CLAY, W.Va. — Officials in this tiny West Virginia town are fighting for their community’s reputation following a nationwide uproar over racist comments about Michelle Obama that prompted the mayor to resign.
Mayor Beverly Whaling, who had commented approvingly on a Facebook post comparing the first lady to an ape, turned in her letter of resignation Tuesday. Joe Coleman, the town recorder, said the resignation was effective immediately; officials here are now scrambling to replace the mayor, who had three years left on her term.
Whaling resigned a day after the director of a government-funded nonprofit was removed from her position amid the backlash over her Facebook post.
After Donald Trump’s election as president, Pamela Ramsey Taylor, who was director of the Clay County Development Corp., took to social media to comment on the upcoming shift from Obama to Melania Trump, writing: “It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House.”
She added: “I’m tired of seeing a Ape in heels.”
NBC affiliate WSAZ reported that Whaling, the mayor, then replied, “Just made my day Pam.”
The comments were later deleted — as were both women’s Facebook pages, according to reports — but images of Taylor’s post and the mayor’s response had already gone viral.
Taylor was placed on leave from her position at the government nonprofit, which uses state and federal funds to provide services to elderly and low-income residents, according to the Associated Press. But a representative at the organization told The Washingon Post that the board “removed” Taylor from her position.
The social media comments drew ire across the country and on the Internet pulling this quiet central West Virginia town and its residents into the center of a nationwide firestorm.
Joshua Shamblin, a former council member, said Tuesday that “the county is sorry that this has been placed upon everyone instead of just the few who made hurtful remarks.” He said local officials were “shocked” by the incident but were preparing to push past it.
At a previously scheduled meeting Tuesday night, council members condemned the comments and accepted Whaling’s resignation. But they also urged outsiders to understand that the incident was not reflective of the community.
“Come see us,” council member Joyce Gibson said, according to the Associated Press. “Spend a day with us. If I knew you would come, I would bake a cake. We’re very decent people.”
Another council member, Jason Hubbard, publicly apologized to the first lady on behalf of Clay, according to the AP. But, Hubbard said, “please don’t judge the entire community for one or two individual acts.”
Whaling did not attend the Tuesday meeting. But in a statement sent to The Post, she apologized: “My comment was not intended to be racist at all. I was referring to my day being made for change in the White House! I am truly sorry for any hard feeling this may have caused! Those who know me know that I’m not of any way racist! Again, I would like to apologize for this getting out of hand!”
By Wednesday morning, more than 175,000 people had signed an online petition that, for days, has been calling for the two women to be fired. The council now has the immediate task to name a new mayor to complete three years left on Whaling’s term.
“She was a good mayor, I thought, and she knew how to get things done,” Gibson said, according to the AP. “It’s just a shame that this has happened. But, you know, there could be good things come out of it.”
Taylor could not be reached for comment, but WSAZ reported that she had also issued an apology. The station reported that Taylor said she understood why her post may have been interpreted as racist, but that was not her intention. She said she was referring to her own opinion about the first lady’s attractiveness, not about the color of her skin, according to the news station.
Taylor also reportedly told WSAZ that the heated public response to her Facebook post had become a “hate crime against me,” saying that she and her children had received death threats. Taylor said she was planning to file a lawsuit against people who had slandered or libeled her amid the uproar, according to the news station.
There is a long and ugly history of comparing black people to apes.
“In the 19th century and well into the 20th, popular media from movies to fiction to political cartoons frequently portrayed blacks as more simian than human,” social psychologists Phillip Atiba Goff and Jennifer L. Eberhardt wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “It was an association that provided cover for slavery itself, as well as anti-black violence. Lynchings in the United States were often justified by relying on this dehumanizing association, and it surfaced in the Rodney King controversy in Los Angeles: LAPD Officer Laurence Powell had referred to a black couple as ‘something right out of ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ moments before he was involved in the King beating,” they wrote. “Like nooses, the ‘N-word’ and white sheets, referring to blacks as apelike is among the most violent and hurtful legacies of our nation’s difficult racial past.”
Racist ape memes have surfaced repeatedly around the Obamas. Several years ago, the Awl catalogued them in a piece called “Primate in Chief: A Guide to Racist Obama Monkey Photoshops.”
The town of Clay has approximately 467 residents, according to a 2015 census estimate. The estimated population of Clay County is 8,910. Two-tenths of 1 percent of Clay County’s residents are African American, according to census data. More than three-quarters of the presidential votes cast in the county went to Trump.
Officials and local residents have tried to make sense of the Facebook comments and the intense backlash.
At the council meeting, Clay Sheriff Garrett Samples said he did not think the post was meant to be racist. “It wasn’t necessarily a joke, but it was stupid,” he said. “I’ve never heard either of them say anything racial before.”
Tina Goode, a town clerk, said: “It wasn’t right, what was posted. We’re not like that. They are good women, and I don’t think they meant anything by it. We’re not a racist town.” Goode said she believed that Hillary Clinton’s supporters were responsible for making the post go viral.
Katie Payne, 16, who is black, said she was surprised by the reaction because “normally when people say things like that around here, it’s swept under the rug.”
The teen’s grandmother, Doris Neal, said the post was “disgusting,” but was not the first time something like this has happened. “Katie’s come home several times with complaints of [peers’] racist remarks,” she said. “One time, when she ran for student body president they teased her about buying watermelons.”
Lish Greiner, a native of Parkersburg, W.Va., who lives in Belpre, Ohio, drove two hours to go to the meeting. “I came tonight to say that I refuse to tolerate any hate and hateful rhetoric,” she said. “Any person in a position of power should not be able to spread this hateful rhetoric.”
Bever reported from Washington. This post has been updated.