For years, many black residents of this city of 5,600 in southern Virginia have resented what they call "the Emporia way."
"It's the good ol' boy mentality -- 'You better do it the Emporia way, or we're going to get rid of you,' " said City Council member Ronnie White, who is black. "It's all about power."
Until recently, such beliefs, for the most part, were kept private. But an ongoing power struggle here has pitted the four whites on the City Council against the three blacks, split residents along largely racial lines -- and exposed the growing pains of a small, insular city that, some say, clings to the power structures of the past.
Since September, the black members of the council have been exercising the only power they say they have with the white majority. By repeatedly boycotting council meetings, they have denied the others the quorum of five they need to take a vote on whether to oust Emporia's city manager of nine months, John Rowe. Many blacks have praised Rowe, who is white, for, as they describe it, challenging the old system of hiring and firing at the council's direction. White council members want to fire Rowe, criticizing his management style and calling him inaccessible and at times insubordinate.
The dispute took a new turn recently when the council president, F. Woodrow "Woody" Harris, who is white, swore out complaints against the three black members after they walked out on the only meeting they had attended in weeks. Harris cited the city charter, which says that leaving a meeting without the full council's permission is a Class 4 misdemeanor, carrying a possible $250 fine.
The black council members countered that they had been "tricked" into attending the meeting with the promise that there would be no vote on Rowe's future, and they said they had no choice but to leave when they saw the white majority heading in that direction. With that episode, trust on the council had been broken, said Mary Person, one of the black members. Harris told reporters that he had only wanted to hold the departing members accountable.
"I want to serve notice: You don't hold me accountable for anything," Person said to Harris in an often-heated town meeting Sunday that was called to air the hostilities. "My constituents hold me accountable. . . . We want our voices to be heard, and we want to be seen as equals and treated as equals."
Harris denies that the controversy is about race, or that white council members exercise undue influence at city hall.
"It's not about race; it's about Rowe," he told the largely black crowd of about 100 at the meeting at Greensville Elementary School, sponsored by the Greensville-Emporia NAACP. Harris called the boycott "nothing more than an attempt to slap the face of democracy."
In a local court hearing this week on the misdemeanor complaints, a judge continued the case and urged the council members to try to work out their differences. Although the council is making plans to hold a "nonvoting retreat" soon to discuss the problems, the stalemate continues and is the talk of the town.
Although the dispute has largely involved personnel matters, many say the real issue is the future of a community that has not yet come to terms with change here and in the larger world. With the 2000 Census, Emporia became a majority-black city for the first time, about 56 percent black. Rowe's arrival, some said, coincided with a time of growing political clout for the black community.
"The Emporia way has been going on since the existence of Emporia," said Debra Brown, president of the Greensville-Emporia NAACP. "But we've finally got someone willing to take a stand. We've got the black community rallying around Mr. Rowe. I don't think anybody has ever challenged the system before."
Emporia, an old railroad town about 170 miles south of Washington near the North Carolina border, is a quick burger-and-gas stop for passing travelers. Although it has some fine, large old homes, there are empty spots on the main downtown business street. Some residents said the city has not grown as it should have, given its optimum location on Interstate 95, and attribute the lack of development to what some call the city's backward image.
"Someone once asked me where Emporia was," the Rev. David A. Holbert, the white pastor of a United Methodist church, said at the Sunday meeting, "and I said it was 70 miles and 20 years south of Richmond."
In 2000, the city drew negative headlines across the state after custodians challenged rules that forbade them to use the break room they cleaned at the Greensville County courthouse. An Emporia judge scrapped the rules after state and federal investigations were launched, denying that the ban had anything to do with race but saying "perception has overtaken reality." The rules had been imposed three years earlier, he said, because the workers were employed by the county, not the courts.
Harris, who has emerged as the spokesman for the white council members, said that in the latest controversy, the true focus also has been lost. Much of the dispute centers on Rowe's hiring of a police chief, a process that Harris said took too long and was too secretive. Black council members counter that the white members were incensed because their chosen candidate was passed over.
"While we may have some collateral issues, it's clear the city manager is the eye of the hurricane," Harris said. "What I mean by doing things the Emporia way is, I want the city manager to treat other members of the staff with respect. I don't want them shouted at and given tasks they haven't been trained to do previously. I don't want council kept in the dark on certain issues.
"I think the Emporia way of doing things is to have a collaborative approach and to let everybody know what's going on," he said. "Some on the other side of the issue have been trying to spin this into some racist allusion to some good ol' boy network, and frankly, that's an insult to every city staff member of every race."
Rowe, not surprisingly, has kept a low public profile, though he and his wife did attend the Sunday meeting.
"I think dialogue is good," he said carefully, when asked for his reaction to the discourse. "There's a lot of heart in this community," he added. "It's a community with a lot of potential."
Later, he joined others on the stage to hold hands for the concluding prayer. It was a moment that hinted at future unity, but the black council members warn that they will not back down.
"You can bring all the charges, all the warrants, you want to," Ronnie White said to Harris. "I'm still going to do the right thing."