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Disturbing school board meeting shows widening racial divide in Alamance County

[“Go Backstage” is an occasional series explaining to readers the process of reporting and writing stories. The purpose of the series is to help readers understand the nuances of journalism and to add transparency to the process.

I got to know Patsy Simpson over the telephone in early March while interviewing her for a story about race relations in Alamance County.

She was generous with her time and spoke freely about how race impacts students of color in the Alamance- Burlington School System. Ms. Simpson introduced me to her foster daughter Destiny who also talked freely and at great length about her experiences as a student at Southern Alamance High School.

This week, Ms. Simpson was at the center of a controversy over an article in the Southern Alamance High School yearbook that provided a summary of the Black Lives Matter movement. The  yearbook also included summary articles about other factual events such as the presidential election that occurred during the 2020-21 school year.

The Black Lives Matter article outraged some parents. Some of them attended Monday’s school board meeting to express concern.

Ms. Simpson, the lone Black school board member, got into an heated exchange with someone in the audience. In March, she spoke about feeling the weight of being the board’s only Black member.

Here’s my take on the unfortunate school board meeting. – Greg Childress]

It was difficult to watch the video of Alamance-Burlington school board member Patsy Simpson reminding a speaker that Black lives matter and that part of “getting along” means acknowledging who she is as a person.

Patsy Simpson

You can hear the hurt, the pain and weariness in Simpson’s voice as she explained those simple truths to a speaker who’d come before the board to complain about a yearbook article that highlighted and summarized the activities of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Don’t talk to me about setting an example when you talked about Black lives don’t matter,” Simpson said in a heated exchange with an audience member. “Don’t talk to me about that when you’re talking about why I feel the way I do.”

I spoke to Simpson for several hours in March and April for “PW special report – The battle for Alamance part 3: A school system in which racial divisions and inequities persist. The story explored how race impacts the education and social and emotional well-being of children in the county.

The story is part of an ongoing Policy Watch series examining race relations in the troubled county.

During our talks, Simpson made two things clear: First, she cares deeply about all children in the Alamance-Burlington School System. And secondly, she understands her unique role as the school board’s lone Black member.

“It feels like a really heavy weight on my shoulders,” Simpson said of being the only Black board member. “Some people, particularly white residents, think that I’m always advocating for Black students, and they’re absolutely right, because I can see the disparities and I can see the issues that have not been addressed in these schools.”

Racial tension boiled over in Alamance County last year after citizens gathered in downtown Graham to protest the presence of a Confederate monument in front of the courthouse.

The protests, which led to the arrests and jailing of several participants, were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin. Last month, the disgraced officer was found guilty of all the charges he faced over Floyd’s death.

Critics of the yearbook article titled “From Hashtag to Movement: How a movement helped people speak up against discrimination” were outraged that such an article appeared in Southern Alamance’s yearbook.

It must have been a hard pill to swallow for some residents, especially those who remember the 1960s and beyond when the school sported a Confederates mascot and football players proudly trotted onto the field waving a Confederate battle flag.

“What I saw in my daughters [sic] yearbook from Southern Alamance High School is total [sic] unacceptable!! (earlier post),” parent Jennifer Wrenn Gregory posted on social media.

Wrenn urged parents to attend Monday meeting to “fight for our kids.”  Parents showed up and showed out so much so that the meeting was canceled. The district is reviewing yearbook practices after complaints about the article.

Race relations in the county, and particularly at Southern Alamance High, might be better now if some of the people protesting the yearbook or article or their parents had been around in the mid-2000s to fight for Simpson’s foster daughter, Destiny, who was badly mistreated after winning a spot on the school’s cheer team.

Some white parents wouldn’t allow their daughters to visit the Simpson’s home. Destiny, the foster daughter, told Policy Watch that she was emotionally damaged by the experience.

Destiny later transferred to Graham High School, which was more welcoming and more racially diverse than Southern Alamance.

Dayson Pasión who suffered heartache and an identity crisis when he was a student at Southern Alamance High in the early 2000s would have also welcomed the support of white parents and teachers at Southern Alamance.

Pasión told Policy Watch that classmates taunted him with racial slurs. Teachers and administrators knew, but did nothing, he said.

“It made me lose my identity,” said Pasión, a Latino. “I felt like in order to survive school I had to run to and embrace whiteness.”

Destiny’s and Dayson’s stories show that racial insensitivity is not a new phenomenon at Southern Alamance High.

Parents and district officials should worry that current and future students of color also feel ignored and marginalized at the school. That certainly demands more attention than the yearbook article article that has some many parents riled up.

The Black Lives Matter movement is sometimes controversial yet deserves credit for the work it’s done push the nation toward the high ideals espoused in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Here’s the important part for anyone who needs a refresher: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It’s not at all surprising that bills circulating in the state legislature to restrict what educators can teach students about the nation’s racial past were mentioned by parents attending the Monday’s board meeting.

Simpson and other right-thinking people in Alamance, I’m sure, are wondering how truths about America’s racial history will harm children.

We already know the harm ignorance can do. If you have any questions, ask Destiny or Dayson about their scars.

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Disturbing school board meeting shows widening racial divide in Alamance County