By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Aug. 8 — While the venue and much of the message on Saturday mirrored two prayer vigils held in early June — this one had a different feel; as well as its share of unique circumstances.
The crowd was smaller than expected, and yet, about the same as the two gatherings at the West Luray Rec Center two months ago. The racially-mixed crowd heard speeches and sang songs; people held signs, chanted and marched. The overriding theme has always been racial equality, but recent events have sharpened the focus.
This time, the ire of the crowd centered on a man, as much as an issue.
“Barry Presgraves has to go,” Michelle Billings’ amplified voice echoed down Main Street toward town hall. More than a hundred strong marched and repeated the sentiment in response. Local law enforcement monitored traffic and showed a strong presence to deter any underlying potential for problems.
“Racism is not a joke,” the Luray resident and the event’s organizer chanted into a megaphone. “Barry Presgraves has to go.”
“He ain’t gonna step down,” a bystander across the street who agreed with the protestors told them as they passed by. He shook his head in obvious disappointment. “I saw it on my phone… he ain’t gonna step down. He said so.”
Another onlooker, sitting in a large pickup truck at a stoplight and obviously agitated by their presence, expressed his views to the protesters through the extension of his middle finger as he drove away.
On Sunday, Aug. 2 around 5:30 p.m., the 12-year mayor of Luray, Barry Presgraves, posted the following on his Facebook page: “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick.”
In less than 24 hours, news of the post — and reactions to it — began to go viral via online stories posted by The Washington Post and WTOP. As the story spiraled, it was soon picked up by dozens of national websites, including The New York Times, The New York Post and CNN.
Despite the obvious reference to both the black stereotype abandoned by Quaker Foods in mid-June and the fact that there are at least three women of color (or more) on the short list for Biden’s vice presidential pick — Presgraves still doesn’t comprehend what he did wrong.
“I don’t understand why it’s offensive,” he told the Page News and Courier on Tuesday. “But that seems like the popular opinion, so I guess they are right.”
The Courier interview revealed the mayor’s confusion over what he’s done, as he stated at one point that his online comment was not about “any living woman,” only to be followed by, “My post was referring to the actual Aunt Jemima.” He thought “someone would get a laugh out of it because I did last week,” according to the PNC, and posted it because “Joe Biden said he’s gonna pick a black woman to be his running mate.”
“The only ones I even know of are Condoleezza Rice and Kamal Harris,” he added, “but they can’t stand to the stature of Aunt Jemima.”
A few hours after that interview, the Luray mayor made this post on his Facebook page: “I posted a picture 8-1-20, I am sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings. Lesson learned. It was not my intent to hurt anyone. I took it to be humorous. SORRY.”
The mayor claims his post about Biden was simply referring to the Aunt Jemima brand, which he loves, and he never meant any harm.
“There just wasn’t any intent to hurt anybody’s feelings. If I did hurt someone’s feelings, I’m sorry,” he told The Courier. “Had I known it, I never would have posted it, and God Almighty, what a storm I’ve created.”
On Saturday, officers of the Luray Police Department and deputies with the Page County Sheriff’s Office came out in numbers to control traffic and maintain order. The viral nature of the mayor’s comments on social media and the tsunami of negative reactions online lead many, including local law enforcement, to believe there was a potential for a large out-of-town presence and a heated environment that could lead to bigger problems.
Some Main Street businesses moved items away from glass display windows, as word spread of a potential “opposition crowd” that might challenge the protestors, and no one knew how each side might react.
The tension felt in the days leading up to the event were heightened in the moments before the first speaker took the megaphone, as local law enforcement were not the only ones at the West Luray Rec Center with firearms.
About a half dozen normally dressed men with green armbands and pistols openly strapped to their side stood gathered on the west side of the center waiting for the event to begin. Immediately following a speaker who emphasized the message organizers had been pushing all week — “We are marching in peace” — the leader of the armed group addressed the crowd.
“Hi, my name’s Jake, and I’m with the Shenandoah Socialist Collective,” he announced. “We are here to de-escalate. When they come and try to disrupt you, do not engage. If you feel threatened, find someone with a green arm band, we will de-escalate.”
However, despite a few loud motorcyclists, there seemed to be no need for the additional firepower. The only visible opposition along the route of the protestors was a single sign held by two women proclaiming, “We support Mayor Presgraves.”
There was one arrest made just prior the event after Luray Police asked to speak with a white male standing on the porch of the Rec Center.
“I’m being arrested,” he yelled moments later to the crowd. “I’m being arrested. Sir, can you tell me why I’m being arrested?”
Luray Police Chief C.S. Bow Cook looked over the man’s shoulder toward the crowd and responded, “Because of outstanding warrants in Rockingham County.”
Just after the incident, Chief Cook confirmed that the arrest was in no way related to Saturday’s event.
Two days prior to the event, Luray Councilman Joey Sours brokered a meeting between Mayor Presgraves and local African American leader and pastor Audre King. The meeting reportedly went well despite the fact that King has publicly called for the mayor’s resignation, and the mayor has publicly claimed, “Hell no.”
King’s absence among the speakers on Saturday was noticeable. The talented orator had given multiple spirited speeches at the Rec Center on both June 4 and June 12. However, on Saturday he arrived at the West Luray Rec Center in the middle of the comments, never addressed the crowd and later did not march with protestors.
Efforts to reach King following Saturday’s event were unsuccessful.
One person’s presence that was clearly noticeable was Luray Council member Leah Pence.
“Thank you Leah,” the crowd chanted during the march. She was recognized on more than one occasion by speakers as the champion of the cause to remove Presgraves. Prior to the first of two speeches before the crowd, Pence was introduced by another speaker as a candidate they should support.
Pence is currently running for re-election to the Luray Council in a five-way race for three seats. Her longtime feud with the mayor is well known by many, and Pence is the only council member that has openly called for the mayor’s resignation. Because of that, she has reportedly received death threats and moved from her former residence near the Main Street bridge.
On Saturday, Pence, dressed in a sleek, black dress and heels, instructed the crowd to shout “We will overcome” when she raised her arm during refrains in her prepared comments.
“Luray is not about hate,” she said to cheers. “This event is about unity. We are not rebel rousers.”
For a few moments during the day, the rally about racial injustice took on the feel of a political rally.
As the march ended in the parking lot adjacent to town hall, several speakers took a turn at the megaphone and voiced a realization that whether or not Mayor Presgraves resigns at Monday’s planned council meeting, Saturday’s event still had deep meaning.
“I was born and raised in Luray, Virginia,” said Faith Good Eugene, who now resides in Staunton. “The fact that this [march] is even happening, right here in Luray, is amazing. This is amazing.”
“This is about uniting a community,” Billings said. “We need unity in this community.”
No one knows exactly what the mayor or other council members may say on Monday night. The council can only censure Presgraves, but can not remove him, according to the town charter. Presgraves is expected to make a statement, but so are members of the community.
And no one knows if any of it will be enough to repair the damage.
“The mayor gave one little apology and thinks it’s done,” said one speaker on Saturday. “Talk is cheap.”
Gathering Grounds and other local businesses have received emails and social media posts from tourists, travelers and former customers who say they will no longer be visiting the small town nestled near the Shenandoah River at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“In the summer of 2019, it was the pleasure of our San Diego family to have a delightful lunch at your restaurant in conjunction to the caverns. I will have family arriving from Europe next summer and we are planning our tour with them on the East Coast and I had planned to include the caverns and the Gathering Grounds for a delicious meal with that contingent of our family. However, in light of the comments by your elected mayor, I can not in good conscience return to a place where its leader is a voice of racial hatred,” read a message from Richard Dittbenner. “I am taking the time to tell you of this lost business for Luray because I felt you would want to know of things within your area that can adversely impact your, and other’s, business.”
When the Town of Luray earlier this week tried to post a notice on its Facebook page about its Movie on Main, a showing of the animated classic “Babe,” one comment from Deena Harrison Duncan read: “I’ve been to the area twice on vacation and we have family in the area. My mother was a born-and-raised Virginian, and my parents are buried there. Never, ever visiting again as long as ya’ll tolerate racism.”
Public condemnations of the mayor’s Aunt Jemima comment have been made by racial equality groups all across the country. Diallo Brooks, Senior Director of Outreach and Public Engagement for People for the American Way stated: “Racists comments from any elected official are despicable. I am no stranger to hate or bigotry and when I heard about Mayor Presgraves’ post, it made me sick. In order to move America forward, we must hold our public officials accountable for comments and actions that fuel hateful racism, sexism and xenophobia. We join the call asking that Mr. Presgraves tender his resignation as mayor of Luray immediately.”
Among signs stating “Stand for what’s right” and speakers invoking the words and memory of the late U.S. Senator and Civil Rights activist John Lewis — “When you see something that’s wrong, stand up and say something” — a few in the gathering on Saturday speculated aloud about the size of Monday night’s crowd.
Whatever may happen at the upcoming council meeting, protesters hope the words of Audre King at the June 12 prayer vigil will ring true in the weeks and months ahead.
“We are going to be the example. The nation will follow Page County,” King said to the crowd at West Luray Rec Center eight weeks ago. “We aren’t going to just talk about the change; we are going to be the change.”