When older citizens complained about the human relations department facilitating a conversation about institutional racism in the wake of high-profile national incidents of police violence, High Point city administrators sprang into action, setting in motion a chain of events that ended with the human relations director’s firing.
The human relations department held the status of a kind of Siberia within the city of High Point, its activities remote from the most pressing priorities of the city manager and its operations largely a mystery to most of upper-level management.
That would all change when Councilman Jim Davis raised concerns about the department during a discussion about race in an April 2015 city council retreat shortly after a “Black and Blue” public forum on police-community relations. By July 24, Human Relations Director Al Heggins would be meeting with Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin, her direct supervisor, and Human Resources Director Angela Kirkwood to discuss her work plans going back two years.
In contrast to a letter setting out reasons for Heggins’ suspension by McCaslin five weeks later citing Heggins’ alleged failure to revise her “existing 2-3-page plan from previous years,” an audio recording of the 40-minute meeting that was obtained by Triad City Beat includes no instance of McCaslin requesting revised work plans.
The audio recordings reveal that McCaslin, working through an agenda, requested extensive documentation to understand Heggins’ job and the kinds of programs that her department, including her sole employee — Human Relations Specialist Tony Lowe — facilitated. McCaslin also wanted to know how Heggins and Lowe interacted with the volunteer citizen committees that operated under their department’s auspices.
“What does this office do for these committees?” McCaslin asked. “And then if there’s any printed material that you have that either of y’all have put together or the commission has put together that you can give out if someone comes in and requests it or if you give it to the members of these committees in the way of orientation or something like that. Just as backup so I know — I’m trying to figure out what each of these committees do.”
McCaslin asked for a PowerPoint on the Student Human Relations Commission. Heggins responded that she would be happy to provide the document while noting that it was posted on the department website.
McCaslin requested agendas for retreats and community trainings; materials for harassment, bullying and discrimination trainings in local High Point schools; materials for racial equity and diversity trainings; and handouts on Title VI federal civil rights policy.
“So now everything that you’ve talked to me about and asked for, I’ll get that information to you, but this is information that I have provided consistently in emails to keep everyone informed of what I’m doing,” Heggins told McCaslin during the meeting. “And now all of a sudden there’s an interest. And so I’m glad there’s an interest. But it also disappoints me because there was never an interest before. And no one has been paying any attention to the information that I’ve been sending to people over me, Randy. That’s a concern for me.”
McCaslin replied, “At this point we’re trying to pull it together so we’ll have some information, and that’s why I’d like you to pull it together as a packet and send it to me.”
Heggins pointedly asked McCaslin why he had never looked at any of the materials she had emailed to him in the past.
“You know, Al, it’s one of many things that I’ve got responsibility for, and that’s the only thing I could tell you. At the time it wasn’t a hot-button issue for me.”
McCaslin quickly walked back his characterization of the department as “hot-button,” but there’s little doubt as to why the department suddenly became a priority for administrators. And while city officials have since attempted to play down the significance of a flier that included the text “dismantling white supremacy,” it was the first in a string of alleged offenses that led to Heggins’ firing for “poor judgment, inefficiency, negligence and/or incompetence in your job performance duties and discourteous treatment of others.”
As previously reported in TCB, then Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis raised concerns about the wording in the “Black and Blue” forum, which included the phrase “dismantling white supremacy” during an April 2015 city council retreat. Minutes from the meeting reflect that Davis’ colleague, Councilman Jason Ewing said “residents were questioning why city government was putting stuff like this out and driving conversation and controversial racial topics,” and that 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.”
Davis, a conservative Republican on council who works in the building trades, characterized his role in the controversy in a recent interview with TCB as largely a matter of passing along concerns from constituents to the city manager.
“Citizens across the city… tend to call city council,” Davis said. “They felt like it’s discriminatory and divisive. They called me. Any time citizens have issues, we’re supposed to take it to the city manager. I took it to the manager. What he did was beyond me. I never really heard the term ‘dismantling white supremacy’ until I saw that flier. A lot of the concerns came from the older generation. They’ve been through a lot of history I haven’t.”
While also downplaying the significance of the flier controversy in Heggins’ firing, Davis indicated that he found the language to be contrary to the spirit of the human relations department.
“Especially with human relations, just the title of human relations is talking about bringing people together,” Davis said.
Barbara Lawrence, a professor at Guilford College who gave the presentation with the offending language at the “Black and Blue” forum, said in an interview that the title came from a previous presentation she had given at the White Privilege Conference in Louisville, Ky. She described white supremacy in an email to TCB as “a systemic willful way in which people are treated differently in every aspect of society in US communities.
“It is empirically proven that police engage people of color differently (often more aggressively) than white people when operating under the same and/or similar circumstances,” Lawrence, a former New York City transit officer who went on to obtain a law degree from Indiana University, wrote. “School children/college students of color are treated differently or less favorably under the same or similar circumstances. It ranges from how they are spoken to as well as sanctions being meted out for similar behaviors.”
Heggins’ troubles would compound over the next six months after the “Black and Blue” forum, beginning with a verbal warning for “poor judgment” in the wording on the flier, which McCaslin cited as causing offense to “the public, city council and many others.”
The four other infractions cited in Heggins’ Oct. 2 termination letter all in some way spawned from the fallout from the “Black and Blue” forum.
In early September, McCaslin placed Heggins on a six-day suspension. Included in the grounds for disciplinary action, McCaslin wrote, “Finally, I instructed you to complete a work plan, in order to effectively assess your job performance and manage your department. I gave you unambiguous and explicit instructions on the work plan’s format and substance. Primarily, I asked that you revise your existing 2-3-page plan from previous years. Instead of complying with my instructions, you submitted a two-inch binder with information and approximately 15 emails. Your collection of emails, along with the binder, does not constitute a work plan and is inconsistent with my directions and displays poor job performance and poor judgment on your part.”
After returning to work, Heggins met with Kirkwood in an attempt to gain some clarity about the proper format to use in filing a grievance. At the end of the meeting, she confronted Kirkwood on why she had gone along with the suspension.
“Clearly, Randy consulted with you about what he was going to come downstairs and talk with me about in terms of that suspension,” Heggins told Kirkwood in a conversation captured on an audio recording obtained by TCB. “And with that third item that was in that suspension letter, you never once spoke up, you never said a word, you never talked about the fact that you were in that meeting when he gave me that directive, and I gave him what he asked for. He asked for supporting documentation for the 2013-2014 work plan. He wanted agendas. He wanted contact information. He wanted agendas. He wanted program materials. He asked for a lot of stuff. And I gave that to him. That’s what he asked for. And I gave him my 2015-2016 work plan. He did not simply ask for a revised 2-3-page work plan, Angela, and you know that.”
Kirkwood responded by encouraging Heggins to go ahead and file a grievance if she felt she had grounds to do so.
“But in terms of going back and forth and in terms of a discussion on different parts of the acts that were considered and in terms of a final recommendation, I’m not going to do that,” she said. “I’m not. I have a lot of stuff to get done today. I have a lot of work to do.”
“Even though you clearly know that it’s a lie,” Heggins interrupted. “But okay, Angela. If that’s your work ethic, that’s your work ethic.”
Kirkwood’s fury was barely contained in the even tone of her reply.
“In terms of my work ethic,” she said, “do not sit here and disrespect me, Al.”
The human resources director quickly declared the conversation over and escorted her fellow department head to the door.
The incident was duly noted in Heggins’ termination letter.
“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,” McCaslin wrote.
McCaslin declined to comment for this story, except to say that Heggins lawsuit is “without merit,” adding that the city will “defend against it vigorously.” Kirkwood also declined to comment.
Lawrence, the Guilford College professor, suggested in an email that Heggins’ firing was a reaction to the challenge to white supremacy posed by the community dialogue she facilitated.
“Al Heggins, as the director of human relations, was in a key position of power and influence to have open, honest and courageous conversations about racial matters, particularly relating to police and community relations,” Lawrence wrote. “The fact that Al Heggins is an African-American woman is a political challenge to the white supremacy that exists in the High Point government structure.
“On the back end of events involving police violence occurring nationally, police and community dialogues were occurring all over the country to reconcile current practices with historical practices of the past against African Americans,” Lawrence continued. “A conversation such as this would be troubling to white members of the community as well as some members within both police department leadership and patrol force. As you can see, there is still resistance to the discourse and civil protests occurring throughout the country.”