Not all of McDowell County’s major events in 2020 were about COVID-19. Throughout the year, the county’s people voiced their concerns and opinions on matters that were not related to the pandemic.
From racial injustice to the issue of Sunday beer sales in Old Fort to showing support for law enforcement to the overdose problem, McDowell residents made their voices heard loud and clear in 2020.
Shine a Light vigil
One of the biggest and most noteworthy of the public events in McDowell happened as a result of the killing of George Floyd during an arrest in Minnesota. The death of Floyd, who was an African American, sparked outrage and anger and protests against police brutality all over the United States. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia and other African Americans also brought attention to the issue of systemic racism in America. Many U.S. cities, including those near McDowell County, experienced protests and riots over the problems of racism and police brutality.
Here in McDowell, peaceful vigils took place on the evening of Thursday, June 4 in Marion and Old Fort to “shine the light” on racial hate and injustice as well as promote unity among all people.
“It’s the year 2020 and this is still happening,” reads the Facebook page about the event. “Let’s educate ourselves and love each other. Shine the light on what's going on. It’s time to talk, understand and bring this all to the light. Wear your mask and there will be 6 feet apart on the sidewalks. Pick a line and join in. Bring your flashlight or your phone that has a flashlight. This is a peaceful vigil.”
The vigils, in some ways, were similar to the Unity services that were held a few years ago in Marion. Those events united people of different races, ethnic groups and economic backgrounds along with local law enforcement and civic leaders.
“We know what racism and injustice will not prevail when brought into the light,” said Ginger Webb with the Community Engagement Project. “We all need to work toward breaking down a system that was and is created to discriminate and oppress Black people as well as other people of color. We want this peaceful vigil to be a moment of solidarity. As neighbors, we have to get uncomfortable and lean in to the hard work of examining our systems and our prejudices to actually make forward progress to true unity.”
“On the issue of racism people have been silent, complacent, content, and cautious for too long,” said Dawna Goode-Ledbetter of the West Marion Community Forum. “No one wants to sit in discomfort and that’s a problem. Well we’ve been uncomfortable for a long time and #WEARETIRED! I urge everyone of every race to shine a light and use your voice in order to heal the nation of this disease called racism.”
“It’s 2020 and I still have to have this same conversation,” said Paula Avery Swepson, also with the West Marion forum. “I’m at a loss for words, but at the same time I have so much to say. When I was approached about doing something, my first thoughts were, ‘I can do no more. It’s time for the white people to stand up and speak out against the injustices that we are continuing to face.’ I’m tired, worn out and want to see a positive change for all.”
The vigils brought hundreds of people of different races and economic backgrounds together to show their opposition to racism and hatred and voice their support for justice and unity. Mayor Steve Little, Police Chief Allen Lawrence and the Rev. Michael Smith of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church spoke at the Marion vigil.
“For minority communities, peaceful protest is the most effective tool we have at our disposal to bring about meaningful change,” Smith wrote in an opinion piece. “A revolution is neither possible nor desired. In the present discussion, we are after justice promptly carried out for corrupt police officers and private citizens who have committed murder in plain sight. These are not hand-painted propaganda images of the Boston Massacre run in newspapers. To the contrary, we have eye-witnessed events caught on video cameras and displayed in plain sight for all who will take the time to look. The peaceful protest is not an over-reaction. It is the proper action. The violence is too much.”
Sunday beer sales in Old Fort
In Old Fort, residents and business owners had another issue on their minds.
Hillman Beer, based in Asheville, was getting ready to open a craft brewery in Old Fort in a section of the Parker Hosiery building. In addition, Chris and Jessica Whaley announced their plans to construct their craft brewery in Old Fort near Hillman Beer’s operation. The town of Old Fort is dry, but a change in the state law in 2019 allows a brewery to sell its own product there even if other alcohol sales are prohibited.
However, the Old Fort Board of Aldermen considered trying to stop Sunday sales of beer, which Hillman Beer said would hurt their business and was not talked about in early discussions with town leaders. For both April and May, the aldermen delayed a decision to try to stop Sunday sales so they could gather public opinion.
At the regular May meeting of the Old Fort Board of Aldermen, a crowd of up to 200 people gathered in support of economic growth and Sunday beer sales in the town. Many of them held signs in the rain outside Town Hall. The signs carried such messages as “We support growth in Old Fort” or “Please let our town grow” or “Vote yes for Sunday beer sales.” Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, the crowd could not come inside Town Hall. Rather, persons who wished to speak to the aldermen had to wait outside for their turn.
At the May meeting, the aldermen heard from several people opposed to Sunday beer sales but the majority were strongly in favor of allowing it in the town. Since the April meeting, Old Fort Forward, a new group of local business owners, started an online survey to determine how people feel about not only the sale of beer on Sundays but progress in the town in general. The survey got a total of 1,745 responses. Of those, 1,648 stated they don’t support the aldermen passing new laws prohibiting beer and wine sales on Sundays. Only 97 said they support the aldermen. When asked about future development in Old Fort, 1,687 said the town should definitely welcome new businesses. Only 58 said they agreed with halting all development and leave everything the way it is.
At the May meeting, the aldermen heard from Brandi Hillman of Hillman Beer, David Billstrom of Kitsbow, Marion City Manager Bob Boyette, Marion Police Chief Allen Lawrence and Chamber of Commerce Director Steve Bush, all of whom spoke in support of allowing Sunday beer sales.
In addition, Stephanie Twitty, a member of the town’s Planning Board, announced to the aldermen she would resign. “On a personal note, I’d like to say I was sorry to come to this place because it feels like the sentiment is no women, no people of color, no progress,” said Twitty to the aldermen.
By the time of the June meeting, the aldermen were ready to make a decision. Like the May 18 meeting, at least 100 people stood outside in the Town Hall’s parking lot holding signs supporting the serving of beer on Sundays.
The aldermen agreed not to do anything for now about Sunday beer sales. “Personally, I don’t agree with alcohol sales period because of my religious beliefs, my moral beliefs and all,” said Alderman Andrew Carlton. “I think we need to let this one go and let it fall back on the state and their rules and regulations.
“This is something we need to walk away from. I think this takes it off of our plates and puts it back with the state. This has already been shoved down our throats, as far as the brewery itself. We need to move on to more pressing things and let it go.”
Alderman Jerome Effler made a motion at the June meeting not to make any changes for 12 months in the town rules regarding serving beer on Sundays. The board could always come back and take another look at the situation in the future, he added.
Effler’s motion was approved unanimously. This action was cheered by the crowd waiting outside in the Old Fort Town Hall’s parking lot.
Protest at Lowe’s store
In August, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Marion.
They were there to show their support for Lowe’s employee Garett Crisp, who was informed by management that he could not wear a face mask supporting law enforcement.
Crisp works in the lumber section of the Marion Lowe’s store. He is also the son of U.S. Forest Service Officer Jason Crisp, who was killed in the line of duty in March 2014. Officer Jason Crisp’s K9 partner Maros was also killed at the same time. During the funeral procession in March 2014, a caisson transported the casket of Jason Crisp and the cremated remains of Maros along U.S. 70 West to McDowell High School’s gym for the funeral service. That solemn and elaborate procession, which involved officers and government officials from numerous counties, traveled right by the Lowe’s store where Garett Crisp now works.
To honor the memory of his late father and all law enforcement, Garett Crisp wears a blue lives matter face mask. It is the one showing the United States flag in black and white with a single blue stripe in support of law enforcement officers.
“What it means for me is that I am honoring my father’s sacrifice to our community,” he said to The McDowell News.
Crisp said he was told by the management at Lowe’s he could not wear that mask while on the job. He said he was informed by management this mask is a “political statement.” Crisp said to The McDowell he explained to management the reasons why he wears this mask.
“When I told him why I wore it, he said that he didn’t care,” said Crisp. “I don’t feel like it’s a political statement to back law enforcement. Lowe’s supports our troops, and we sell the thin blue line flag and stickers at the store. I just believe that was his personal agenda.”
In response to this incident, friends and supporters of Crisp held a protest in front of the store Thursday evening which drew hundreds of people. Organizers of the protest said on Facebook they didn’t want to block traffic or raise their voices but show their “solidarity for our heroes.”
Chris Marsh spoke to the crowd about how he wanted to support Crisp and his family. He said that he hoped this crowd would include Republicans, Democrats, people of all races, gay and straight united to show their support for our law enforcement not only here but throughout the nation. Numerous people carried blue lives matter flags and American flags as well as blue lives matter T-shirts.
Crisp said he greatly appreciated the show of support.
After the protest, The McDowell News heard back from the corporate office of Lowe’s.
“We respect the desire to share personal views and honor loved ones,” said spokeswoman Sarah Lively. “However, we ask all associates while in the workplace to follow our longstanding dress code policy, which only allows associates to wear items with visible logos that are related to Lowe's business, such as the name brands we sell. We will also continue to provide masks and vests to all associates to make it easier to follow our policy.”
Overdose Awareness Day
Monday, Aug. 31 was Overdose Awareness Day in McDowell County, the city of Marion and the town of Old Fort.
For four years, residents of McDowell County have commemorated International Overdose Day. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness that overdose can be prevented and to reduce the stigma around overdose death. Organizers conducted vigils in both Marion and Old Fort.
At the county courthouse in downtown Marion, a crowd gathered for the vigil. Marion Mayor Steve Little presented organizer Debora Workman with a proclamation declaring Aug. 31 as Overdose Awareness Day in the city. Police Chief Allen Lawrence, Police Lt. Rusty Jenkins, Councilmember Ann Harkey and a Community Care paramedic from McDowell County EMS were on hand to show their support. Workman then asked people gathered there to take a candle and walk in honor or memory of a loved one affected by overdoses and substance abuse issues.
Participants left the courthouse and walked down Main Street and then came back to the courthouse during the candle vigil.
At the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort, a similar vigil took place during the same time as Marion’s. Lavita Logan with People on the Move Old Fort and Alderman Andrew Carlton were there to show their support. Young and old held candles to remember those affected by substance abuse and overdoses.
At both events, organizers emphasized the message that recovery is possible and people struggling with addiction are not alone.
Civil rights mural in Old Fort
A couple of civil rights heroes were commemorated through a new and beautiful mural in Old Fort.
The commemorative mural in downtown Old Fort celebrates the courage and activism of Albert Joyner and George Sandlin while confronting systemic and institutional racism.
In the time of segregation, Catawba View School and the land it sat on were funded by the Black community in Old Fort, and became a much-loved institution. In September 1950, the school was shut down by local officials and its 75 students were bused to an all-Black school in Marion. Sandlin, a local attorney, was hired by the students’ parents to help save the school. But despite his best efforts, the school was closed and then destroyed two years later.
In 1955, Joyner organized and led a protest march against the county school superintendent’s refusal to allow Black children to enroll at all-white Old Fort Elementary instead of being bused all the way to Marion. In that protest, a group of Black children marched through a hostile crowd of more than 300 people toward Old Fort Elementary.
A few weeks later, Joyner was attacked by a white man for his support of the protests, but that did not deter him from supporting the Black community and its children. Sandlin faced many threats as well, yet he always stood by the Black community. Neither man let the threats and hatred keep them from standing up for the Black community.
The new mural in Old Fort was painted by artist David “Don Rimx” Sepulveda and dedicated in mid-September.
The group called People on the Move for Old Fort, whose mission is to engage residents in community building efforts that result in a more inclusive and equitable town, stated this mural will always be a reminder of the two and their struggles. The scene, painted on the side of the former Sandlin Theater building, celebrates the Black community’s current and historical contributions to the town of Old Fort.
West Marion forum receives $500,000 grant
In late 2020, the West Marion Community Forum announced it got a $500,000 grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation to address the problem of childhood obesity in McDowell County.
The West Marion forum will receive this four-year grant as part of its community-centered health initiative. The purpose of this grant is “to establish community and clinical partnerships to develop strategies to address childhood obesity with a focus on the family unit and the underlying factors that contribute to this health disparity in McDowell County, NC,” according to a news release.
“We are excited to support the next chapter of what is happening in West Marion,” said Dr. John Lumpkin, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. “This is a model of community-centered health -- with residents, community organizations, and health care coming together to create a shared vision of what their community can be. This inspiring collaboration will undoubtedly have lasting impact on the people of McDowell County.”
This project is titled “Shift Happens: For the Health of Our Community” and was awarded after an intensive 15-month planning process led by a core team of partners. This team included the Community Engagement Project, Centro Unido Latino-Americano, Mission Hospital McDowell, McDowell Local Food Advisory Council, the Foothills Food Hub, Equitable Community Strategies, N.C. Center for Health & Wellness, and the West Marion Community Forum.
One of the first activities of the grant was to sponsor the “Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program” at McDowell County Head Start. This program provides fresh fruits and vegetables to children and encourages them to try healthy food options.