Racial divide surfaces in call for High Point mayor's resignation

Ladon Williams interjects her own message behind protesters Don Ella Carter, Jeff Forsyth and Kay Sharpe (l-r)
White citizens of High Point invoked Jesus and urban planner Andres Duany in their quest to pressure the city's first African-American mayor resign.

Dueling demonstrations outside the Municipal Building followed by statements from speakers during a city council meeting tonight followed the pattern of the racially divided vote last Thursday on a resolution calling on Mayor Bernita Sims and Councilman Foster Douglas to resign: White people wanted Sims to go while black people stood behind her.

Bernita Sims
"Your campaign slogan was 'Making High Point greater,'" said Pam Stern, a real-estate investor who owns the building known as the World's Largest Chest of Drawers. "That doesn't mean when you first get into office to change Kivett Drive to Martin Luther King Boulevard. This is the first thing you did when you came into office. Please don't ruin the momentum Andres Duany left behind. Another generation is in a good place now to come out and change our town. This has put a wrench in the wheel of progress. Please don't let race get in the way of their hopes for a better tomorrow. Since council voted 6 to 3, you should step down."

Calls for Sims and Foster to resign arose from fellow council members in the wake of revelations published in the High Point Enterprise that Sims was under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation for writing a bad check in an estate settlement, failing to pay her utility bill and delinquency on state income taxes. Douglas' outstanding debt to the city stemming from the dismissal of a lawsuit he brought against the city has been known since before he first ran for council in 2008.

Stern has been an active promoter of an initiative by the city-funded City Project to bring urban planner Andres Duany to High Point to lay out a vision for renewing the vibrancy of downtown, Uptowne and the High Point University area.

"I hope that you're not just staying on for a paycheck or your insurance," Stern continued. "For the sake of the city as a whole we do not want to divide our city over your old problems. Please listen to council and your hearts. This is not good to stay on right now. What would Jesus do? We are embarrassed and we want somebody put in your place."

Stern suggested that Jeff Golden, the only remaining African-American council member, be appointed to replace Sims. Prior to the meeting while picketing outside the Municipal Building, Stern said, "I think they should let Jeff Golden fill in as mayor. He's decent; he's passive."

Ryan Saunders and Pam Stern (right)
Thirteen people — all white — stood to support Stern during the meeting. Moments earlier, 22 people — all black — had stood to support Sims. The number of people who explicitly called for Sims' resignation and spoke in her support evenly split with five on each side.

"I submit that this council has been distracted to an epic proportion," said the Rev. Maurice Bowden, "and that in order for this council to get back on task it would take hours upon hours just for them to refocus their attention on the things that are pressing the High Point community: affordable housing, jobs, safety of our citizens.... I demand that all of those council members who have been so distracted, who have perpetuated this madness, that you resign immediately."

Presiding over the meeting, Sims allowed people on both sides to speak beyond their allotted time of three minutes. Audience members in both factions called time on each other. Sims' critics insisted their call for her resignation had nothing to do with race, and two white speakers said they felt intimidated. One white woman instructed Sims to "watch out after your fellow persons that come to these meetings," adding, "I'm not here to be intimidated and pushed around because people are standing up for you. I am standing up for me and my people." Leaving the meeting, a white man indignantly remarked that Sims should resign because she was unable to "control her people."

Ladon Williams (left) and the Rev. Brad Lilley (center)
Martin Harper Sr. said the call for Sims to resign is offensive because it disregards the will of the voters.

"That one vote and one voice will be the fairest way for the voices of the general public to be heard," he said. "Not the opinions of 'I've got this mad group of people over here that says this,' not the opinions of 'I've got this angry group of people over here that's demanding this,' but one vote, one voice. Those votes and those voices were counted and duly heard and legally certified by the elections commission of Guilford County in the state of North Carolina back last November when we elected Bernita Sims as our mayor — 12,000-plus voices, many of them who just recently got the right to vote when you compare the timeframe to the overall age of this great country of ours.... We take it personally when we feel that voice is being affected, when we feel it is being disaffected, when we feel it is being possibly nullified."

Ryan Saunders, a social entrepreneur who has organized several festivals in an effort to revitalize downtown High Point along the lines of Andres Duany's vision, echoed the call for Sims to resign.

Mayor Bernita Sims (right) and council members
"I have a vision and goals for this city and I do not feel that you have proven your ability to lead us to a greater High Point," Saunders told Sims. "A true leader works to help bring communities together and to help improve social challenges such as racism, poverty, joblessness and the overall betterment of the community, not to incite a greater divide. This situation has proven to me that you are not able to handle the challenges of being a public figure and that you do not respect your position as representative of your city. Ms. Sims, I ask that if you're not able to stand tall and confront all of your critics and supporters alike and state that you understand that the issues that have been presented have negatively impacted us, that you want to put these issues behind you and you are dedicated to working to make this city greater and have a plan to do so then I must ask you to resign as mayor of High Point."

After the meeting, Saunders said he was disturbed by the racial polarization that has emerged around the call for the mayor's resignation and the ugly tenor of some of the comments. He said that while his remarks were not motivated by racism, he had come to the decision that he must reconsider his position.

Citizens stand to protest a resolution calling on Sims to resign.
"After the experience in City Hall, I feel like the differences are so fundamental and the pressures on both sides creates a difficult situation for everyone," he said. "I think the best thing is for everyone to try to move past this. I think that we need to accept that the conversation about whether or not she should resign has reached a stalemate and to continue that is only going to make the situation more ugly. We need to step back and address an issue that maybe there are stronger racial lines than we realize. I don't think her resigning is the best option anymore. I feel we need to embrace this opportunity — I feel like she should embrace the opportunity that is presented — to open up a healthy conversation where we can move forward together."

In other business, the council voted 7 to 2 to enforce an order to demolish the Kilby Hotel, a historic building that housed prominent guests such as Duke Ellington on Washington Street. The hotel was a landmark in a district that was historically the heart of black social and economic life during the Jim Crow era.

Citizens stand to call on Sims to resign.
Burnie McElrath, who co-owns the building with her daughter, Myra Williams, said the interior of the building collapsed in August 2012. McElrath said she would like to stabilize the building, but she is unable to insure it as long as it is vacant. Council members, backed by an opinion by City Attorney JoAnne Carlyle, worried that an injury caused by further deterioration could create a liability for the city. Williams said estimates for the cost of shoring up the building, not to mention restoring it, range from $175,000 to $300,000.

Council members Foster Douglas and Jeff Golden voted against demolition.

For the demolition to go through, the city must obtain approval from the Guilford County Preservation Commission. The commission has the authority to delay demolition for up to 365 days.

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