Backlash to racism discussion preceded department head’s firing


Internal documents suggest High Point Human Relations Director Al Heggins was fired last year because she promoted dialogue about racism that made conservative council members and voters uncomfortable.

The official letter notifying Al Heggins that she was being fired from her job as human relations director of the city of High Point cites a litany of supposed offenses, beginning with the use of the phrase “white supremacy” on a flier advertising a meeting to promote dialogue between the police and community.

As Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin noted in the Oct. 2, 2015 termination letter, Heggins had been warned on April 9 for displaying “poor judgment” in the language on the flier.

Al Heggins
Al Heggins

An internal memo obtained by Triad City Beat that memorializes the April 9 meeting, which also included Human Resources Director Angela Kirkwood, provides additional detail. “When Al asked specifically what was viewed as unacceptable language, I explained to her that it was the title on the flier of the March 28th for the Black and Blue event. Ms. Kirkwood added that it was the specific words of ‘white supremacy’ that were included in the title. I explained to Al that the public, city council and many others had taken offense to the wording and I would need for her to work on doing better on communications going forward.”

The words “white supremacy” in fact did not appear on the title of the flier, but rather in the heading for a presentation at the event by Barbara Lawrence, a professor at Guilford College. A former officer with the New York City Transit Police Department who holds a law degree from Indiana University, Lawrence said the title, “Police Accountability & Citizen Oversight: A Framework for Dismantling White Supremacy and Establishing Real Justice in the 21st Century,” came from a presentation she had previous given at the White Privilege Conference in Louisville, Ky.

Heggins’ termination cites a litany of supposed performance and conduct deficiencies related to her handling of an escalating series of disciplinary actions growing out of the controversy surrounding the phrase “white supremacy.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, City Attorney Joanne Carlyle denied that Heggins’ termination had anything to do with the phrase in an interview with Triad City Beat last week.

“That’s her wording,” Carlyle said. “That’s not something we would agree to.”

In response to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week by Heggins alleging discriminatory treatment and a racially hostile work environment, Carlyle told Triad City Beat: “I’m sure the outcome will show that the city’s policies and procedures are legally sound. The city hasn’t subjected Ms. Heggins to discriminatory treatment. There was no wrongful termination.”

As human relations director in a city of more than 100,000 people that is far from immune from the racial tensions that have gripped the country since the officer-involved death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in the summer of 2014, Heggins found herself walking a tightrope between her professional duty and the political sensitivities of conservative members of city council.

‘[Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis] felt there is a divide in High Point, but attributed it mostly to the socio-economic divide, rather than racial division. He shared some concerns that city employees in city departments have been promoting racial divisiveness and making it an issue.’ — Minutes from the 2015 city council retreat

The “Black and Blue” series of community dialogue came about because of the unrest in Ferguson, Jason Yates told Triad City Beat in August 2015. Yates is currently a member of the High Point Human Relations Commission, and was serving as chair at the time of the March 2015 community forum.

“We didn’t set the agenda,” Yates said. “People came to us after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson and after [Eric Garner] was choked to death in New York. And they came to us and they said, ‘If it can happen in a town as small as Ferguson and a place as large as New York City, why can’t it happen here?’ And we said, ‘That’s a good question.’ The citizens’ concern is what drove us to organize what was intended to be a single event. At that event, the community said, ‘This is a good discussion; we’d like to continued having it.’ And we set that up on a regular basis.”

The ordinance establishing the human relations department declares it to be the policy of the city to “promote and develop mutual respect among all citizens towards each other” and “to work toward the elimination of unfair and unjust dealings between and among its citizens and to work for the elimination of discriminatory practices between and among its citizens because of race” and other characteristics as a matter of promoting “the public health, safety and welfare.”

Heggins’ job description tasked her with collaborating “with community agencies and organizations in conducting programs and activities designed to improve racial and cultural understanding.” Among several “special requirements” for the job were understanding the origin and causes of discrimination, evaluating the needs of the community to implement programs, maintaining effective public relationships while holding a “sensitivity to the attitudes, actions and reactions of minorities and project[ing] this into the growth of the community understanding and behavior.”

Heggins’ efforts caused particular consternation for Councilman Jim Davis, a conservative Republican who represents Ward 5 on the north side of the city, which is predominantly white and comparatively affluent.

Minutes from city council’s April 1, 2015 retreat at the High Point Museum — only four days after the “Black and Blue” forum — indicate that Davis shared with fellow council members that citizens at a recent town-hall meeting for wards 5 and 6 expressed concern about the “Black and Blue” forum.

“He felt there is a divide in High Point, but attributed it mostly to the socio-economic divide, rather than racial division,” the minutes state. “He shared some concerns that city employees in city departments have been promoting racial divisiveness and making it an issue.”

Councilman Jason Ewing read the title of the flier and Barbara Lawrence’s presentation aloud during the city council retreat, according to the minutes, and added that “residents were wondering why the city government was putting stuff like this out and driving conversation and controversial racial topics.”

The minutes continue: “Mayor Pro Tem J. Davis pointed out this was not the first time this department has sponsored events that promoted racial divisiveness and felt it should not be allowed to continue.”

The minutes also reflect discussion about “communications by the city,” including the desire by some council members for “some filter system to make sure that appropriate terminology is used when official correspondence is released.”

During Heggins’ April 9 disciplinary meeting with Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin and Human Resources Director Angela Kirkwood, Heggins “stated she did not understand how the words were viewed as offensive or inappropriate,” McCaslin wrote, “and Ms. Kirkwood looked up the words ‘white supremacy’ on the internet and read the following out loud: ‘White supremacy is a form of racism centered upon the belief, and promotion of the belief, that white people are superior.’”

Heggins said she didn’t want to use “the wrong words” and requested a list of prohibited words, according to McCaslin’s memo.

“Ms. Kirkwood stated that [City Manager Greg] Demko was setting up a communication plan to ensure all communications are appropriate,” McCaslin wrote.

Heggins’ termination letter cites three other incidents that the city contends constituted poor judgment, inefficiency, negligence and incompetence.

“On July 29, 2015, you were warned for disruptive workplace conduct after you reported to work wearing a sign attached to your back and placed [a] similar sign in your office window,” McCaslin wrote. “Subsequently, you were warned and suspended for six days for behaviors on August 13, 2015, including inappropriate conduct at a human relations commission meeting, and for accosting a council member on August 29, 2015. Twenty-four hours after your return from the suspension, during a meeting with the human resources director on September 16, 2015, you again displayed unprofessional and discourteous behavior.”

An Aug. 21 memo from Kirkwood labeled “investigative summary” cites Heggins “for disruptive workplace conduct displayed on July 27, 2015 when she reported to work with a sign attached to her clothing expressing her rights, posted a sign in the office window, and left the work environment wailing.”

Heggins said in a complaint filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the sign declared that all employees in the human relations department have the right to work in an environment “free of discrimination, hostility, harassment, unfair treatment and corrective discharge.”

By Kirkwood’s own admission, an internal investigation into one of the “unacceptable behaviors” — allegedly accosting Councilman Davis outside the city manager’s office on Aug. 17 (not Aug. 29, as the termination letter states) — chalked the episode up as a matter of “he said/she said.” But Kirkwood concluded that Heggins’ actions were “inappropriate, unwarranted and cannot be tolerated.”

It is unclear why McCaslin deemed Heggins’ conduct to be “inappropriate” at a human relations commission meeting, but documentation submitted by Heggins in appeal to her suspension suggest that city officials were angry about discussion of an alleged hate crime in Monroe, the North Carolina city where Greg Demko worked prior to his hiring by the city of High Point.

Two human relations commissioners and Councilman Jeff Golden, the liaison to the commission, denied any wrongdoing on Heggins’ part.

Commissioner Michael Prioleau said in a letter to Mayor Bill Bencini that Heggins stated at the meeting that the reports of documented hate crimes in North Carolina contributed to her safety concern, adding that she indicated that Demko was aware of the incident in Monroe because he was working as the city manager at the time.

‘I would be remiss if I failed to point out the irony of the misuse of oppressive systems of power to stifle threatening conversations about race in our community, especially since this misuse of power resulted in response to suggestions that these systems exist. Through its behavior, the city is exemplifying the very thing it suggests does not exist.’ — Jason Yates

Jason Yates, who chaired the commission at the time, mentioned in a similar letter that Heggins “provided examples of news stories covering recent, local racist activities.

“One of the events involved spray-painting of swastikas on public buildings in Monroe, NC,” Yates wrote. “During the discussion, in no way did Ms. Heggins state, allege or insinuate any involvement by City Manager Greg Demko. This allegation is a malicious misrepresentation of Ms. Heggins’ presentation of the materials and the verbal exchange that followed.”    

Councilman Jeff Golden, a black council member who represents the majority black Ward 1, expressed outrage that the discussion was used to attack Heggins’ character.

“I am completely and utterly appalled that this misrepresentation of Mrs. Heggins was reported and acted upon without a full investigation of the facts,” Golden said. “I was at the entire meeting and I am still questioning why I was not afforded the respect and courtesy of being contacted by the deputy manager or the manager since I am the elected official and the liaison to the human relations commission.”

While insisting that Heggins had not maligned Demko, Yates added, “I would be remiss if I failed to point out the irony of the misuse of oppressive systems of power to stifle threatening conversations about race in our community, especially since this misuse of power resulted in response to suggestions that these systems exist. Through its behavior, the city is exemplifying the very thing it suggests does not exist.”

Following Heggins’ firing, racial tensions surrounding police treatment of black men have continued to roil the United States.

Addressing protesters at a Black Lives Matter march in High Point in response to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile earlier this month, Assistant Chief Travis Stroud asked, “Do we have issues to work on? Yes. This is just a step. High Point has been able to avoid every major event in the nation. Let’s keep it up.”

Days later, the police department hosted a community forum prompted by “media attention in recent weeks surrounding police/community interaction,” according to a city press release, that would “explain how High Point does policing in a way that has helped the community avoid many of the issues that other departments face around the country.”

The events of the past nine months haven’t escaped Heggins’ notice.

“I just think it’s ironic that I was fired for trying to bring together and conversation,” she said in an interview, “[and] now there’s a call for it nationally.”