National

Breaking the Rule of One

After upending a racial norm in the rural South, a Black councilwoman contends with defiance from a community she wants to serve
The Fayette City Council — with members Tommy Williams and Virettia Whiteside — meets at City Hall in the small Alabama town in January with Mayor Rod Northam in attendance. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

FAYETTE, Ala. — The men in ties stood in the corridor of City Hall, talking with a kind of familiarity that the newest council member did not yet feel. She walked by them, took her seat and began looking over the agenda, thinking about what she might say once she had a chance to speak.

“Hey Jerry,” the mayor said to one of the other councilmen as he came in.

“Rod,” the councilman said to the mayor.

Rod, Jerry, Eddy, Tommy, and at the far end of the dais was Councilwoman Virettia Whiteside, now writing something down to keep herself focused. She was not the first Black person on the City Council in the rural town of Fayette. There had been others, all elected from the same ward since 1988, the one drawn after a federal lawsuit forced Fayette and other towns across the state to create districts that would enable Black representation.

What mattered about her election — what had spawned a lawsuit aimed at unseating her and nervous rumors about what her victory could mean — was that she was the first to win outside the traditionally Black ward, breaking through what had seemed to her and other Black residents of Fayette to be the informal Rule of One. One Black person on the City Council. One on the zoning board. One on the gas board. One on the abatement board in a town that was roughly 73 percent White and 24 percent Black. Always one, a situation that had long described the reality of entrenched White power outside big Southern cities like Birmingham or Atlanta.

But at a moment when old political orthodoxies were being challenged all the way down to small towns in the rural South, there were now two Black women on the Fayette City Council: one representing the Black ward, and Virettia Whiteside, 35, manager of two apartment complexes across from a vestigial cotton field on the east side of town. She listened as the mayor opened the first regular meeting of the new council.

“Leading us in prayer will be Wade Jackson,” he said. “Wade?”

Virettia closed her eyes and thought about all the things she had wanted to say but had not said during the past months as she felt her legitimacy questioned. Take the high road, people kept advising. You won, they kept reminding her, as she kept thinking of how she was supposed to handle this moment in a changing America, and now the mayor was moving through the agenda, turning to his left for comment.

“Council Lady Whiteside?” he said.

* * *

Virettia talks with a resident at the Mayfair Manor apartments in Fayette. She is the newly elected City Council member for Ward 1, which includes the complexes she manages.
Residents sit outside Mayfair Manor. Virettia also manages Valley Cove. The multiracial tenants include fast-food workers, veterans and elderly and disabled people.
Like many other Mayfair Manor residents, Zach supported Virettia during her council run. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)
TOP: Virettia talks with a resident at the Mayfair Manor apartments in Fayette. She is the newly elected City Council member for Ward 1, which includes the complexes she manages. BOTTOM LEFT: Residents sit outside Mayfair Manor. Virettia also manages Valley Cove. The multiracial tenants include fast-food workers, veterans and elderly and disabled people. BOTTOM RIGHT: Like many other Mayfair Manor residents, Zach supported Virettia during her council run. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

She had surprised herself by deciding to run. She had been on the phone last May with her boss, talking about how she felt the needs of her tenants and working-class families were being ignored in Fayette when her boss said, “So what are you going to do about it?”

Local elections were coming up. Virettia had always thought of her town as “a nice place to live but a hard place to be anybody unless your granddaddy’s uncle’s cousin’s a somebody.” For a while, her father had been somebody — the city’s first Black councilman — but that was long ago, and she had always wondered what to make of his silence about the experience. But now it was the summer of protests after the killing of George Floyd. She was raising two sons. She saw Black women changing politics across the South including next door in Georgia, and soon she was posting a statement on Facebook titled “My Why”:

“I am running because I’m a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend and I am committed to our city, its residents and making local government work better for everyone.”

She started organizing tenants in the two apartment buildings she managed, Mayfair Manor and Valley Cove — a multiracial coalition of fast-food workers, former addicts, veterans, the elderly, the disabled and a few who kept declining to fill out voter registration forms until it became clear they could not read. She took a deep breath and ventured into a subdivision called Haughton Acres, walking up to houses flying Trump flags, and as the campaign went on, the rest of the town realized this was no ordinary election.

Four Black candidates were running for major positions, something that had never happened before in Fayette. Besides Virettia, her cousin was running for a seat on the five-member City Council in another mostly White ward. Her best friend was running in the traditionally Black ward. The former councilman from that ward was running for mayor, and soon rumors started flying. All the White department heads were going to be fired. The town would go bankrupt. Rioters were going to target downtown Fayette, where the Garden Club had planted flower beds and people gathered on holidays in the courthouse square.

The situation became so delicate that when local ministers held a prayer vigil for racial justice during the height of nationwide protests, an organizer quietly asked people not to bring Black Lives Matter signs for fear of confirming the imagined apocalypse. On Election Day, someone called police to report a possible fight outside a polling place, which turned out to be Virettia and the other Black candidates who were outside greeting voters when the sirens came screaming, and through it all, Virettia tried to maintain her composure.

When a rumor started that her candidacy was illegal because she had recently bought a house in another ward, she explained that yes, she had bought the house she hoped to live in someday but as her tax returns, voter registration, bills and sworn oath indicated, she lived with her sons in an apartment at Mayfair Manor. When investigators from the district attorney’s office showed up at Mayfair Manor three times asking tenants if their absentee ballots had been coerced, she decided not to file a complaint with the NAACP. After she won, she spoke only of being “humbled and grateful,” even as she worried about what else could happen.

Four days later, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on her door and handed her a lawsuit aimed at overturning her election based on the residency issue.

“Comes now the Plaintiff Scottie Carl Porter …” she read, recognizing the name of a man she only knew as the owner of an antique store downtown and a superfan of President Donald Trump who had lost his own bid for City Council.

Her first reaction was to consider quitting. Then she got a lawyer in Birmingham who asked the judge to dismiss the case, describing it as an attempt to “intimidate Ms. Whiteside and to punish her for winning election to a traditionally ‘white seat’ ” and “literally an effort to keep Ms. Whiteside ‘in her place.’ ”

All of that was still in the air as Virettia, preparing for the first full City Council meeting, drove through town one day with her friend Aliska Hughes-Monroe, the new councilwoman from the traditionally Black ward, to see about a zoning issue. Of the four Black candidates who ran, they were the two who had won.

“Here we go — pothole, pothole, pothole,” Virettia said as they headed into Aliska’s ward on the west side of town, past the wood-frame houses and churches where they’d both grown up in families that went back generations in Fayette.

They drove through downtown, then crossed over into Virettia’s ward on the east side of town, which she had won in a runoff against a White candidate, 184 to 104, with most of her votes coming from her tenants. They drove past the apartments, past an old plantation house, a Christian supply store and out along a strip of highway where there was a Ford dealership, two local banks and a small airport.

“All this is you now,” Aliska said. “That’s why they’re so mad.”

“Lord help me,” Virettia said.

* * *

Despite aging buildings and the occasional downed sign, Fayette has been trying to revive its downtown area.
A sign for a business in Virettia's ward.
Cotton fields, such as this one in Fayette, still permeate the South. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)
TOP: Despite aging buildings and the occasional downed sign, Fayette has been trying to revive its downtown area. BOTTOM LEFT: A sign for a business in Virettia's ward. BOTTOM RIGHT: Cotton fields, such as this one in Fayette, still permeate the South. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

She understood, of course.

“The biggest threat to the male ego is a black woman,” she said, reading out loud a quote someone had sent her as she began work one morning at Mayfair Manor, where she had a glass-front office in the lobby and the first tenant of the day stopped in just after 8 a.m.

“You doing okay, Junie?” Virettia asked an elderly woman.

“Here lately I’ve just been down in the dumps,” the woman said, and after they talked awhile, another tenant came by to discuss her son’s mental illness.

“Okay — his medication: He’s taking it every day?” Virettia asked.

“Every day,” the woman said. “I’m telling you this is the best I’ve seen him.”

“I know it’s hard — you’re his mom and that’s your baby, but I’m here,” Virettia said, waving over another tenant behind on his rent.

“I love you, but you owe me $77,” Virettia said.

“I love you too, but there’s no work around here,” the man said, and that was how it went all day long, a parade of people with problems that could be as small as needing a ride to the grocery store and as large as not being able to afford medication and as difficult as what had happened the night before, when Virettia had been asleep in her apartment when she heard someone crying. She got up and followed the sound outside where she found a tenant she knew as a veteran with PTSD, saying over and over “I did a lot of bad things,” and so she had held his hand for a while, saying “We serve a God that’s a forgiving God” until he calmed down.

“Mike!” she said now, seeing him pass by her office.

He pulled his hoodie over his face, pretending to avoid her.

“Mike, come in here,” Virettia said, waving him in.

He came in and stood in front of her desk.

“I love you, Mike,” she said.

“That’s all?” he said.

“That’s all,” she said.

She tried to remember that this was the whole reason she had run in the first place. These people, these problems that she wanted the power to solve.

In the afternoon, she read a complaint that a constituent had posted on Facebook: “… asking for my neighbors and friends in ward one now that the new City transition has taken place who can they ask about someone fixing a water leak.”

“Hahahahahaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!" Scottie Porter had responded to the post. “No suggestions! No councilor lives in Ward 1; slap out of luck!”

Virettia took a deep breath. She checked to see if the judge had ruled on the case; still nothing.

She read the post again, which gave her a feeling that reminded her of a time when she was a little girl and living for a while in a tough part of Detroit after her parents got divorced. She was walking home on her first day of school when a classmate started pushing her, and another girl told her, “You’re going to have to fight.” Virettia had never fought in her life but standing there in the strange snow in a strange city, she realized no one was coming to help. She was on her own. She punched the girl in the face, which solved the immediate problem but also began a period of acting out that she later decided had to do with feeling abandoned and wanting someone to rescue her.

“Kind of like now,” she said.

What bothered her was not Scottie Porter’s lawsuit or social media postings exactly, but the silence. The new mayor had told Virettia he supported her but had said nothing publicly. A White woman Virettia had known for years had sent her a private message asking how she was holding up but nothing public. The White city councilmen: nothing. Preachers: nothing. Her father: nothing.

“what black person have you seen come to my defense…… I’ll wait NO ONE,” she had texted her cousin in a moment of frustration.

“You not ready for the next level if you allowing this pettiness to get to you,” her cousin had texted back.

“Yeah you had mf’s like me and my sis in your corner,” Virettia wrote back.

“What do you expect people to do?????” her cousin wrote.

“Stand behind me show up!” Virettia had texted then.

Now she called Cedric Wilson, the former city councilman who had lost his bid for mayor. She needed his advice deciphering Fayette’s zoning laws, but she also knew that Cedric had barely left his house since losing the election, and she was worried about him.

Former council member Cedric Wilson, at his home in January, served Fayette's historically Black Ward 4 for more than 20 years before stepping down in an unsuccessful run for mayor. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

They’d talked previously about what had happened. How White colleagues he’d come to consider friends after 24 years on the council had backed off supporting him after the rumors started that he had recruited all the Black candidates to run at once, which was not true. How a White woman he’d known for years had asked him to get on a video call so she could “see his face” when she asked if he really was going to fire all the White department heads if he won, which was not true. How he wasn’t exactly upset that he lost, but that he lost “behind all those things that were said” by people he thought he could trust. As he’d told Virettia: “I felt fooled by 'em. Normally that’s where the hurt comes from, thinking you know somebody. But.”

“So y’all ever voted to change the outdated laws?” Virettia asked Cedric now.

“We talked about it,” Cedric said. “You got some old ordinances with some old language. Like spitting on the sidewalk. You see what I’m saying? Look at the state Constitution. It’s a lot of language about us in the Constitution of Alabama that’s been there since 1921.”

“We’re hustling backwards,” Virettia said.

“Oh baby, guess what?” Cedric said, brightening, telling Virettia about a White woman he’d run into at the bank, one of the many he’d suspected of spreading the false rumors about him. “I was in the next window. She pretended like she didn’t see me. Finally, she said, ‘Hey Cedric.’ I wouldn’t be so rude, so I said, ‘Hey.’ And she said, ‘What’re you doing?’ And I said, ‘Keeping busy.’ She said, ‘That’s good.' ” And I said, ‘Sure is,’ ” which in his mind was the put-down of the century, a luxury he would normally not allow himself. “But getting back to what you were saying, baby.”

Virettia asked him who was on the abatement board.

“Eddie Williams is on it,” Cedric said. “He’s the only Black.”

“Why’s there always only one Black?” Virettia said.

“There used to be no Black,” Cedric said.

“I’m getting tired of this,” Virettia said.

“You’re going to see some things,” Cedric said. “This ain’t the half of it, baby.”

* * *

Antiques store owner Scottie Porter lost a lawsuit against Virettia that disputed her eligibility to hold office in Ward 1 because she owns a home outside of it.
Aliska Hughes-Monroe, Virettia's best friend, was elected in November to represent Ward 4. Their combined presence changed the longtime makeup of the council. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Antiques store owner Scottie Porter lost a lawsuit against Virettia that disputed her eligibility to hold office in Ward 1 because she owns a home outside of it. RIGHT: Aliska Hughes-Monroe, Virettia's best friend, was elected in November to represent Ward 4. Their combined presence changed the longtime makeup of the council. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

Even though Virettia had never met Scottie Porter, he was not exactly a stranger. It was a small town. Virettia’s mother had shopped at his store. He owned the Spanish-style house on the edge of the traditionally Black ward that had belonged to Virettia’s godmother. He’d run for the ward’s City Council seat against her best friend Aliska, losing 244 to 51.

Now he spent most days at his antique store, happy to share with anyone who asked his belief that if all the Black candidates had won, Fayette would have soon resembled another Alabama town he knew of, an hour to the south, which in his mind had been a charming place when White people had the majority on the City Council.

The history of that town, called Aliceville, suggested a more complicated reality, one of Black voter suppression that extended into the 1980s, when White officials still held nearly every position of power, even though the population was roughly 40 percent Black. At the time, two Black women were organizing Black voters to try to change that when they were accused of absentee ballot fraud, convicted by all-White juries and given the maximum sentences of four and five years in prison. A federal judge later tossed out the decisions, but not before the matter helped spark the largest civil rights march in the South since the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. Federal election monitors were sent to Aliceville, and in the years after that more Black people were elected, a development that led to White flight and divestment that is the story of rural towns across the South.

Scottie’s understanding of Aliceville:

“Aliceville was like Fayette 25 years ago,” he said one afternoon, launching into an interpretation of history that had long fueled the fiercest White resistance to change, one in which Black progress meant White loss — White flight, White fear, a kind of White death.

“From 30,000 feet we look at Aliceville and we know 20 years ago it had a White mayor and now it has a Black mayor, and a Black council, and it’s got s--- left,” he continued. “Few people will say what I say, but people in this town were scared to death. I think Fayette dodged a bullet.”

Except for Virettia’s victory.

It wasn’t just the house she had bought in another ward, he said, explaining why he opposed her election. It was also because he believed she had run for “nefarious reasons” including his belief that she was part of a vast plot by national Democrats and billionaires like George Soros and Bill Gates to retain power at any cost.

“The tentacles are just so far-reaching,” Scottie said. “It’s disguised pretty well but it’s right here among us. One world order. The mega-rich. Population control. People say it could never happen here. We could never have death panels where you start euthanizing people, but I believe that. I believe it with all my heart.”

Fayette maintains a Civil War monument downtown. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

Not that Virettia, who had never been in Scottie’s store and had never been one of the people he sometimes invited in for afternoon tea and conversations amid the antiques, had heard him say any of this; she only had the lawsuit, along with her own knowledge that it was precisely because of what had happened in Aliceville and places like it that in 1988, Black voters in Fayette were able to elect the town’s first Black councilperson, who happened to be her father.

She had often stared at the “Trailblazer Award” hanging on his living room wall, but she had not asked him about his experience, and he had not offered many details.

He’d never told her about the notes he got in his mailbox with messages like “Shut your mouth, n-----.” Or the restraint he had to summon to ask White colleagues who still used the term “boy” to refer to Black men: “If you know the gentleman’s name, would you please call him by his name?” He had not told her about “feeling like you weren’t there.”

What he had told her was that she would learn her own lessons, and so she was trying, going one evening with Aliska to observe a hearing of the zoning board of adjustments.

The matter involved a Black woman named Ericka Espy Hollis, whose house had burned down. She had replaced it with a trailer approved by the fire chief, a decision some of her neighbors were asking to be overturned by referring to a 1970s ordinance.

“I can’t understand why all of a sudden we are allowing this,” said a White woman sitting in the front row with her daughter, addressing the board. “Why now?”

In the row behind them, Virettia sat with Ericka, a hand on her shoulder, thinking this would not be happening, not in this way, if Ericka were White.

The woman’s daughter stood up: “My daddy would roll over in his grave if he knew there was a double-wide in there — I cannot believe this,” she said.

Now Ericka was wringing her hands.

“The residents have got protection because we’ve got ordinances,” said the mother, going on about declining property values, until Ericka finally stood up.

“I’m right here,” she said to the woman. “It’s me. I had a fire. I lost everything. My trailer is paid for, cash. When I moved to my house it looked like nothing, and I fixed it up. I kept my yard up. Didn’t nobody do nothing to help me.”

“Don’t talk to her, talk to them,” said the woman’s daughter, pointing to the board of three White men and one Black man.

“I’m talking to you all,” Ericka said. “It’s mine. I worked for that spot. It’s 20 years I worked for that. When I get through with it, it’s going to look nice. It’s going to look fine. If you give me time, my trailer might put a value on your home. It might look better than yours. Mine will be a home too, once I get through with it.”

She sat down and tried not to cry. Virettia held her hand as the board voted, each of the White members siding with the White neighbors, and the one Black board member siding with Ericka, thwarting the unanimous vote needed to block the trailer.

“People got to live,” said the Black board member, Scott Walker, who had become visibly angry as the hearing went on. “Laws were meant to be amended. If they weren’t, we’d still have slavery.”

“Oh no, you’re not going there,” said the White woman.

“Were you a slave? Were you a slave?” yelled her daughter, getting up to leave as the meeting degenerated into a tense silence, and when it was over, Virettia called Cedric.

“I don’t even know where to begin,” she said.

“I’m just happy you’re there,” he said.

* * *

Virettia stands in Mayfair Manor's Community Room. In her new role, she works to help people beyond the complex. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

A few days later, Virettia was still upset, and when a tenant who’d helped on her campaign stopped by her office, she started telling her what had happened.

“But no one wants to talk about race in this town,” she said.

“No,” said Jerriolyn Lacey. “People think we don’t have a problem, but we do. We just haven’t said anything about it. Yet.”

It was Tuesday, the day of the council meeting, and in the afternoon, Virettia got a call from a White woman in town, a friend of her mother’s, who had been the only person to defend her on Facebook. She told Virettia she wanted to speak on her behalf at the meeting, but by now Virettia had decided she needed to speak for herself. She told her thank you, but no, and as she changed into a skirt and heels and drove over to City Hall in the early evening, she weighed whether this was the moment to bring her feelings out into the open.

She walked by the men chatting in the corridor and took her seat next to her colleagues, wondering if they had supported Scottie’s lawsuit. “Lord give me the strength,” Virettia thought to herself.

“All right, we’ll call the meeting to order,” the mayor said.

Her first chance to say something came with the first item on the agenda, covid-19.

“Any of you want to talk further on this?” the mayor said, turning to his right and then turning to Virettia, who shook her head no.

Her second chance came a few minutes later, after the police chief gave his report.

“Any discussion around that?” the mayor said.

Virettia said nothing.

Her third chance came after the mayor went over the budget.

“Any questions about the balance sheet?”

Virettia fiddled with her pen.

Then came her last chance, the part of the meeting where the mayor asked each council member for updates on their own committees or anything else happening in Fayette.

“Council Lady Whiteside?” the mayor said, turning to his left.

The cameraman who live-streamed all the council meetings swung the lens toward Virettia, who cleared her throat.

“I don’t have anything tonight,” she said, looking out at the faces in the audience, and then at the mayor. “I’m going to meet with Kip tomorrow at 11,” she said, referring to the airport manager. “He’s been out, so we scheduled a meeting for tomorrow, so next meeting, I’ll be able to bring an update on the airport.”

“And I think developing those relationships is a good thing,” the mayor said, moving on.

Virettia put the cap on her pen, and a few minutes later, the meeting was over.

* * *

A corkboard at Mayfair Manor displays a newspaper clipping about Virettia's council election win in November. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

She had imagined another version of the moment, one where she had turned to the camera and said to the whole town of Fayette, “Why are you so frightened? What is the reason for that?” She had imagined a big speech about love and fear and bravery that would end with her telling people, “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, old, young, Black or White, I care about you. Just have a conversation with me. Listen to me. Look at my heart.”

But that was not reality, she was saying the next morning, sitting in her office. The reality was that she could not afford to “make a scene,” she said, not in a town like Fayette, not with so much at stake. And so she had told herself, “Stay cool, calm and collected.” She had kept reminding herself: “I am the first to sit up here for Ward One.”

She kept thinking about Ericka and Mike and the people counting on her to succeed, and about Cedric, her father and the people who had come before, and for that matter the people who might come after, and she kept telling herself what she knew to be true: “This is bigger than me. This is bigger than me.”

She was still saying it now, trusting that the high road people had been advising her to take would eventually bring some relief, but it did not. She felt anxious still. She felt the same sense of uncertainty that she had felt since all of this began, and the feeling continued until she called her lawyer a few days later to check on her case.

She listened as he told her that he had just gotten the decision. That the judge had dismissed the lawsuit. That she had won.

“Now what?” she asked him.

“That’s it,” he told her.

Virettia was alone in her office, and after she hung up, she allowed herself a moment to feel an unexpected sense of vindication. The Rule of One really was broken. She was a full-fledged councilwoman without challenge.

She wanted to call Aliska or Cedric, but before she could do that her phone was ringing. It was a resident from somewhere in her ward, telling Virettia that her son was in the county jail and was in need of medical attention. She said he was being ignored, that he needed help and she needed help, and so Virettia called a deputy at the jail, a White man she knew who was planning to run for sheriff and would need her support. He answered after two rings.

“Hey Jordan,” she said, and began telling him what the woman had told her. “He’s sick. He only has one kidney. He needs to go to the hospital.”

She listened for a moment as he responded — “mm hmm,” she said, “mm hmm” — and then, growing impatient, she did what she finally had the power to do.

“Jordan,” she said, interrupting. “He needs to go to the doctor. Now.”

During her campaign, Virettia knocked on doors in Haughton Acres, a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood in her ward. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)

Photo editing by Bronwen Latimer. Design by Tara McCarty. Copy editing by Wayne Lockwood.

stephanie.mccrummen@washpost.com

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