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Play concerns hit SoBo council

The community debate over the upcoming production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” reached town council chambers during its monthly meeting Monday night, with council members listening quietly but offering no comment as citizens expressed views against and in favor of the performance.

Four African-American ministers, including the Rev. Mike Byrd, the Rev. Margaret Coleman and the Rev. Frank Coleman, in addition to Halifax County-South Boston NAACP Executive Director the Rev. Kevin Chandler strongly stated their opposition to the performance of the play, primarily because of its use of racially charged language, including the “n” word.

The Rev. Margaret Coleman took part in a race forum in conjunction with the NAACP and the Little Theatre last month at The Prizery.

“As a former councilperson in New York, I’ve come to realize that when a community becomes divided concerning an issue, they do look to their local government for answers,” said Coleman.

“I acknowledge, Mayor Thackston, that you recently stated in relation to the Little Theatre’s production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’that town government is established to make policies only.

“It seems we could as part of your constituency let that be an appropriate response, however as intimate as South Boston and Halifax County are, it only appears it is a response of convenience.

“We are at a critical juncture now, and we need to be acknowledged by our elected officials that they hear the hurt that some of their constituency is feeling in light of the fact that Little Theatre is performing a play laced with the most horrific, racially charged word ever used to refer to African-Americans,” Coleman told council while asking it to make laws and policies that would reflect the tenor and emotions of the community.

The Rev. Michael Byrd told council “the use of the ‘n’ word was developed out of hatred.

“I don’t care how we look at this,” he emphasized, “the use of the word was developed out of hatred.

“What I’m asking you to do is take a stand, because this is hatred.  It’s about people abused by this hated word.  And it is being perpetuated in this city that it’s okay to put on a play using this word.

“Somewhere along the way if I’m hurting you, and you’re telling me I’m hurting you, to keep hurting you is evidence I don’t care.

“To us this word is offensive, and I’m asking you as a council and people and believers in God to help us cease hatred in South Boston,” continued Byrd.

“I’m asking you to take a stand that this play not go on.  I don’t know what you’re able to do, but I’m asking you if a prayer is something you believe in, help us to abolish this,” added Byrd, referring to an invocation offered at the beginning of the meeting.

Rev. Frank Coleman told council he had heard through the media already what governing bodies can and cannot do in reference to the play, and he pleaded with council to do what they could.

“That’s really the bottom line for me,” said Coleman.  Make policy to protect citizens from the hurt that is inflicted by this play.  In an intimate place such as South Boston, activities such as this should not be allowed unless it helps the community.

“This doesn’t help the community, and we want to use the excuse shared with me that it’s art,” continued Coleman.  “It’s not art to an African American who over and over again hears the ‘n’ word used time and time again.

“There’s nothing positive that comes out of it.  It’s opening the wounds in a segment of the community, and when you open wounds in a certain segment of the community, that’s not going to help us come together.
“If this goes on, it’s the only play presented for several weeks, and that message will be presented over and over again.

“I don’t want that, and I have too many persons speaking to me who don’t want it…” added Coleman.

Chandler disagreed with those who would call the production educational.

“Everyone for it will tell you it’s for education, tell you it’s good for citizens to know the history and the past, but I truly believe this is just for entertainment, and if it’s just for entertainment, nobody benefits from it,” said Chandler.

“When they presented it, they said they’d try and have students come and watch the play, said the students were reading the book, but there’s a certain group reading it, and it’s not being universally read and being taught.

“We’ve had the race relations forum, and from the forum there were two sides, for and against, and from the forum that took place citizens have started to speak and say they don’t want this play...

“Our stance is we don’t condone the use of the word, no matter whose mouth it comes from, white or black.  I hear people tell us kids use it, rappers use it, but we don’t condone that either.”

Also speaking Monday evening was Joy Woolard, who agreed the “n” word is a horrible word but cautioned against censorship.

“I agree it is a horrible word, and no one should use it regardless of color.  I hear it everywhere, and I don’t like it just like I don’t like a lot of words I hear,” said Woolard.

“But, when you start censoring, you’re censoring everything.  If you censor the play, you’ll have to start censoring things in school, on the playground, and then you get into a government state where you censor everything and everybody.

“We have a choice, we can turn it off, walk out, or we can listen to it, learn from it,” continued Woolard.
“The only way not to go backwards is learn from it and say we’re not going to do this anymore, and we don’t approve of it.”

Other council agenda items

No one spoke in favor or against a proposed agreement with the Southern Virginia Botanical Gardens and Environmental Center to develop a botanical garden at the Cotton Mill Park during a public hearing on Monday.

Dr. Charles Stallard and Bill McCaleb, two of the primary forces behind the botanical garden, detailed the project at last month’s council work session and were on hand to answer questions Monday night.
Stallard and McCaleb both said they see the garden as a potential engine for economic development that would afford learning opportunities in conjunction with the SVHEC.

The horticultural garden would have three major economic benefits, according to a vision statement provided to council, including the development of entrepreneurs to serve horticultural markets, development of tourism, and encouragement of horticultural education and training, according to materials presented to council.

Another goal expressed by the center would be the realization of a region where every resident has the opportunity to visit or be a part of a community garden.

Town Manager Ted Daniel said the proposed 8.8-acre site at Cotton Mill Park is well-suited for a botanical garden.

The site is not prone to continuous flooding, but because it’s located in a flood zone, the site does not lend itself to the construction of new buildings, according to Daniel.

A concept plan constructed in 2005 includes the elevation of a bridge on Summit Dr. and the extension of Summit Dr. to Railroad Ave.

The concept plan also includes a tie-in to the first phase of the Rails-to-Trails hiking/biking route, Daniel added.

Council continued the issue to its December meeting for further consideration of the agreement.

Council also continued to its December work session discussion of a request from the Town of Mineral to lobby the General Assembly to stop any changes to the Business, Professional, Occupational License (BPOL) tax.

The BPOL tax is currently based on the total gross receipts of a business, and merchants are lobbying state officials to have the BPOL tax eliminated or at least changed to be based on net profits, rather than gross receipts.

The Virginia Municipal League has adopted a stand on the issue, supporting the continuation of local government tax authority and encouraging the study of revenue-neutral or enhanced local tax authority.

Until a thorough study is completed, however, VML stated it continues to oppose efforts to limit local government taxing authority, including BPOL tax and Machinery and Tools (M&T) tax.

Town staff recommended that if council wishes to take any stand on the issue it concur with VML’s statement.

Town seeks to fill council vacancy
Council discussed the process of accepting resumes from citizens interested in being considered for appointment to council to fill a vacancy due to the resignation of Councilwoman Sandra Thompson.

State law requires council to make an interim appointment within 45 days, or by Jan. 15, 2011.  The person appointed will serve until a special election is held in Nov. 2011.

Thompson’s resignation is effective Dec. 1.