Vermont Black History Month

The Irasburg Affair

Black minister shot at, arrested for adultery

Rev. David Johnson and family

Republished from Vermont Historical Society Black History Database

David Lee Johnson was a Baptist minister who arrived in Irasburg in 1968 and soon after, a group of young men shot at his house. Rather than investigate the shooter, the police investigated Rev. Johnson, ultimately charging him with adultery. The incident would later be called the Irasburg Affair.

In 1968, Rev. David Lee Johnson moved his family to Irasburg, Vermont to escape the racial unrest of their former home in California. In addition to his wife Ophelia, his sons David and George and daughter Brenda and her child Yvette made the trip to Vermont. Family friend Barbara Lawrence and her daughter also joined them. On the night of July 19th, a group of young people drove past the Johnson’s house and fired a gun at the residence. Rev. Johnson, a military veteran, fired back at the car with his revolver, causing the assailants to flee.

The state police as well as the Attorney General quickly responded to the Johnson home and promised a thorough investigation. A state police guard was placed at the house in meantime. The perpetrator was quickly identified as Larry Conley, a local man home on leave from the Army. He had previously verbally assaulted black children at a local beach visiting Vermont through a program instituted by Governor Hoff and the mayor of New York.

Conley’s father was a well-known local with connections in law enforcement. The state police dragged their feet on an arrest and withheld information from the Attorney General. With the aid of local newspapers, the troopers assigned to the case started investigating the background of the victim, Rev. Johnson. During the course of the investigation, one of the troopers assigned to guard the Johnson house reported that he witnessed Rev. Johnson engaging in sexual activity with house-guest Barbara Lawrence, a white woman. While Larry Conley was arrested, he was only charged with breach-of-the-peace and quickly released.

Rev. Johnson and Barbara Lawrence were arrested and charged with breaking the archaic Vermont law of adultery. Their charges, and the possible consequences were much greater than those of the man that fired a gun into their home.

Barbara Lawrence was encouraged to plead no contest as long as she left the state. She quickly returned to California. Rev. Johnson refused to plead at all with his attorney as well as members of state Government contending racism in the legal action. All the while, the local newspapers published editorials regarding Rev. Johnson’s past and relations with white women.

The trooper in charge, as well as a state’s attorney, without the knowledge of the Attorney General, went so far as to fly to California to compel Barbara Lawrence to return so they could have her testify. She refused and a California judge supported her decision while chastising the Vermonters for the whole affair.

Ultimately the charges against Rev. Johnson were dropped, but the impact on him and his family was immense. He ultimately moved his family back to California and expressed no interest in ever returning to Vermont. He eventually became a California State Trooper and served in the Los Angeles area until his death in 1988.

A board of inquiry was appointed by Governor Philip H. Hoff and chaired by former governor and U.S. District Judge Ernest Gibson Jr. The board concluded that the state police acted inappropriately and in a racist way by delaying the shooting investigation and moving quickly with the adultery charges.

Though ordered by the governor, Public Safety Commissioner E. A. Alexander refused to discipline any of his troopers that were involved in the case. Governor Hoff left office two weeks later and with the change of administration no one was disciplined.

The incident became known as the Irasburg Affair and inspired Howard Frank Mosher’s book, “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” which was later turned into a feature film by Jay Craven.

7 replies »

  1. How is this anymore egregious then a white, Vermont family moving to inner Detroit or the Riverdale neighborhood of Chicago in 2023? As a country, the condoning racial violence continues 55 years later. Just the target has changed.. And yes, I’ve had a gun held to my head on Woodward Ave. and thwarted a gang, car jacking in Cabrini-Green.

  2. It isn’t. The idea that Woke denies is that we have come infinitely far, we have “reformed”, “progressed”.

  3. Wow! He had a gun and shot back. He was lucky Baruth wasn’t around, or his gun would have been locked up separated from the ammunition or he wouldn’t be able to own a gun at all.

  4. I have discovered several of my friend didn’t even know they were supposed to wait til they got married I got saved at 35 and realized that. It’s not in all bible versions.

  5. Former VT State Trooper Gary Shattuck covered this from the perspective of law enforcement in his excellent book, ” Night Rider Legacy: Weaponizing race in the Irasburg Affair of 1968″.

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