Luray mayor apologizes: ‘Racial stereotypes as humor isn’t funny,’ was ‘wrong, offensive, unbecoming’

Luray, Virginia, Mayor Barry Presgraves looked his community in the eye Monday evening, said he was wrong for posting a racist and sexist Facebook meme, apologized and humbly asked for forgiveness.

Presgraves’ statement at the beginning of Monday night’s regularly scheduled Town Council meeting was the mayor’s first in-person appearance since posting on Facebook last weekend that “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick.”

After saying the past eight days had been the most difficult time he, his community and his family have endured — without referring to the unwanted national scrutiny because of his comment and the call for his resignation by Council member Leah Pence — Presgraves didn’t mince words.

“I understand what I posted on social media was wrong, offensive and unbecoming,” the mayor said.

Presgraves went further, saying his public posting “does not reflect what was in my heart.”

Luray Mayor Barry Presgraves (second from right in the white shirt) apologizes for his racist and sexist Facebook post on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. (Screenshot via Facebook livestream)

In earlier interviews with local news organizations in the town with a population of 4,895 — 90% white — Presgraves had said he thought the meme was “humorous.”

“I also want to make a direct apology to all people of color and women,” Presgraves said. “Passing of demeaning and worn-out racial stereotypes as humor isn’t funny.”

“I now fully understand how hurtful it is,” Presgraves said.

Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had said he would choose a woman to be his vice president. His potential picks include California Sen. Kamala Harris, California Rep. Karen Bass and Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, among others.

In the week since Presgraves’ post, public reaction has ranged from calls for the mayor to resign, to disappointment — even anger — that Luray has been portrayed as racially unwelcoming.

Some defended the mayor’s comments, saying the call for his resignation was politically motivated.

In an earlier interview, when asked whether he would heed the call to step down, Presgraves was defiant: “Hell, no, I’m not resigning.”

“I can and will do better, and we can all do better — we must,” Presgraves said Monday. “From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry, and humbly ask for your forgiveness and your grace.”

Despite the apology, at the end of the meeting, the Town Council met in closed session and voted to censure Presgraves “for his harmful words posted on social media.”

“Statements by public officials have a powerful impact on communities,” the formal censure reads. “As elected officials, we are held to a higher standard within our communities.”

“Your apology is a step towards reconciliation with our citizens, however, damage both internal and external to our community still remains,” according to the document.

Pence, who had called for Presgraves’ resignation, was the sole “no” vote for the censure.

“The wording of the censure was not strong enough — we must name our biases before we can address them,” Pence told WTOP on Tuesday. “I believe that the council should have recommended that he resign.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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