On Monday, Dec. 3, High Point City Councilmember Bernita Sims was sworn in as High Point's first black mayor.
Sims' ascension from High Point city councilmember to the mayor's chair was a watershed in High Point politics. Sims, along with being High Point's first black mayor, is only its third mayor since 1992 and one of High Point's few mayors not to come from Emerywood, one of High Point's wealthiest neighborhoods and the traditional home of the owners of its furniture factories and hosiery mills.
The other eight city councilmembers were also sworn in Monday, which ended the largely Republican voting bloc for Mayor Becky Smothers, a Democrat, has held together for years. Among the members of that voting block was Councilmember Chris Whitley, who ran against Sims and lost; Councilmember Latimer Alexander, who ran for the state Senate and lost in the primaries; along with Bill Bencini, who was elected to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and John Faircloth, who was elected to the state House, both in 2010.
Retired NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye swore in Sims and the other councilmembers. The City Council held the swearing-in ceremony in the High Point Theatre – and a good thing, too, because the City Council chambers at city hall overflows during swearing-in ceremonies in normal years, when few seats change hands. This year, of the nine City Council seats, four will be occupied by first-term councilmembers: Jeffrey Golden in Ward 1, Jay Wagner in Ward 4, Jim Davis in Ward 5 and Jason Ewing in Ward 6.
Two councilmembers were re-elected to their old seats: Britt Moore to one of the at-large seats and Foster Douglas, who ran unopposed, to the Ward 2 seat. Sims moved from Ward 1 to mayor, Smothers did not run for reelection as mayor but won an at-large seat and former Mayor Judy Mendenhall defeated Mike Pugh to win the Ward 3 seat.
At the swearing-in ceremony, the new councilmembers had their say. Most thanked the voters and their families. Sims took to the lectern after the swearing-in and was gracious to both incoming and outgoing councilmembers, but gave no hints as to the changes that will be coming to the City Council.
Frye swore in the councilmembers on the stage at the High Point Theatre, which was already dressed for the theater's upcoming presentation of A Christmas Carol.
That left the councilmembers sitting at a long table under a business sign reading, "Scrooge and Marley," a nice touch that could serve as a warning to new councilmembers. They will take office during tight fiscal times, and the decisions of past City Councils, such as the Nov. 19 vote to "conditionally annex" 431 acres for D.H. Griffin, may come back to haunt them like Marley's Ghost.
The councilmembers took their seats in the order in which they were sworn in, beginning with Sims. Sims' only reference to the upcoming reorganization of the City Council was to say, "To our councilmembers, you will not be sitting in this order on Thursday."
Sims, a 10-year City Council veteran, defeated Whitley and developer Coy Williard to win the mayor's chair, forcing Whitley, who could not run for reelection to his Ward 5 seat because he was running for mayor, off the council and Williard a, first-time candidate, out of politics, at least for now.
"I know that, 10 years ago, I didn't know I would be standing here today," Sims told the High Pointers. "We want your input. We want your guidance ... We cannot do this without the support of our citizens telling us what we're doing bad and what we're doing good. We especially like hearing about what we're doing good."
The main floor of the High Point Theatre holds 632 people, and it was filled to near capacity. The election of Sims – both as a new mayor, which has been a rarity in High Point in recent years, and as High Point's first black mayor – created an interest in politics that had been missing. The large turnover in City Council seats, which raises the possibility of changes in policy by the City Council, compounded the renewed political involvement.
High Point politics is usually a clubby affair. And Smothers has been mayor for all but four years since 1992. Smothers lost in 1999 to Arnold Koonce, then retook the office in 2003 and has held it since.
Sims has chosen to play down the historic nature of her election as High Point's first black mayor, but a third of High Point's citizens are black, and her black supporters turned out on Monday in numbers not usually seen.
The election of Sims is a watershed not merely because she is High Point's first black mayor, but because it has thrown open High Point politics to many people who for years felt left out of High Point's political process. A majority of the city councilmembers are still white and Republican, and the mostly black Wards 1 and 2 are heavily Democratic. But the feeling in the theater that High Point politics had been made irrevocably more inclusive was palpable.
High Point has elected black at-large councilmembers before, including Mary Lou Blakeney, who was defeated by Moore in 2010 and ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 1 seat against Golden this year.
Judge Frye was the first black member of the North Carolina General Assembly since reconstruction and the first black justice and chief justice of the court. The Rev. Robert J. Williams, of Williams Memorial CME Church, gave the invocation.
The City Council actually held two meetings on Monday – the last meeting of the old City Council at 4:45 p.m. in the City Council chambers and the 6 p.m. swearing-in ceremony in the theater.
At the first meeting, Smothers gave the outgoing councilmembers plaques of appreciation, and each councilmember said his or her piece about their experiences on the City Council.
Pugh, after speaking, came down from the dais and took the floor lectern. Smothers said, "You could have done it up here."
Pugh said that High Point historian Glen Chavis had brought to his attention that, during World War I and World War II, black veterans were not given the same recognition as white veterans.
He said that High Point newspapers listed black soldiers killed in combat with asterisks next to their names, and at High Point City Council meetings honoring casualties of war, black families were made to sit in the balcony or the back of the room.
Pugh said that the families of killed white soldiers were given gold star plaques, but the families of killed black soldiers weren't. He said the practice of not giving plaques to black families ended after World War II, although their having to sit in the balcony or back of the room certainly didn't.
Pugh asked the City Council to approve placing a large plaque with the names of all soldiers killed in combat, with a gold star next to each name, in the City Council chamber.
"I think that's a terrible thing, but I think it 's something we can right," Pugh said. "It's a wrong we can right, to show that times have changed ... While we cannot change history, we can change bigotry and injustice, and that's what I'm asking you to do."