On Monday night, the Durham County Board of Commissioners announced a “broad investigation of all issues” pertaining to the county manager’s accusation that a commissioner targeted him with racist comments.

County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs’s acknowledgment that county manager Wendell Davis’s feelings were hurt by the alleged comments was met with a round of boos and catcalls by the capacity audience, comprised mostly of African American residents.

Normally, fewer than a half-dozen residents attend the commissioners’ meetings.

Last week, the INDY reported on Davis’s February 11 letter accusing Commissioner Heidi Carter of an “inherent bias” toward him and “all people of color in general.” In response, the commissioners’ chambers were filled to capacity with African Americans and others who called for an investigation into or censure of Carter’s alleged comments.

Among other things, Davis said Carter had aimed disparaging remarks at him during a February 3 work session when, according to his letter, she said the county could have completed a funding plan to improve Durham Public Schools facilities “sooner, were it not for the manager.” 

Omar Beasley, chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, called for an investigation, telling commissioners that residents have a right to know what happened.

“We ask that it be taken seriously—because it is serious—and investigated impartially so that the facts are revealed,” Beasley said. “And as citizens, we are entitled to know what happened here and what outcomes will result.” 

Resident Andrea Hudson told commissioners that “here we have a black man” making what he felt were “valid” claims of racism, and there needed to be an outside investigation. “If not,” she said, “then basically you’re letting white supremacy reign.”

Jackie Wagstaff told commissioners that she served with Carter on the school board in the 2000s, and Davis’s letter rang true.

“Go back and look at the minutes and documents,” said Wagstaff. “The vote was always on racial lines. I understand what Wendell Davis has written, and I wish I had written it first.”

Several residents were peeved after reading Davis’s claim that Carter told him soon after taking office, “You work for the Board, and when we tell you to do something, you better grin and bear it.” Davis likened her remarks “to a time in American history when people of color were slaves and of more recent history, when people of color suffered under Jim Crow and segregation laws.”

More than a few of the mostly middle-aged and older African Americans in attendance agreed.

Edward G. Bell told commissioners that Carter “denigrated” Davis and spoke to him as if “he is not qualified to do what he does unless he does exactly what she’s telling him to do. He has done his job in an exemplary manner.”

Civil rights veteran E. Lavonia Allison, who led the Durham Committee before stepping down in 2011, said there was something to Davis’s claims, adding that racism is so ingrained in every thread of American life—housing, education, and the like—that many times white people don’t even realize that their comments are racist. 

Davis’s letter has convulsed local politics with an election coming next week.

Several of Carter’s defenders—including school board chairman Mike Lee—argued that Davis had political motivations for writing the letter and ensuring it circulated to the press. (Davis did not leak the letter to the INDY.) In a Facebook post, Lee, who is black, said Davis was using racism to obscure his real goal: defeating Carter so he could get his contract renewed next year. 

The People’s Alliance has reaffirmed its support of Carter, as has city council member Jillian Johnson, who is black. 

Carter, who is running for a second term as a commissioner after serving 12 years on the school board, told the INDY last week that Davis’s letter “contains misquotes and fabrications” while making “baseless claims” against her. She says it wasn’t racism but frustration that fueled her comments about school funding. She thinks Davis’s letter served two purposes: retaliation for her criticism and to influence the outcome of the March 3 primary.

Despite calls for an investigation, censure, or an apology, Carter—who last week told the INDY that she realized her experiences are shaped by white privilege—reiterated that her concern about education, not racism, was at the heart of her remarks on February 3.

“I’ve listened carefully, and I hear your concerns,” Carter said. She said she took the allegations seriously, but she was “deeply disturbed and disappointed” that the county manager did not speak to her in private or in a closed session with the board instead of lodging “harsh, unsupported allegations, and in such a public way, two weeks before the elections.”

She said her intent was not to diminish Davis’s leadership, but if that was the impact, “please know that I did not intend them that way. … But I want to be clear, and it is important to my integrity that I say this: I unequivocally deny the misquotes in the letter and that my actions were ever racially motivated. That is simply not true.

“My relentless and passionate advocacy for our schoolchildren is because I believe that public education is the system where we actually have the greatest opportunity to address racial inequities. I will not apologize for this advocacy.” 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

Correction: This story originally said that the Durham Association of Educators had rescinded its endorsement of Commissioner Brenda Howerton. That is not accurate. In addition, Heidi Carter’s comments from the meeting have been expanded and clarified, and the first paragraph has been altered to more accurately reflect the board’s actions.

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One reply on “Tensions Over Racism Charge Boil Over at Durham County Commissioners Meeting”

  1. When you have a chip on your shoulder, you bridle at any “authority”; yet, that is the way we govern, Wendell. The Commissioners are elected by the people, and the people have authority over YOU, Weldell. Get a clue.

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