Amid furor from mayor’s racist post, lifelong Black resident on slow change in Luray

Fred Veney is a member of a small club — he’s one of 236 Black residents who call Luray, Virginia, home.

The historic town of Luray, which sits just across Virginia Route 340 from the popular tourist attraction Luray Caverns, is in the midst of a flurry of unwanted scrutiny, after a Facebook post by longtime Mayor Barry Presgraves. In the post, he joked, “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick.”

Last Monday, several elected Town Council members criticized Presgraves for his comments, including Leah Pence, who called for Presgraves to resign.

Since then, Presgraves told a Luray news organization, “Hell, no — I’m not resigning.” He has been in office since 2008, and has previously said he would not seek re-election in 2020.

As the quickly deleted post became national news, Presgraves took to Facebook to apolgize: “I am sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings. Lesson learned. It was not my intent to hurt anyone. I took it to be humorous. Sorry!”

Presgraves has not responded to more than a half-dozen requests for comment from WTOP, including for this story.

Luray's town council will talk about what should happen next.

In an official statement, the Town Council said it would address the situation Monday evening, at a regular meeting. Presgraves is scheduled to call the meeting into order.

According to the agenda posted on the town government’s website, discussion about social media use by elected officials is scheduled to be held in closed session, despite the public utterances that spawned the discussion.

Segregation

Being excluded is not new to 69-year-old Veney.

After attending all-Black schools, Veney was one of six Black students to integrate Luray High School in 1964.

“Before that, the Black school was not a certified high school. Parents would send their kids to Fairfax and other counties in Northern Virginia to live with relatives, so they could get a certified diploma,” Veney said.

As an adult, he worked 37 years for a local utility, and 13 years in the public school system.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 90% of Luray’s 4,895 residents were white.

Growing up in Luray, and living through the recent protests reacting to the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody, Veney has witnessed and participated in previous calls for justice. He took part in a Saturday rally calling for the mayor’s resignation.

“There were a lot of changes that didn’t take place in this community that I would like to have seen take place,” Veney said. “I’m happy to see now that some of these changes are being brought about.”

For Luray, the county seat of Page County, tourism based on the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley is crucial. And at the front of the Visitor Center, which is housed in a renovated train station, stands a creative “LOVE” sculpture.

Right across the street is one of two statues to Confederate soldiers within Luray’s town limits.

“The Confederate statue has always been like a sore thumb in the back of my mind, even though I tried to ignore it,” Veney said. “As a citizen of this town, it does bother me.”

Pence told WTOP she believes Luray is not unlike other small, rural, Southern towns.

“On the surface, it’s incredibly welcoming, incredibly inclusive and a great, wonderful place to live,” Pence said. “Just like the rest of the country, we have subliminal issues that have plagued our community — homophobia, racism, misogynistic views.”

Veney was asked about the experience growing up in a town with less than 5% Black residents.

“It’s probably 50-50,” he said. “Fifty percent of the population has been welcoming, and then you had some that weren’t so welcoming about changes in this town.”

‘I don’t think anybody’s happy’

In the past week, social media comments have ranged from calls for Presgraves to step down, to disappointment that the mayor’s comments are prompting negative publicity for the tiny town on a national scale.

“I don’t think anybody’s happy with the way it’s being portrayed,” Veney said. “Unfortunately, the statement that he made is racist.”

Veney said the mayor’s comments carry weight in Luray and beyond.

“As the mayor of the town, he reflects on the community, and to the public, the way this town is run, and the way this town is,” he said.

“It makes people who come think this town is racist,” he said. “True, we do have subliminal racism, but if the mayor would step down it would make things a little easier to get along.”

Pence — the only woman out of 25 elected council or supervisors seats in the county — is being subjected to some sharp criticism, including sexist bullying online, on her public Facebook page,  for calling for Presgraves’ resignation.

“I was well aware that this was not going to be popular in Luray,” Pence said. “It’s very hard for us, as Americans, to have conversations around racism, sexism, homophobia and other things that are difficult to talk about.”

Pence believes making society more civil and equitable takes effort and reflection.

“We all have racism; we all have sexism; we all have homophobia — these are things we all deal with, on some level, whether or not we’re aware of it,” Pence said. “I think it’s really important that we embrace it, and face it.”

Council member Leah Pence says Luray is not unlike other small towns.

As of July 1, a new Virginia law permits localities to determine the future of war memorials. Last week, Albemarle County became the first locality to vote to remove Confederate statues and memorials on county land.

In Richmond, most of the monuments have been removed by an emergency order from the city’s mayor.

It’s not clear whether the two Confederate statues in Luray are going anywhere.

Less than a decade ago, Presgraves and the council spent $170,000 to restore one of the Confederate statues in the town.

A crossroads

Veney said he would rather see the money go toward renovating the West Luray Recreation Center — the site of Saturday’s rally — which is located in a former all-Black school. The former Andrew Jackson school was one of the segregated elementary schools in Luray while Veney was growing up.

“I think that history is definitely changing, as it is being written,” he said, encouraged by the recent awareness of systemic racism throughout the country, including in his hometown.

“There are are a lot of people that are joining this bandwagon,” he said. “I hope it’s not like a new toy, in which you play with a new toy for so long, then you toss it aside.”

Veney said he hopes the recent efforts and steps being taken to ensure equal treatment will continue past the November elections.

At this crossroads for Luray’s future and throughout the country, Pence recounted other instances when dedicated activists prompted momentum toward justice.

“Think about the Underground Railroad: Slaves were able to be brought up to the North, just through a system of people who were more than allies to a marginalized community. They were co-conspirators; they were speaking up,” she said.

In the midst of a firestorm started by the mayor’s social media post, and her post calling for his resignation, Pence said voicing opposition to barriers to social justice is an American tradition.

“Look at the 1960s and the movement we saw there,” she said. “That was without smartphones; that was without email; that was without social media.”

Pence and Veney believe the mayor’s resignation would help Luray move toward a more unified future.

“History is ever-evolving, and thankfully, it is,” said Pence. “Just as we are, as people.”

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