For some people in Luray, Va. — a small town known for its tourist-drawing Luray Caverns — those words from Barry Presgraves at a Monday town council meeting might be enough for them to let him serve out the remaining months of his term. They might be enough for them to look past what he posted on his Facebook page a few weeks ago when Joe Biden was considering several Black women for his running mate, including his ultimate choice, Sen. Kamala D. Harris: “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick.”
For others, Presgraves’s apologetic words were a start but fell short of the ones he should have said: “I’m stepping down.”
“The offensive Mayor should resign immediately and anyone who agrees with him should reconsider their antiquated views,” reads a letter that was published in the Page Valley News on Thursday. It was written by a self-described visitor to the area for 40 years. The writer, Kathleen Laziza, describes having a vacation home in the town and noticing in recent years “more Confederate flags than I ever remember seeing.”
“In the future, I hope that Luray can put this appalling episode behind them and elect a Mayor who will be a force of inclusion,” she writes. “Luray is a lovely town from the outside. It is up to the citizens to make it a better town from the inside.”
What happens in Luray will ultimately be decided on a local level, but the incident has drawn national outrage in recent weeks for good reason: We have been here before.
We have seen lawmakers let their bigotry publicly slip out, offer mea culpas and excuse away their behavior as bad jokes or acts of ignorance that occurred before they knew better.
We have listened to them talk about moving communities forward, even as we’ve watched them refuse to step aside to allow that to happen.
Days ago, another Virginia lawmaker, Strasburg Council member John Massoud, posted a sexist and racist meme of Harris (D-Calif.) on social media. I won’t repeat it here, because it doesn’t deserve the space, but it’s worth noting that it included a derogatory word for women that rhymes with “no.”
Massoud, who also is chairman of the 6th Congressional District’s Republican Committee, told town officials that he removed it Wednesday after he “received some flak.” He also addressed it in a newsletter he sends local Republicans.
“Virtue signalers in the Democratic party,” he explained, “have taken to calling me a sexist and a racist because I referred to Senator Harris using politically incorrect language.”
When Presgraves first faced backlash, he also blamed something other than his own judgment. The 77-year-old was quoted by the Page Valley News as saying he wasn’t going to resign and he thought the remark “was humorous.”
“I think people have gone overboard on this,” he is quoted as saying. “It’s an election year.”
In case Presgraves actually believes that, and has convinced others, let’s be clear: People are fed up with racism from politicians not because of the upcoming election but because lawmakers are supposed to represent people, all people, and not see some as the butt of jokes because of their race, ethnicity or other aspects of their identity. Those who hold power over others don’t get the same benefit of the doubt or easy forgiveness as grandparents, neighbors and co-workers who might unintentionally say something hurtful, because the costs of their biases are too high.
People are pushing back against racism not because of what’s going to happen in upcoming months. They are doing so because of what has happened for centuries.
While looking into the history of Luray, which has a population that is less than 5 percent Black, I discovered “Aunt Betty’s Story.” I live in Virginia, have spent time in the Shenandoah Valley and have taken my children to marvel at the Luray Caverns, but I had never heard of the book until I found it on the University of North Carolina’s “Documenting the American South” site.
In it, Bethany Veney offers an intimate first-person account of what it meant to be born an enslaved person in Luray.
“My old master, who at times was inclined to be jolly, had a way of entertaining his friends by my singing and dancing,” she says in it. “Supper over, he would call me into his room, and, giving me to understand what he wanted of me, I would, with all manner of grotesque grimaces, gestures, and positions, dance and sing.”
In one section, she expresses relief that the minister for her first marriage didn’t ask her and her husband to make promises that their White owners could force them to break. In another section, she confesses she used “certain tricks” to avoid being sold when she was placed up for auction in Richmond.
“I was well known in all the parts around as a faithful, hard-working woman, when well treated, but ugly and wilful, if abused beyond a certain point,” she says. “McCoy had bought me away from my child; and now, he thought, he could sell me, if carried to Richmond, at a good advantage. I did not think so; and I determined, if possible, to disappoint him.”
In one of the more painful parts of her account, Veney describes becoming a mother for the first time and explains why she “would have been glad” if she and her newborn daughter had died in that moment.
“My dear white lady,” she says, “ . . . you can never understand the slave mother’s emotions as she clasps her new-born child, and knows that a master’s word can at any moment take it from her embrace; and when, as was mine, that child is a girl, and from her own experience she sees its almost certain doom is to minister to the unbridled lust of the slave-owner.”
The book is dated 1889. Some may see that as making it irrelevant to what is happening in the town today, but it provides context. It is part of Luray’s past. It is part of our nation’s past. When Quaker dropped the Aunt Jemima brand in June, it acknowledged that its origin was “based on a racial stereotype.”
Presgraves claims to “now fully understand” how hurtful his actions were. But for any of us to do that when it comes to racism, we can’t just look inward. We also have to look backward.
We have to understand the deepness of the wound that is being poked.
At the meeting where Presgraves apologized, one of the residents who stood up to speak was a woman whose last name was also Veney. Barbara Veney described her father as Black and White and her mother as Indian and Black. I tried, but was unable, to reach her to ask whether she is related to Bethany Veney. But whether or not she is, her words offered their own powerful perspective.
“I’ve been here all my life,” Barbara Veney said. “Almost 70 years. And today, I’m hurt.”
She told Presgraves that the town needed someone who could shape the community, not divide it.
“In order for us to move on,” she said, “I’m asking you today, Mr. Mayor, that you step down in love — because I love you — and do the right thing.”
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