CONTINUING COVERAGE: Little Fort Valley weathers the scandal

Fort Valley State University is a critical part of of the town of Fort Valley, providing jobs and community pride. The town is baffled and embarassed by allegations of wrong-doing by two former university employees.

Fort Valley State University is a critical part of of the town of Fort Valley, providing jobs and community pride. The town is baffled and embarassed by allegations of wrong-doing by two former university employees.

Willie D. Sneed can size you up from a mile away.

When a reporter walked into Khoury’s Men’s Wear in downtown Fort Valley, he barely budges from his seat but quickly guesses the visitor’s jacket and shoe sizes.

“You would look good in a Steve Harvey,” Sneed says.

He thumbs through the suit section, his mouth moving as fast as his fingers, talking about his failed city council run in 1968, season tickets for Peach County High School football, his son who went to Yale.

But he gets serious when the conversation turns to his alma mater, Fort Valley State University, which is embroiled in a sex scandal that has shaken the school and community.

Seven people — two of whom worked for the university, while others hold prominent positions in local governments and school systems — were arrested last week on pimping and prostitution charges.

The latest revelation in the ongoing investigation could not have hit at a worse time — on the eve of the university's homecoming and while Fort Valley is trying to attract new businesses to the tiny town of 8,800 about 100 miles south of Atlanta.

Like many small-towns, the folks say they’re focusing on positive pursuits like building a movie theater or the prospect of a hotel finally coming to town. Or for the 2,776 students at the historically black college and university, making sure classmates vote in the upcoming elections and studying for final exams.

Fort Valley State has educated generations of families and nurtured countless first-generation college graduates. The city is a place where people wave at passersby. The charges, all agree, are baffling.

The 123-year-old campus, near downtown, has a footprint, literally, on the community. Blue and yellow paw prints, representing the university’s colors and nickname (Wildcats), are painted on some downtown streets. The university is the city’s second-largest employer behind Blue Bird, the bus builder.

“I was born right here in Fort Valley. I have two degrees from Fort Valley State and this hurts. It hurts real bad. To do this the day before homecoming was as embarrassing as it can be,” Sneed said while pulling out flamboyant suits to hand to the reporter, before pausing to look at him.

“Don’t make us look bad.”

Stranger Things

Seven people have been charged so  in an investigation of  prostitution connected to three people who worked at Fort Valley State University. Clockwise from top left, mugshots of Kenneth Howard, Charles E. Jones, Alecia Johnson, Earnest Harvey, Ryan Jenkins, Arthur James Nance and Devonte Little. (Peach County Sheriff)

Credit: Peach County Sheriff

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Credit: Peach County Sheriff

Last Thursday, while thousands of visitors and alumni were making their way to town for the FVSU Homecoming, the annual rite of pride and blackness, prosecutors issued arrest warrants for six men, accusing them of soliciting sex arranged by a woman who worked at the school. They all turned themselves in and posted bond.

Six months ago when the allegations surfaced and rumors flew, social media was near hysteria: a sex scandal involving an employee — and possibly students — of a university. The initial details about the accused left many speechless: a mortician who works part time as a county commissioner. An assistant principal. A city manager. A former legal counsel for the university.

The investigation began when university officials forwarded two complaints from unnamed people to state officials. As information trickles out, students, university officials and community leaders try to ignore salacious headlines and questions from family, friends and reporters seeking more juicy details.

Much still is not known by locals or being told by authorities, such as if students were involved.

What's known is, starting in April 2017, prosecutors say Alecia Johnson, 48, FVSU's former special events director, and a former advisor to the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, organized paid sexual encounters between the men and a woman who worked at the university from 2013 to 2017. The two women were also charged with conspiring to take scholarship money from a student in 2015.

University officials would not elaborate on the unnamed woman’s employment. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been unable to contact her, and she hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Johnson’s lead attorney, Adrian Patrick, said his client is not a madam and suggested the case against Johnson may not be strong, noting she faces only misdemeanor charges.

“The question is, is there a madam and, if so, who is the madam?,” Patrick said.

Police arrested Fort Valley men Ernest Harvey, 47, an assistant principal in Houston County; Kenneth Howard, 56, the city manager of Hinesville; Ryan Jenkins, 35; Charles Jones, 57, a former attorney for Fort Valley State. Also, Devontae Little, 26, of Warner Robins; Arthur James Nance Jr., 46, of Cordele, the vice chairman of the Crisp County Board of Commissioners and also a pastor and mortician.

FVS United

Last Wednesday was a typical day on the sprawling campus. Students went to class. Some stopped at a table in front of the bookstore and danced to gospel music and cracked jokes. A few students wore AKA sorority sweatshirts. The sorority's regional office began its own inquiry into "unauthorized activities and misconduct involving current and former members," according to a letter it sent to the Fort Valley State sorority chapter in April.

Student leaders say Fort Valley State is the best public HBCU in the state, citing the annual study by U.S. News & World Report. Full-time student enrollment is up 2 percent this year, the university says. Graduation and retention rates slightly improved from the 2015-16 school year to 2016-17.

University leaders and supporters cite the enrollment increase in response to questions about the investigation hurting the school. Their defense also includes the amount of money raised during homecoming. Alumni donated nearly a half-million dollars. The AKAs donated $70,000, students said.

The homecoming theme of FVSUnited! wasn’t a direct response to the investigation, students say, but it is, in many respects, a rallying cry.

“We wanted to focus on the positive,” explained Idalis Forte, 21, the university’s student government association president. “We wanted to celebrate what we have as a Wildcat family.”

The homecoming football game was a respite from the drama. Joseph Cornick, 22, a senior from the Atlanta area, danced in his chair as he recounted one party. Students consider each other family. Psychology major Keila Outen hugged a visitor because that’s how it works here, she said. Students interviewed say they don’t know anyone named in the warrants and were reluctant to discuss it, saying there have been so many rumors about it all.

“I don’t want to make it seem like we have no time to focus on the bad,” Cornick said. But there’s little time for students to dwell on it. Every student is staying positive, and “… that’s where the focus is being placed.”

“They contribute to who we are”

Most students come from Peach and two surrounding counties, Bibb and Houston. Many stay after graduation. The mayor, five of six city council members and its public safety director attended it.

Many African-Americans walking downtown wear Fort Valley State t-shirts or hats.

“Fort Valley State is part of our life stream,” said the mayor, Barbara B. Williams, a 1971 graduate. “It has a great economic impact, and it is near and dear to all of us.”

All first-year students are required to perform community service.

About three-quarters of the city’s residents are black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, while 52 percent of Peach County residents are white. Stacey Abrams yard signs are a common sight near campus, while Brian Kemp signs are spotted more frequently further away.

Sneed, who got degrees from FVSU in 1967 and 1971, said the area has always had “two communities.”

“A black one,” he said. “And a white one.”

James Khoury, the namesake of the shop that his family has owned since 1936, comes in.

At their peak, the Khoury’s had five clothing stores in Fort Valley with more than a dozen employees. Today it is only Khoury and Sneed, and they are working out of their warehouse, because recent rains flooded the main shop.

They play off each other like brothers, finishing each other’s sentences and correcting each other’s mistakes. When Khoury, who is white, says that there are some white people in the community who are “glad this happened, because they want this college to go away,” Sneed reminds him that he might lose business.

“I’m telling the truth. And most of my customers are black anyway,” said Khoury, a former Peach County commissioner. “It’s a sad situation for the university, and it hurts me in my heart to see it go through something like this.”

James Khoury and Willie Sneed, who work together in Khoury’s clothing store in Fort Valley, talk about the revelations of sexual wrong-doing that has shaken the small south Georgia town.

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A white gazebo sits in the middle of downtown Fort Valley, between Church Street and Main Street. On this Wednesday, a few people duck in and out of the few open downtown shops.

“We are a small city going on about our business, doing what we are supposed to be doing,” Mayor Williams said.

At a downtown barbershop, Arthur Rump and Troy Leary hold court while waiting for customers. Rump doesn’t believe any of the allegations. Rump asks Leary if his daughter still planned on going to Fort Valley State.

“Hell nah. Not after this,” Leary said.

Leary said he didn’t believe the allegations at first, but changed his mind. “Here is the thing — I can see students doing this, but this is coming from the people who are supposed to be in charge. These are the leaders that the students are supposed to be looking up to. You are supposed to be able to go to your teachers and advisors for guidance in place of your parents. At the end of the day, there has got to be some truth in some of this.”

Mayor Williams, declined to address the situation, although she was happy to talk about nearly every thing else going on in Fort Valley.

She is most excited about a new movie theater and 3-star hotel with a 700-seat conference center on the site of an old hospital that will open in 2019. There are no hotels in Fort Valley, so those thousands of people who arrive for homecoming stay in Macon or Warner Robins, taking their dollars with them.

“None of this has had a negative impact on us,” said Williams, who was elected mayor in 2013 after 16 years on the city council. “There is a dark cloud, but it is about time for the rainbow to come.”


April 12, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began investigating a case of sexual misconduct and hazing at Fort Valley State University.

Alecia Jeanetta Johnson, who worked in the president’s office, was placed on leave, then resigned days later.

April 19, warrants were issued charging Johnson with pimping, prostitution and other charges, and six local men are charged with pandering and solicitation.