Mount Airy’s mayor is apologizing for disparaging comments he made about African-Americans in an interview in The Washington Post earlier this month.

In the article, Mayor David Rowe talked about “an African-American boy with pants at their knees” and said he’s worried “what kind of effect will that person have on society.”

Rowe also said in the Post article that blacks bring hardship on themselves and that he never saw African-Americans in social settings.

“I won’t deny that I said it, but it was taken out of context,” Rowe told the Winston-Salem Journal this week. “There was no racial component in my mind whatsoever.”

The widely shared Jan. 5 article uses Mount Airy as a springboard to look at why residents of small towns such as Mount Airy voted heavily for President-elect Donald Trump. Rowe’s comments, along with those of the wife of a local Baptist minister, sparked outrage online and among some residents of the town, which is known as the model for the fictional town of Mayberry in “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Immediately after the interview with the Post, Rowe said his heart sank. He called the reporter, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and asked if he could clarify his thoughts, but she said no, Rowe said.

He said he has apologized to the city and the NAACP.

“I knew the minute the interview was over, I made a serious error,” he said. “Those words will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.”

The Post article also included comments from the Rev. David Tucker and his wife, Thresa. David Tucker is the pastor of White Plains Baptist Church, which offers assistance to people in need. Thresa Tucker said that some of the people who seek help at the church are not worthy of it, then said African-Americans who are concerned about Trump’s plans for the poor should try harder to help themselves.

“I think black people think they’re owed something,” Thresa Tucker said.

Disappointing, frustrating

Kevin Cokley, who is African-American and grew up in the Mount Airy area, said he wasn’t surprised by the comments.

While attending high school at East Surry in the 1980s, race was a touchy subject discussed only behind closed doors. Interracial dating was seen as scandalous, Cokley said.

And while the comments in the article weren’t shocking, they were disappointing and frustrating, said Cokley, director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Part of what it does is perpetuate some of the nation’s oldest stereotypes that we’re lazy and don’t work hard,” said Cokley, who is also a professor of African-American studies. “I think it reflects a growing white racial resentment to changing demographics in this country.”

Not everyone who supported Trump is a racist, Cokley said, just as there are people in Mount Airy who are more open-minded and progressive. Still the comments made by town leaders are troubling.

“When Trump says ‘Make America Great Again,’ many of us interpret that as taking America back to the days when certain groups, black people in particular, were not treated so well,” Cokley said. “For some of us, America has not always been great.”

Rowe said he is not racist. He said he was simply trying to convey a sense of nostalgia for his high school memories in the 1950s and 1960s in a world less technologically advanced and where football reigned supreme.

“I was reflecting on a time when I think things were better. It had nothing to do with race at all,” Rowe told the Mount Airy News. “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.”

It was also a time when schools and town facilities were segregated, something that other residents pointed out, including Ron Jessup, who grew up in Mount Airy. Jessup, a retired longtime principal in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said in the Post article the town was friendly to blacks as long as they obeyed Jim Crow laws.

Mount Airy remains 84 percent white; about 8.2 percent of its residents are African-American and 6.7 percent are Hispanic, according to the latest census data.

Comments ‘really hurt’

“I think people cling to those idealist values from the 1950s, but life just isn’t a TV show and Mount Airy is not Mayberry,” said Sara Pequeno, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Some of those comments made really hurt.”

She penned a column for the Tab, a news network at UNC-Chapel Hill, in response to the comments. In it, she talked about the problems in Mount Airy, but also her love for her hometown.

Pequeno, whose father is Hispanic, said she’d like to believe the comments were made without thinking, and she hopes the article aftermath can catalyze change for minority groups in her hometown.

“Racism is not going to disappear overnight, it’ll take a lot of unlearning of old habits and calling out things that are not OK,” she said. “I hope this is a good wake-up call for us.”

jdrabble@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7204

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