comments since childhood ballooned into a rage. That sheepdog mentality, honed in the military and the police force, kicked in: Andy wanted to protect his little brother.

 

Andy (left) and Stosh as kids with their cousin Patrick Tobin and older brother Leo.
Credit Photo courtesy of Andy Barrow

“My only expectation is this guy, this bartender should not be in this position in a fire company that is a pseudo-civic organization that is supported a lot of times by taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I got it, it’s his First Amendment rights, freedom of speech, blah blah blah. But there’s repercussions with that.”

He called the fire company’s president, Christopher Dampman. Andy’s wife is from Port Clinton. She was the station’s membership secretary at the time. Andy had been a member for 10 years. Stosh filed an incident report at the fire company, detailing what happened. The brothers thought the bartender would be fired on the spot.

But Berk wasn’t fired. He was suspended for two weeks. Stosh said the next time he saw him, when he went in to file the report, Berk laughed it off. He said, “I treat you like every other white guy that comes in here.”

“I’m not just any other white guy,” Stosh replied.

As it became clear there would be no further consequences, Andy didn’t let it go. He filed his own complaint, saying he’d heard Berk make jokes about the KKK. He surfaced more and more evidence of what he saw as a serious problem at Port Clinton. He heard a different bartender repeatedly complain about ‘that n***a n***a f**k f**k music’ whenever anyone played a rap song. He noted that the dart league posed for a photo in front of a Confederate flag.

He wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, the Republican Herald. It began, “Amidst the national debate over whether or not politicians or their comments are racist, I have encountered a clear example of racism which leaves no room for conjecture.”

He implored the borough council to intervene, but they said they had no jurisdiction over the fire companies. In October, he wrote a second op-ed, titled “Racist Comments Overlooked by Governing Body.”

He posted that letter to Nosey Neighbors of Schuylkill County. And then watched as comments rolled in, from friends, strangers, dozens of them.

“Racism is not illegal, society frowns on it but it is a protected right,” one person wrote. “Regardless how you feel about it, the bartender has a Constitutional right to talk like an idiot.”

“So many snowflakes so upset by a word,” wrote another. “Bunch of ppl with nothing better to do everyone’s always offended by something.”

Andy was in disbelief. Wasn’t this why he’d served his country? To protect what he saw as America’s fundamental values?

“I am not sure of your background, education or life experience, but I can assure you neither my brother or I are ‘snowflakes,’” he shot back, after consulting his daughter. “We have a combined 47 years of military experience with a combined 7 combat tours.”

He went on. “We risked our lives to defend this country and we earned the right to be free of ignorant racist comments.”

But as the months dragged on, it seemed like everyone just wanted him and Stosh to shut up about it.

When reached by phone, Berk denied the incident with Stosh ever happened and criticized Andy for stirring the pot.

“We’re only dealing with some idiot here,” he said. “The guy’s a bully and an idiot.”

Port Clinton’s leadership would not comment. Berk is married to Port Clinton’s bar manager. The fire chief is his father-in-law.

Andy says the leadership also dismissed his complaint about Berk’s earlier jokes about the KKK. They said no one could remember it.

“Well I can remember it,” said Andy. “And you know why I remember it? Because it’s indelibly etched in my mind. It upsets me. It’s upsetting me now talking about it.”

He could see the narrative had turned on him. He and Stosh were being maligned, as though calling for accountability and a frank conversation about race was an attack on the fire companies themselves.

 

Andy Barrow is fed up with the racism he's seen in Schuylkill County. "You know why I remember it? Because it's indelibly etched in my mind.
Credit Bas Slabbers / Keystone Crossroads

The first place where Stosh and Andy’s parents felt accepted as a mixed-race couple was a firehouse: The Deer Lake and West Brunswick Fire Company, a five-minute walk from where Stosh lives now.

Andy remembers Sunday mornings spent in the social hall, a yellow building across from the fire station at the edge of a large glassy lake. Mom and dad sipped beers in their favorite seats, while the family peeled potatoes for the weekly pancake breakfast.

They were taking part in a long tradition. From their earliest days, Schuylkill County’s fire companies straddled a line between operating as spaces of public interest and deeply parochial, exclusive clubhouses.

The fire halls date back to the early 19th century. After the 1790 discovery of anthracite coal near what would become Pottsville, immigrants rushed into the area from Poland, Germany, Ireland, and Ukraine to work the mines. They soon constructed little boomtowns of wood-frame rowhouses with connected attics — Shenandoah, Mahanoy City, Frackville.  But those homes quickly proved vulnerable to flames, so they organized fire companies, segregated, like their neighborhoods, by ethnicity.

The new residents built churches too, which gathered the community on Sundays and holy days. But life and property were at risk every day, so the fire companies became all-important loci of civic service, socializing, political pandering, and ethnic pride. Their elegant decor testified to the centrality of their purpose. The names reflected their noble aims: the Citizens Fire Company, the Friendship Hook and Ladder Company, Independence, Vigilant, Hope, Good Will.

People gathered in the fire company’s social halls for dances and dinners to raise money for hand carts and horses, or, better yet, steam engines — easier to chug up and down the hilly streets. Firefighting became a means to showcase immigrants’ bravery, and to vie for recognition in a new country. Sometimes fights broke out at the hydrant, as fire companies competed to be the first to douse a blaze.

Savvy local politicians glad-handed in the fire company bars, knowing that a well-timed round of drinks could win them votes. During Prohibition, some of the bars quietly continued on as speakeasies. Many fire companies became polling locations.

 

Inside the bar and social club at the Schuylkill Historical Fire Society in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.
Credit Matt Smith / Keystone Crossroads

Slowly, the fire companies became more ethnically integrated, as families from different fire companies intermarried. Yet, into the 20th century, they’ve retained their immigrant history and pride, even as the local ranks of volunteer firefighters have greatly dwindled.

All across the state, and country, most firefighting is done by volunteers — and volunteers are disappearing. Longer working hours, longer commutes and the rise of dual-income households have left workers with less time. In the 1970s, Pennsylvania had 300,000 volunteer firefighters. Today, it has around 38,000.

The crisis feels particularly pointed in Schuylkill County. In the aftermath of the boom and bust of the coal industry, the population steeply declined, leaving many once-grand towns in disrepair. Old factories and vacant homes with shoddy wiring became easy fodder for fires.

The population loss is driven in part by young people leaving in early adulthood and not returning. Like many rural areas in the state, the county’s birth rate no longer exceeds its mortality rate.

Older firehouse members, third and fourth generation volunteers, have resisted calls for reform, namely consolidation.

With that, fire companies would close. The 150-year-old photos of members in gilded frames, the marble podiums, the fading portraits of JFK would become museum pieces, just a bygone reminder of what once made Coal Country great.

There’s a nostalgia here — similar to the one President Trump evokes when he promises that coal will once again be king — a desire to hold on to a past that seems to be slipping away.

Campaign signs in support of Republican candidates and a cardboard cut-out portrait of President Donald Trump decorate a window along Hotel St. in Pottsville, Pa.
Credit Bas Slabbers / Keystone Crossroads

In December 2019, five months after Stosh and Andy began their campaign, a letter arrived at fire companies across Schuylkill County.

At first glance, it appeared to be from the Port Clinton Fire Company, admitting wrongdoing for racist behavior in its bar. But quickly, it took on the tone of a blackmail notice.

“Yes, a bartender did use the ‘N’ word three times in front of a Black patron inside the PCFC social quarters,” the letter read.

Then it brought up Stosh and Andy’s grievances.

“Although the two aforementioned complainants are decorated combat veterans and respected members of local communities, the PCFC chooses to minimalize and ignore their trivial complaints,” it said.

The letter was addressed to 73 fire companies and businesses around the county, all donors to the Port Clinton Fire Company.

Port Clinton’s leadership denied they sent the letter. Andy wouldn’t comment on whether it was his doing, either. But he was giddy, practically winking when asked about it.

“That’s the interesting thing. Did I write it or didn’t I?” he grinned. “I think I’ve got to leave that one blank. I’ll leave everybody to speculate on that.”

Nearly half a year had passed, and nothing had changed. Port Clinton still had not made an apology that the brothers could live with. Berk was still employed. And things were getting testy for the brothers. Even friends were urging them to just drop it. Some had cut the brothers off.

“A lot of people are like, ‘That’s just Schuylkill County,’” said Stosh.

So when the letter went out, it felt like a final call out: does anybody, besides the brothers, care?

Judy Engling, treasurer of the Auburn Fire Company, didn’t understand it.

“I don’t think anyone really understood what [the letter] meant or why they sent it out,” she said. “We kind of ignored it.”

At the New Ringgold Fire Company, the letter was the talk of the bar for a week.

“I was appalled. At first I thought it was a joke, and then as I kept reading, I felt it was appalling,” said Lorraine Cooke, the bartender. “I can tell you anywhere I’ve worked — here, there, wherever — I may not have been fired the first time, but I would have been fired the second.”

Cody Yeich, Landingville’s assistant fire chief, had heard a little about the incident before the letter arrived. Stosh and Andy and their dad drink at Landingville often. Yeich knew Andy was trying to get something done.

But Yeich didn’t feel he could make a judgement without knowing more about the story. He feared more for the damage the letter could do to the future of the Port Clinton Fire Company.

“We struggle enough paying bills and it’s getting bad,” he said. “It’s hard to fundraise. People don’t understand how hard it is to keep these places open.”

“So whatever happens down there, I hope they get it worked out, I’d hate to see us lose a fire company.”

 

Assistant Fire Chief Cody Yeich, 32, at the Landingville Community Fire Company in Schuylkill County with bar steward Steve Schaeffer.
Credit Bas Slabbers / Keystone Crossroads

What really rubbed Yeich the wrong way was the tone of the letter. It implied that if donors kept giving to Port Clinton, that would mean they condoned the bartender’s behavior, and leadership’s decision not to fire him.

“To me it just sounded like they were trying to turn everyone against the fire company for whatever happened,” said Yeich.

Steve Schaeffer, Landingville’s bar steward, jumped in. “And it almost included us even though we had nothing to do with it. That’s what got me. It’s like they were saying we were supporting their decision when most of the places they sent it to probably didn’t know anything about it.”

Yeich didn’t want anything to do with it. He threw the letter away.

It didn’t take long for the debate on the Nosey Neighbors Facebook group to turn political: Was Donald Trump responsible for what happened in Port Clinton?

“Let’s all take a minute and give thanks to the man in the Oval Office that is making American great again and is giving has [sic] the use of such language a pass and making it okay again to be a racist, a bigot,” said one post.

That prompted virtual eye rolls. “This guy didn’t say, ya know what got me a new president… I’m gonna try me some racism,” one person replied. “What an idiotic comment.”

The brothers don’t think Trump was to blame either. But they do think the president has made things worse.

“He’s brash,” said Stosh. “I think people are like, ‘All right, well, he could say this and get away with it. I’ll take it a step further and see what happens.’”

Both brothers voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Andy supported him again in 2012. Stosh went for Mitt Romney. In 2016, both voted for Trump.

“It was the lesser of two evils,” said Andy.

“He’s just a clown in the circus,” said Stosh.

Stosh bought into the 1980s vision of multiculturalism, that the old racists would just die off, leaving the world a better place. In some ways, he still believes it. But the Trump presidency — and the vitriol that the Obama presidency unleashed — have provided ample evidence to him that it hasn’t played out that way.

Stosh has a teenage daughter who lives with her mother in Virginia Beach. She’s half Mexican. Recently, while visiting Stosh in Schuylkill County, she asked, “Dad, what’s wrong with Mexicans?”

Stosh reeled. “There’s nothing wrong with Mexicans.”

“Then why do they talk about Mexicans so much around here?”

“People around here are assholes,” he said.

Stosh doesn’t think he’ll stay in Schuylkill County, now that his mom has passed away. Back when he was young and considering joining the Navy, his dad encouraged him, “Get out of here. This place will always be here.”

Andy doesn’t want his son or daughter to stay in the county either. And he’s tired of other white people assuming that just because he’s white and conservative, he’ll tolerate bigoted comments, tired of the conversations white people sometimes have when his brother and father aren’t in the room.

Like recently, when some guys at a fire company bar were shouting slurs at Black athletes on TV.

And then, said Andy, “My dad came in, my dad who’s Black. And these are people who are friends with my dad. You know, ‘Your dad’s a great guy.’”

The conversation stopped.

“But then five minutes later, when he walks out the door, they’re back to dropping ‘This n-bomb. And look at this blank on the TV.’ I don’t understand the psychology of it,” said Andy.

Stan doesn’t like to comment on his sons’ mission in Port Clinton. He rolls his eyes at them, hardened by the decades, saying, ‘Tell me when you’re done, so I can go back to drinking there.’ But the incident has conjured up old stories — how Stan used to get called the n-word at bars in the 60s and his friends would stand up for him. He was right, Stosh thinks now. All that’s really changed is the highway, cutting through.

 

Ronald Stanley Webb, Andy and Stosh's dad, sits at the bar at Deer Lake & West Brunswick Fire Company No. 1, the first place he and his wife felt accepted as a couple in Schuylkill after marrying in the 1960s.
Credit Bas Slabbers / Keystone Crossroads

And that’s the thing about ‘cancel culture’ — the demand that bad behavior be met with swift consequences. Critics say it’s too much, too fast — punishment with no room for second chances. But to those who have repeatedly faced silence and inaction, it’s just plain old accountability coming home to roost.

To the brothers, what happened at Port Clinton is bigger than one racist bartender. It’s about whether, after years of working side by side, drinking in the same bars, they are as much a part of this community as anyone else. Whether their community loves them enough to change.

“Maybe it’s about time people talk about race around here. I mean, Christ, it’s 2020,” said Stosh.

For many voters, race and racism is on the ballot in 2020.

recent Washington Post poll found 8 in 10 Black Americans believe President Trump is a racist, with most saying it’s extremely important he doesn’t win a second term.

Stosh and Andy, though, don’t see it that way.

The brothers are far from agreeing with everything the president has done, but they are willing to vote for him again.

They want government hands off their guns, but were horrified by Trump’s treatment of the Kurds in Syria. Andy supports health care and free college for all, but his experiences with long waits at the Veterans’ hospital make him doubt whether that’s possible. Despite being the grandson of a coal miner he supports a move toward green energy. “It killed him,” he said, referring to the mines.

But the economy seems to be doing well. Stosh’s paycheck is fatter. Trump seems to be helping with that.

“Everybody has their line. It’s close with him,” said Stosh. “He’s like that drunk uncle. You don’t want to talk to him, but he’ll give you $100 for Christmas.”

For Andy, the incident with the bartender is tangible, “as real as this table in front of me.”

Their problems with Trump are easier to shrug off — less overtly and personally offensive.

“I’ve never heard the president use that word,” said Andy. “I haven’t heard him say anything inherently racist.”

The only other candidate the brothers would consider is Joe Biden. Andy thinks he’s the only Democratic candidate who can appeal to “normal Americans.”

And then he wonders aloud — what did he mean by normal? Was that a racist thing to say?

 

A 'Thin Red Line' flag flies outside of the Port Clinton Fire Company in Schuylkill County.
Credit Matt Smith / Keystone Crossroads

The new year marked the time on the calendar when fire companies collect their dues.

Stosh re-upped his membership at Deer Lake, but not Port Clinton. He doesn’t plan to go back until leadership changes.

Andy, on the other hand, walked up to Port Clinton one winter day and rang the bell. A black and white American flag with a red stripe through the middle fluttered overhead as a symbol of firefighters’ sacrifice. A bartender buzzed him in.

Andy dropped down the three steps, entered the bar and paid his dues. He became a member again. It’s something of a provocation, a reminder to the community that he’s not going away.

But things have changed.

“I walk into there now and people won’t even talk to me, won’t even look at me, people who did before,” he said. “I have my own little fun with it, where I embrace people as much as I can. I openly say ‘Hello,’ engage people in conversation.”

But you can hear a pin drop. He only gets silence in return.

 

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads.