Luray Council censures mayor for ‘Aunt Jemima’ comment

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Luray council meeting
Residents begin to line up more than 30 minutes before the Aug. 10 Luray Council meeting.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Aug. 11 — With most of his face covered by a surgical mask, Mayor Barry Presgraves kept his eyes focused on each speaker.

“My grandchild came up to me and asked, ‘What did he say?’” Maxine Tutt said at Monday’s Luray Council meeting. “I told him, and he said, ‘That’s not too good.’”

“How do you explain this to a little kid?” asked Melvin Tutt. “The main difference is you’re the mayor; you’re the leader. It’s just a disappointment to me that we are at this point in 2020.”

“Saying nothing is going to keep it the way it is,” Barbara Veney said. “Years ago, you didn’t speak up; you kept quiet. 

“Your words were hurtful.”

The three African American speakers were among 19 to address the mayor and council on Monday night about Presgraves’ post to Facebook on Aug. 2 stating: “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick.”

“It blew me away when I read it, but it didn’t surprise me,” said Michelle Billings, who organized a protest march down Main Street on Saturday calling for the mayor’s resignation.

The mayor’s social media post, which he initially described as “funny” and “humorous,” references Quaker Foods’ mid-June decision to drop the racist stereotype of the “Aunt Jemima” brand from its products, and the fact that at least three African American women are being vetted as potential vice presidential candidates. Among the VP choices reportedly on Biden’s “short list” are California representative and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Karen Bass, California Senator Kamala Harris and former national security advisor Susan Rice.

“These are black women who have come up through the ranks and proven themselves in a man’s world, as well as being black,” Billings told the mayor and council. “Aunt Jemima is a stereotype of a ‘mammy,’ who had her children taken away while her breasts were still full of milk so she could breast feed her master’s white children.”

The social media post that remained on the mayor’s Facebook page for less than an hour before being taken down one week prior to Monday’s meeting has caused a firestorm of negative feedback directed at the mayor — and the town — from media and organizations across the country, as well as local residents.

“We black women do not appreciate that. It encourages others to think that way and react that way. You need to be held accountable… to some it’s humorous, but to us, it’s not,” said Penny Good, a resident of the traditionally African American community in west Luray known as “The Hill.” In many circles around the tourist town that’s 96 percent white, it was historically known as “[N-word] Hill.”

“We get Aunt Jemima jokes now from folks going down the road. You gotta watch what you say,” Good continued. “The black community isn’t going to put up with it. Some of us actually voted for you, and it’s a slap in the face.”

“It’s hard to entertain the idea that you would find it humorous,” Audrey Tutt Smith said on Monday night. “It’s very hard to accept that apology.”

Prior to the onslaught of citizen comments, including 11 emails sent to the town office that were read into the minutes of the meeting, Mayor Presgraves read his own statement to the dozens in attendance and the hundreds watching online.

“My family and me, I want to make this very clear to everyone, with absolutely no qualifications, I understand what I posted on social media was wrong, offensive and unbecoming. It does not reflect what is in my heart,” the mayor said in a sincere and measured tone. “I also want to make a direct apology to all people of color and women. Passing off demeaning and worn-out racial stereotypes as humor isn’t funny. I now fully understand how hurtful it is, and I can and will do better, and we can all do better. We must. From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry and humbly ask for your forgiveness and your grace.”

The mayor’s statement at Monday’s meeting seemed to express a level of understanding about the impacts of his actions that hadn’t surfaced in previous statements to the media over the past week.

While the majority of speakers condemned the mayor for his actions, many offered forgiveness, as well as scorn.

“I’m not here to tear you down. I have forgiveness in my heart… but you use these kinds of words and I’m trying to raise these grandchildren… I forgive you, I really do forgive you,” Lara Ausberry said. “It was wrong. I’m not demanding you step down, I’m asking. Will those who follow you think they can make racial comments? If we don’t hold each other accountable for our actions, we’ll never grow.”

Five of the 19 speakers to address the Luray Council on Monday night defended the long tenure of Presgraves and his service to the town.

“Barry has done a lot for this community,” said Penn Grove, “and I think asking Barry to resign is going too far. I would ask the people who are offended to forgive him.”

Others speakers who supported Presgraves chastised fellow council member Leah Pence for championing the cause to remove the mayor. 

“I think Miss Pence is dividing the Town of Luray,” Teresa Posey said. “He apologized and that should be enough. I think it’s because he is a Republican and it’s all political.”

While five of the six council members made public statements condemning the mayor’s social media post, Pence is the only member of the council who publicly asked for the mayor to step down for the last four months of his final four-year term. She has reportedly received threats because of her stance, and the anger of certain speakers showed on Monday.

“To assume that everyone would find it racist is racist in itself,” stated Dean Peterson of Shenandoah. Donning a red MAGA hat and a heated tone, Peterson portrayed the past week’s events as a distraction by the “Left.”

“We don’t need any socialists here… this was manufactured by Miss Pence as a political move,” Peterson continued. “We don’t need a socialist in office. We are not going to have it Miss Pence, and you are the one who needs to be censured.”

On July 1, 2019, a change to the town charter approved by the Virginia General Assembly went into affect that prohibits the council from removing an elected official. The concept behind the change was based on the idea that the council should not be able to remove someone who was elected by the voters. Therefore, the only action available to the council was to censure the mayor and offer a public statement of disapproval.

Following a closed session at the end of Monday night’s meeting, the Luray Council voted, 5-1, to censure Mayor Presgraves for his statement about Joe Biden’s VP pick on social media.

“The Luray Town Council hereby adopts this formal censure of Mayor Barry Presgraves for his choice of harmful words posted on Social Media. While the Town Council affirms the freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, as elected officials, we are held to a higher standard within our communities,” the censure statement reads. “Statements by public officials have a powerful impact on the community. We have listened carefully to and reflected deeply upon the public comments shared with the Town during the past week.

“Your apology is a step towards reconciliation with our citizens, however damage both internal and external to our community remains,” the censure continues. “This statement of censure focuses on the action. The Town Council expects your highest level of commitment and dedication to serving all citizens of Luray as we move forward without regard to race, sex, or other characteristics.

“We recognize that words alone will not advance this cause or any other. We are dedicated to working in a transparent manner to build public trust in Town governance and move our great Town forward during this time of healing.”

The lone vote against the censure was cast by Pence.

“I believe that that statement is very well stated, except for one thing,” Pence told council members after the meeting reconvened in open session and just prior to a vote on the censure. “I believe this community here today wanted to specifically address that the [social media post] was racist and sexist. Therefore, I vote no.”

Councilman Joey Sours immediately noted that the terms “race” and “sex” were used within the prepared censure statement.

Pence also voted against discussing the issue in closed session.

“I think it should be held in public,” Pence told the council. “To do anything else would be to continue being tone deaf to our community.”

While emotions flared a few times during the 90-minute meeting — from speakers on both sides — a sense of understanding, healing and forgiveness echoed throughout the evening.

“From speaking with him, he’s not a racist man and he doesn’t have a racist heart,” the evening’s first speaker Audre King said on Monday. King, a pastor and leader within the local African American community went on to say, “This is not who we are, but it’s part of who we’ve been.”

“I’m not here today Mr. Barry to tear you down, but I have to stand up for what’s right,” Barbara Veney said. “We were taught to be careful what come out of our mouth because words do hurt.

“My heart hurts… I’m not here to judge you because you’re voting for Trump,” Veney said, accenting the President’s name in a disgusted tone. “These women that Biden is considering are beautiful black women… they are beautiful to me… No more dividing… the love of God got to take place here. I’m asking you mayor, to step down because I love you.”

The mayor maintains his determination to fulfill his last term in office, which ends on Dec. 31. A petition continues to circulate for Presgraves’ removal, but the process of setting up a recall vote by residents — which will require approval by the court — will likely take longer than the current window of opportunity will allow.

The three-term mayor sat attentively during more than an hour of comments about his actions eight days prior. He looked each one in the eye and nodded at certain comments. 

Some doubt the sincerity of his apologies, while others tout his body of work as a public official for nearly two decades — as opposed to a single moment of bad judgment.

But the overlying message of nearly all speakers was a desire to reconcile and move forward in the best interest of the town, while also recognizing that fighting racism is an ongoing battle.

“It’s fair to say, once Barry Presgraves is gone, racism won’t be gone in Luray,” Logan Horng said. “We all have racial biases… but action against these racial biases are needed. Luray is in a national spotlight … a spotlight that says Luray is still on the wrong side of history.”

“I believe you have been a good mayor. We have all posted something we thought was funny that offended somebody,” Jay North said. “But this has brought a lot of negative publicity. This has told the world that Luray is something other than what I know.”

After saying I know “it’s not what’s in your heart,” North asked the mayor to step down in the best interest of the town, as many speakers did on Monday night. However, the local business owner also acknowledged that the issue of racism is something that the nation as a whole is struggling with, especially now.

“Luray is just another place that is divided,” North said. “It’s happening all over the country.

“We’re not special here.”

UPDATE:

Joe Biden announced Tuesday that Kamala Harris will be his running mate.

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