Joyce Woodson, a controversial, African American housing commissioner in Alexandria, lost her seat on the commission after a bitter battle that became a lightning rod for racial tensions over school, housing and recreational issues.
The 4-3 vote by the City Council on Oct. 13 marked the formal end of a campaign by Woodson and her many allies to secure another four-year appointment to the nine-member Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority Commission. But it may have marked the beginning of a new chapter in the city's struggle with race relations.
Before it was over, Woodson's effort to retain her seat sparked a rally, an intense dialogue between dozens of the city's black leaders and the City Council, and a quiet, angry audience at the City Council meeting last week.
When Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D) announced that Woodson would be replaced by Connie Ring, a white Republican man and former member of the City Council, Woodson and her supporters walked out of the City Council's chambers, and one woman angrily called out, "blatant discrimination against a black woman." An undercurrent of murmurs from others swept the room, forcing the council to pause before completing its business for the night.
"I can't tell you, I mean, I felt profound disappointment in them," said Linda Cheatham, a member of the Alexandria NAACP and Woodson supporter. "There are rare occasions when the community has been so incensed, some few occasions when the black community has come together behind an issue as they have here."
Vice Mayor William D. Euille (D) and City Council members Lois L. Walker (D) and William C. Cleveland (R) voted for Woodson. Donley (D) and council members Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D), David G. Speck (D) and Lonnie C. Rich (D) voted against her.
Woodson has been a housing commissioner since 1995. She runs her own marketing business and is a forthright, outspoken woman who has been a driving force behind some of the recent controversy over Alexandria's public housing.
In an ongoing legal battle, the tenants of public housing are fighting to secure the right to redevelop the Berg in Old Town. The commission has consistently voted against them and in favor of North Village, an alternative developer, but three commissioners have voted for the tenants, with Woodson leading the charge.
City Council members said that issue was not their reason for voting against her but instead pointed to a spring council meeting at which Woodson compared a new city policy limiting the expansion of public and assisted housing to Serbian "cleansing" of Kosovo. In this case, Woodson said, the cleansing was by the city government against Alexandria's poor.
Donley and some City Council members said that they were stunned and upset at the analogy and that Woodson was entitled to her opinion but that anyone who expressed herself in that manner about the city's housing policy would not be their choice for a housing commissioner.
On Oct. 2, Woodson's supporters organized a rally for her cause, and on Oct. 5, many of Alexandria's black leaders, Donley and all but one City Council member had a pointed, two-hour discussion about Woodson and race.
Participants called the evening "unprecedented," both in the united and outspoken support of a group on behalf of a routine commission appointment by the City Council and in the spontaneous candor of racial emotions. At the meeting, Woodson supporters acknowledged that she is considered "bombastic" by some but said she was being punished for speaking her mind.
"There is a perception that when black folks in this town speak out that they are marginalized and they are sent to Siberia," said Patricia Broussard, a former school board member.
"The issue is beyond Joyce," said Arnold L. Hart, an African American member of the Mount Vernon Recreation Center Advisory Board. "Alexandria is pretty much a city of white and black--it's divided. This is a slap in the face of all African Americans in Alexandria."
George Lambert, chief executive officer of the Northern Virginia Urban League, said the meeting "brought into sharp focus" that "African Americans view issues from one perspective and perhaps others in our community view them from other perspectives."
Despite the outcries, some city leaders pointed out that the black community itself is divided on public housing redevelopment and on Woodson.
Beyond Woodson and housing, participants at the meeting earlier this month mentioned other city issues that have racial overtones:
* The city is considering changing its free after-school program at recreation centers, which some believe would adversely affect the city's poorest residents, many of whom are black. The proposed change would allow only students who are part of the Campagna Center after-school program to use the recreation centers during after-school hours.
* Old complaints are rising again that in a city that is roughly 40 percent minority, most leading officials are white.
* The school board redrew the boundaries for the city's elementary schools and simultaneously "de-linked" Maury and Lyles-Crouch Elementary Schools. The result will be a student body at Lyles-Crouch that is 88 percent black and one at Jefferson Houston Elementary School that is 78 percent black, effectively "segregated schools," said Melissa Luby, parks and recreation commissioner.
Council members said the dialogue was productive. But community activists involved said it simply reaffirmed that many city officials are insensitive to their needs. They said they are newly energized to register minority voters and to recruit minority candidates for elected office.