Posted on December 16, 2020

How to Diversify Trump County

Brentin Mock, Bloomberg, December 11, 2020

When driving from Pittsburgh to its deep eastern suburbs, you know you’ve arrived in Westmoreland County when you see the farms with the massive Trump campaign displays, some as elaborate as Christmas Nativity yard scenes. Indeed, there is an entire Trump House. The county is reliably Republican and overwhelmingly white — roughly 95% white compared to 2.4% Black and 2.8% “Other.” When Trump alarmed voters that Democrats and socialists were coming to doom the suburbs, this county was the kind of place he envisioned saving. He won it in November with 63.46% of the vote, which was 2 percentage points less than he won it with in 2016.

But Westmoreland County’s roots are actually steeped in both Democratic Party politics and socialism. And while it never matched the Black demographics of nearby Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt metropolises, it was once a place where some Black businesses thrived and where Black families could find sanctuary from the city. With that in mind, today, a new set of signs is in view around the county that signals a return to those more cosmopolitan origins.

In October, 10 billboards were installed along the major highways of Westmoreland County created by local artists around the common theme of diversity. One billboard, from artist Tina Williams Brewer, is a patch of quilts fit between the messages “Arc of Justice” and “Yoke of LOVE”— the pastiche seeming to mirror the panoply of townships, boroughs, farms and small cities scattered across the county. In artist Fran Flaherty’s billboard, four hands of different skin hues spell out “love” in sign language across a black backdrop. Shane Pilster’s billboard is a neon graffiti burner spelling out “Community,” with emphasis on the “unity” part.

The project is sponsored by the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in the county seat of Greensburg. Both organizations have positioned themselves as anchor institutions for the challenging mission of making Westmoreland a more racially inclusive place. For its part, the museum has been exhibiting more work from Black, African, Native American and Latinx artists in recent years, such as the current “African American Art in the 20th Century” exhibit done in collaboration with the Smithsonian. It’s a new direction for the museum, under the tutelage of director Anne Kraybill, who arrived in Westmoreland County in 2018 from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.


The billboards were curated by Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer, a Westmoreland County resident who came to the U.S. from Palmira, Colombia. Westmoreland’s foreign-born population is even more paltry than its racial minority population — just 1.6% of county residents were not born in the U.S. As a painter, her work explores social justice themes and her “own reality as an immigrant exploring identity, diversity,” according to her artist statement on her website. The sentiment around immigration in Westmoreland is mostly fraught —her thick Colombian accent has been met with anger and hostility, even when she is overheard speaking her native language of Spanish with her own family members.

“I’ve noticed that people do not want to welcome anything different here,” said Cuellar-Shaffer. “I don’t know if it’s that they are afraid, but it’s human nature, that we’re afraid of things that we don’t know. Perhaps a bad economy helps fuel that sense of, ‘We don’t know why you’re here.’”

This would explain the overflow of Trump signs across the county, where the economy is tanking despite a booming U.S. stock market. With its industrial and manufacturing base having eroded over the last several decades — a trend across the Rust Belt — Westmoreland County residents have mostly stuck by the party that best fortresses them from having to share what’s left of jobs and resources with those who don’t fit their mold.


It’s not that the mission of diversity is to turn red states blue. Rather, its urgency lies in its ability to chip away at the intensifying political polarization and racial-economic segregation that has been perilous for both Black urban and white small towns. Westmoreland is an aging, population-losing county that in many parts has been left impoverished due to the flight of industries overseas and the surge toward automation. In that regard, it is a bellwether for what direction, politically and economically, the U.S. will be moving in the years to come.

Cuellar-Shaffer is a board director for the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition, which, originally known as the Central Westmoreland Unity Coalition, was born in response to a KKK rally held at the county courthouse in 1997. Carlotta Paige, a Black county native whose father was a police officer and also worked in some of the county’s factories, helped start the multiracial coalition, which built a following by leading annual unity rallies. The coalition chose “make our differences our strengths” as the theme for the billboards, building from the idea that diversifying is perhaps the one thing that can save the county from approaching utter demise, in the way of so many other towns across Appalachia.

“One of the reasons that I do what I do is because I left Westmoreland County for 23 years and when I came back nothing had changed,” said Paige. “It’s just not that diverse here and that’s got to change. There are some attitudes here that need to be changed.”


One of the billboards, created by Pittsburgh-based artist Alisha Wormsley, features an assembly of 1950s-era TV consoles each with a different slice of Black life captured in sepia tones on the screens. {snip}

Wormsley is perhaps best known today for her series of artistic work built around the declaration, “There Are Black People in the Future”— a statement that has become somewhat of a national anthem for Black artists. It’s fitting that Wormsley was chosen for the Westmoreland project given that a billboard she created in 2018, a public art installation in Pittsburgh, touched off a neighborhood maelstrom over whether Black people were even welcome in her own city. Neighbors of the building where her billboard was mantled complained about the “Black People in the Future” statement and it was eventually taken down. While many people protested against what looked like art censorship from gentrifiers, Wormsley leveraged the moment by developing a league of Black artists across the region who have been commissioned to create even more public works building upon the “There Are Black People in the Future” rubric.

Now the statement is prominently displayed above one of the whitest counties in the state, imposing “a spell,” as Wormsley calls it, on a place where one could legitimately question whether there are Black people in its future.

“I mean, we exist everywhere, and so part of the work is about this ritual, about offering this assurance,” said Wormsley. “That’s what all of these people in this little rural county, that were descendants of Africans, who were brought here in the Atlantic slave trade — their descendants — they created these spaces for themselves. They created this legacy. They made sure that we existed.”

It is just as important to Wormsley for people to understand that there are also Black people in Westmoreland County’s present, as well as its past. Black neighborhoods are sprinkled across the small cities of New Kensington, Jeannette, Monessen and Greensburg. While no Harlem, there’s historically been a network of Black businesses and churches in the area — at least enough of them that a group was able to pool resources together in the 1940s to open their own amusement park, Fairview Park, which had a roller coaster, a petting zoo and even offered hot-air balloon rides. {snip}


{snip} Besides it being a white county, it’s also a gray one, with 23.5% of its population over the age of 65, compared with 18.7% for the state, and 16.5% for the U.S. Its median age of 47 is 20% higher than that of neighboring Allegheny County and also Pennsylvania, which share a median age of 40. It is also bleeding off population: Census estimates from earlier this year found that the county has lost roughly 14,500 people since 2010, with each of its largest municipalities losing significant numbers as well.