Cities and towns across America are having some hard conversations about race.
Citizens are taking to the streets in protest of police brutality against people of color, sparked by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
These protests have brought racial inequity and systemic racism to the forefront of public discourse, and it’s no different in Hendersonville.
In June, hundreds took to Main Street, marching from the old courthouse to the police station and back in a peaceful protest against racial discrimination and police brutality.
A few days later, local activist Crystal Cauley organized a panel of community leaders who discussed ways to address systemic racism, police brutality and oppression, and a video of the panel has been watched by more than 1,000 people to date.
“There’s a lot of people that talk about the racial disparities in Henderson County, and they do want to make a change,” said Cauley.
City leaders have reached out as well and started having conversations, eventually forming an informal committee to start generating ideas and ways to celebrate and understand diversity in the community.
At its Aug. 26 meeting, the Hendersonville City Council discussed those ideas and how to turn them into action, focusing efforts on creating a new city staff position, a memorial to commemorate the contributions of enslaved people and a museum exhibit highlighting African Americans’ contributions to Henderson County’s history.
Council members, though, were hesitant to take direct action outside of the new staff position, looking to get more input from the community as plans solidified.
Community leaders are cautiously optimistic about these efforts, but want to make sure the city doesn’t just check items off a to-do list and move on to other things.
Some of the leaders behind those ideas are Cauley, Indián Jackson, Josh Williams, Pastor Eric Gash, the Rev. Anthony McMinn, NAACP President Melinda Lowrance and others.
The city’s most decisive action was taking the first steps to establish a new staff position similar to ones at other local organizations, like Asheville’s diversity and inclusion coordinator or the minority liaison officer at the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office.
Reactions from the community leaders were mixed. It’s a start, but real representation is still needed.
“I feel like this is a minority spokesperson-type position, so the community can have someone they feel they could talk to,” Cauley said. “It doesn’t satisfy me because we still need African-American representation on the City Council.”
Even once the position and a formal committee are established, how much say-so are they going to have?, Williams asked.
“At the end of the day, how can we be heard,” she added. “What can we do more to stress that this is what we want?”’
Lowrance said she has faith in the city, that the NAACP has been working with the city on diversity issues for years now, and that this is the first time others have been brought into that conversation.
She said what the informal committee suggested was a diversity inclusion manager, someone who can go out and get the pulse of the community – not just Black and white, but all cultures.
Hendersonville is a multicultural community, she said, and everyone should be represented.
It’s the right direction, Lowrance said, but it’s not going to happen overnight.
“I’m hoping that they will pursue it and we’ll see action on the ideas that were presented,” Cauley said. “A lot of those ideas were mine and my team members’ and I’m hoping we’ll actually see action.”
Cauley has been heavily involved in advocating for and celebrating the African-American community, including founding the Black Business Network of WNC and sparking the first Black Arts and Crafts Show in the county last year.
In July, Cauley completed Racial Equality Institute training, calling the two-day training eye-opening.
“For me it was life-changing, because I got to see factual information on how systems were set up here in the United States, structural racism set up to hold minorities, Black people back,” she said.
The course also covers barriers to change and how change can happen, and it’s something Cauley is working to bring to others in Henderson County.
“I think a lot of people are acknowledging the fact that we have a lot of racism here in Hendersonville and a lot of it is not hidden,” Cauley said.
Turning ideas into reality
There are a lot of ideas being considered, including:
– An African-American cultural center and museum.
– Replacing the sign for the Green Meadows Community
– Hosting African-American history events during February.
– Creating a historical marker about the history of the Brooklyn community.
– Erecting a monument to honor enslaved people within the community.
– Displaying local African-American history within the new police headquarters on Ashe Street.
Currently, the ideas drawing the most support appear to be replacing the Green Meadows sign and establishing a museum or cultural center dedicated to local African-American heritage.
Cauley also mentioned a proclamation and an annual festival for Juneteenth with vendors, artists and more, in the vein of the Fiesta Hendersonville event that celebrates Latin American culture downtown every September.
“But everything that’s been put on the table, we feel, are things that we should have, especially the removal of the Confederate statue at the old courthouse,” Cauley said.
Everything is of high importance. She doesn’t want to see two things accomplished and the rest just dismissed.
Lowrance topped her priority list with the city’s diversity inclusion manager and a new sign for Green Meadows, proposing that it include some information about the historic Brooklyn community.
She said the memorial to slavery can be put on the backburner, but she loves the idea of a museum. She’s been contacted by the historical society, which offered its help should a museum come to fruition.
But it’s not just about putting forward ideas.
“We have the ideas, but we are also stating that we will help create and be a part of what we’re asking for,” Cauley said, offering to donate to a museum from her own extensive collection.
There’s no place that preserves the African-American history of Henderson County, Cauley said.
“We definitely need to preserve our history, because the older generation is leaving us,” she said, adding that it’s going to take some creativity.
One of her projects seeks to interpret oral history throughout artwork as a way to reach younger audiences that may not feel drawn to pick up a 400-page book.
“We need to do as much as we can, and just because they have one picture at the old Historic Courthouse of a Tuskegee airman, that doesn’t represent us or our local history,” Cauley said. “A better job can be done.”
These initiatives can also bring in tourism dollars and create jobs, Jackson said.
Other priorities focus on gaining representation on local governing bodies and committees and at the new police department headquarters.
Cauley floated the idea of Goodwill Career Connections helping members of the community earn certifications to help them land jobs as 911 operators and other positions there.
Schools focus on recruiting, equity
Schools in Henderson County are focusing on diversifying their staff of educators and administrators, aiming to make the staff mirror its student population, says School Board Chair Blair Craven, an effort that started gaining momentum a couple of years ago.
That means casting a wider net when school officials recruit new teachers, and it means encouraging current students to become teachers themselves.
Time and again, studies have shown that if even one person has at least one teacher of the same ethnicity, they have vastly better outcomes, he said.
Craven came up through the Hendersonville school district and had just one African-American teacher, his baseball coach, Gary Rivers.
Jackson pointed out that Bruce Drysdale Elementary has an African-American principal and assistant principal in Eric Gash and Roderick Brown. But that’s just one school.
When it comes to representation of Blacks among teachers, Williams said it often fits a certain mold: they have to coach a sport.
Jackson said that when she spoke to one principal and asked him whether they had any Black teachers, the principal noted the custodian.
At a School Board meeting in June, Craven pointed out that there is no one of color on the school system’s leadership team, and only one of the district’s 23 principals is Black.
In Henderson County schools, 23% of students are Hispanic, 4% are African-American and 5% are biracial.
“What I challenge the administration to do is get out of their comfort zone,” Craven said.
Historically, Henderson County gets great teachers from universities like Western Carolina, Appalachian State or UNC Asheville, but Craven said it would really make a difference to move out more to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and into more diverse communities when recruiting teachers.
COVID, though, has thrown a wrench into those plans. Travel restrictions mean fewer visits to colleges, and virtual, online recruitment is more difficult. Budget issues are also a concern, he said, with more expensive air travel for recruiting and other issues.
One big issue in Henderson County is affordable housing. With a teacher’s starting salary around $35,000, he stressed how difficult it is to find quality housing locally.
“There’s all kinds of issues that pop up, but it’s something that’s important,” Craven said. “We need to find a way to get around those obstacles and get in the best talent.”
Craven also applauded the efforts of Superintendent Bo Caldwell, who started an equity focus group in July, hoping to meet quarterly with students, staff and community member to address pressing diversity issues.
The first thing to do is to start recruiting in-house, he said. That’s something schools can do now, starting programs within the county’s schools.
That means creating groups in middle and high schools to show the value of being of teacher, telling students how awesome of a career the education field is, giving them support, following them through their college career and hopefully bringing them back home.
Moving forward, overcoming obstacles
One of the biggest things, Williams said, is that African-Americans are simply looked at and treated differently, making it harder to find jobs.
“It might sound typical, but if you only knew how true that is here in Hendersonville,” Jackson said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s so swept under the rug.”
And it goes beyond jobs, she said; it’s there when African-Americans are trying to buy a house, too.
“It’s disheartening even for somebody like me,” she said, someone with a great job at a well-known company.
“Wouldn’t matter as long as my name is Indián or if I don’t change my voice,” she said. “That’s a really big problem here, the lack of inclusion.”
Going forward, Cauley expects budgeting to be an issue, since all of the ideas presented will have to be built from the ground up and funds will have to be raised.
Misunderstanding and misrepresentation are also big obstacles to progress in Hendersonville. One example is the BLM mural proposed for Main Street or Seventh Avenue.
Cauley wrote the proposal for the mural, she and Jackson submitted it and it was flatly denied, yet was still included along with other ideas on the City Council’s agenda.
“It wasn’t talked too much about,” Jackson said.
This is why people of color need to be represented in the decision-making process, in the room where these decisions are being made, she said.
No people of color sit on the Hendersonville City Council or the Henderson County Board of Commissioners.
The same goes for local media like the Times-News, which has an all-white staff.
“Hendersonville lacks that as a whole, and that’s where the ball gets dropped,” Jackson said. “It’s hard for us to make progress like we’d like to.”
Williams said he feels like they’re trying, but more pressure must be applied.
“They only have what we present,” he said. But if they’re in the room they can be part of the discussion, rather that just submitting ideas.
“We need to be in these meetings and be represented all around the board,” Williams said. “Within the community, the newspapers, everything.”
Lowrance said she feels a new energy today. Keeping these issues in the public eye will energize the effort, and “hold their feet to the fire because it’s out there now.”
“I think there will be some things that will happen immediately, maybe by the end of the year, ” she said, but everything won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take more concrete conversations.
Cauley, too, said she feels the city will follow through.
“The only way progress is going to happen is if we continue our fight, fight harder and continue together,” Jackson said.
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