W ithin weeks of Joanna Kelley’s election as Portsmouth’s first Black assistant mayor, a White retail employee in a nearby town trailed her around a mall store, making her uncomfortable enough to walk out without buying anything for an upcoming trip.

At a different store, Kelley tried to return items to a White store employee without a receipt for merchandise credit, as she had done many times before.

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“The woman accused me of stealing it and trying to return it,” Kelly said. “I got in my car and cried.”

When she went house shopping this fall, a White real estate agent favored talking to Kelley’s White boyfriend, though the appointment was in her name.

“There is part of me that wants to believe that humanity is elevated and they’re not saying (or doing) that because I’m Black,” Kelley said during an interview in the downtown coffee shop she owns.

Kelley, raised predominantly by White grandparents on the Seacoast, organized a racial justice rally in Portsmouth last year that drew thousands.

Before the event, someone on Facebook “threatened to burn down my business,” she recalled.

Right now, it matters

Kelley said she hopes her new role in city government will enable her to serve as a role model for minorities and that people won’t ask her why it makes a difference that she is the first Black assistant mayor.

“My goal in life is hopefully one day it won’t matter,” she said, “but right now it does, and so just because that doesn’t affect you or just because it doesn’t matter to you, doesn’t make it irrelevant.”

In Portsmouth, the positions of mayor and assistant mayor go to the top two finishers in the city council election. Last month, Kelley received the second-highest vote total of all candidates in the citywide election and will take office next month.

Her racial justice activities “gave her a lot of visibility,” said Scott Johnson, a regular customer at Cup of Joe Cafe & Bar, a coffee shop she owns on Market Street.

“That opened some eyes,” he said. “She cares about people and cares about the community.”

Johnson said he welcomes the addition of a businessperson.

“With her background, she’s going to bring some different things to the table,” Johnson said.

‘A crazy childhood’

Born in Worcester, Mass., Kelley said she had a “crazy childhood” mainly in New Hampshire, shuttling among family friends, relatives and the Dover Children’s Home.

“My grandmother met this couple at bingo, and she sent me to live with them” in Farmington, Kelley said. “This is a true story.”

Growing up Black in New Hampshire was different from Massachusetts, she said.

“When I lived in Worcester, I wasn’t Black enough for the Black kids,” she said.

“To them, I spoke White, I dressed White and I wanted to be White. This is who I am.”

Does she still want to be White?

“You know what? Some days,” she said. “Some days … it just feels like it’d be easier.”

A bigger world

People of color who grew up in New Hampshire witnessed cultural changes, such as an increase in salons focusing on Black hair styles, while newcomers from more diverse states often experienced “culture shock” on arrival.

“Is it a shame that we’re just now in 2021 starting a business coalition for minority owners?” she asked. “Yeah, that’s awful, but again I look at it 20 years ago, we would have never had that.”

Kelley said she preaches networking, encouraging people of color to join circles beyond their own friends, which can translate into opportunities.

“It’s trying to show people that the world is bigger than their circle,” she said. “If you’re a kid of color, there’s no circle for you.”

Even today, unsuccessful job searches produce questions.

“There’s always a fear that I think you won’t get the job being a minority, but I don’t think that changes when you’re 14 looking for your first job or 40 looking for a change of career,” Kelley said.

Before the racial justice movement began washing across sections of New Hampshire a few years ago, “I think there were parts of me that were really ashamed to be African-American,” Kelley said. “It felt like more of a burden than anything, I think, growing up.”