Post article spurs debate over race relations in Mount Airy

By Terri Flagg -

Race relations have taken center stage in local discussions and social media posts after an unflattering article about Mount Airy and its residents was published in a national newspaper.

Published Jan. 4 in The Washington Post, “How nostalgia for white Christian America drove so many Americans to vote for Trump,” takes a hard look at some of the economic and social factors at work in the town known as Mayberry.

It also includes racially loaded statements attributed to Mount Airy Mayor David Rowe as well as David and Thresa Tucker, a local pastor and his wife.

By Friday afternoon the online version of the article was the second-most-read story on The Post website.

In addition to conversations circulating through social media, readers continued to pile on comments to the 7,000-plus already posted on the site on Saturday.

Rowe and David Tucker, both reluctant to participate in another interview, said they were surprised by and disappointed with the article’s portrayal.

“I was reflecting on a time when I think things were better. It had nothing to do with race at all,” said the mayor.

“When I think about the article I think about the time I spent with the young lady that wrote the article and how I wish I could do it all over again,” Rowe said. “I certainly did not want to besmirch the city or the office of mayor and if there’s people that took those comments as doing that, I apologize.”

“I was surprised because I just did not think that she would take the slant on what I said to be the hallmark of the way people around Mount Airy feel.”

“An an employer no matter black or white, red or yellow, if someone comes in dressed the way certain people are dressed, you’re not going to hire them,” Rowe explained.

“I’m a big fan of what Dr. Martin Luther King said,” Rowe noted, mentioning the quote, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

“That could also apply to the way they dress, I suppose, but character is what counts,” Rowe said. “I’ll be glad when we get to the way, that is if we ever get there.”

“Part of the mayor’s responsibility is to think before he speaks, and obviously I didn’t do that. I wish I could put the genie back in the bottle. I do regret having been caught off my guard, so to speak. I can assure you it won’t happen again. My concern is not for me, it’s about Mount Airy. It probably reflects poorly on Mount Airy, and I did not intend for that to happen in any shape, form or fashion,” Rowe said.

David Tucker, pastor of White Plains Baptist Church, said the article misrepresented comments made by himself and his wife.

“She (Sarah Pulliam Bailey) just misrepresented everything that we are. We do care about people,” he said, adding that blacks do attend his church.

“We minister to all races in our church,” he said. “I’m very disappointed. You can’t undo it either.”

“I never told her who I voted for,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for her to represent all our community that way.”

Public reaction to the article has been mixed.

“I thought that was the most accurate assessment about Mount Airy that I’ve ever read,” said an Elkin resident who works downtown. “It just felt right.”

Several negative reviews have been left on the White Plains Baptist Church’s Facebook page referencing the article, with some jumping to the defense of the Tuckers.

Other folks see the situation as a lot more complex than how the town is portrayed in either The Post article or stylized projections of “Mayberry.”

Lizzie Morrison, coordinator of Mount Airy Downtown who was interviewed and quoted in The Post article, admitted in a Facebook post she cringed when reading the story, but challenged others to push forward.

“Every place will have its dark truths,” she wrote, “and this Washington Post article does shed some light on some of the strife within our community. I have no regrets about sharing some of the realities of what it is to be a young woman working in a very public leadership position in a small Southern town. We can’t be our authentic selves without truthfulness, and sometimes that truth isn’t easy to look in the face. While this article surveys only a few people that live here, it does not speak for the whole.

“I’m also hopeful that talking about it may incite change in our hearts to just love each other. The best place to change the world is right here where we live.”

Sara Bailey, who is a resident of Mount Airy and not the author of The Post article, said about the statements made by Rowe and the Tuckers that, “They said them, and I’m glad they’re out there,” she said. “I’m glad people were honest. What scares me is covert racism.”

“One thing the article is doing is starting a conversation,” she said. “People started talking about something that is real, something that is going on. We’ve got to have honest conversations. It’s a real town with real people.”

Dr. Evelyn Thompson, president of the African American Historical and Genealogical Society of Surry County, said the statements included in the article warranted some clarification from a member of the black population.

“I’m not interested in starting a fight, I’m hoping to start a dialogue or just to share the opinion of somebody else who was born and raised and lived here almost 100 years,” she said.

One thing she considers crucial: “There were no black people in ‘Mayberry.’”

Of the mayor’s statements published in the article she said, “I think they’re all innocent,” adding that she didn’t think the mayor had the opportunity to fully explain his comments, nor were they fleshed out in the article.

However, Thompson peeled back some of the layers underneath the situation.

“As we talk about the problem of racism in America, you can’t speak from any other point of view but the one you live. You just can’t. People can be in denial, and again, denial, fear and even subconscious teachings can have you respond in a way that is in the category of racist without you really acknowledging that or knowing that. Because you have to speak what you know,” she said.

“I like him,” she said of Rowe, “but you have to speak from where you are, and that’s what he’s done.”

She thinks continuing the conversations and real interactions between different groups could facilitate better understanding within the community.

“You have to be empowered enough that you want to hear it. You have to be in a point that you recognize there are two worlds. When you get into that and you realize, you’re in a different world, they’re in a different world, that’s when you begin to think when you speak,” she said.

“I appreciate the mayor talking,” she said. “No matter what people are saying, he has done a great thing by expressing his views. He is who he is, and when we start accepting each other as to who we are and talking and sharing, we begin to have respect for one another.”

“It can be done,” she said. “I can tell you from my own level of growth that it can be done. And you don’t have to be 83 years old to get there.”

By Terri Flagg

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

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