As a fight rages in Stockbridge over an Eagle’s Landing secession movement tinged with racial tension, Henry County is set to cross a significant political milestone next month that has barely registered a peep with voters in the fast-changing county.
The county commission in metro Atlanta’s eighth largest county will become majority-minority after voters go to the polls Nov. 6. The body is currently evenly split, and the contest to replace District 4 Commissioner Blake Prince, who is white, pits two black candidates — one Democrat, one Republican — who are vying for his seat.
Come January, when the new commission is seated, the racial makeup of the six-member group will tip with at least four black commissioners — two of whom could be Republicans. In addition, a black candidate, V. Renae Crutches, is challenging District 3 incumbent Gary Barham, who is white, for his seat. If she is successful, that could add an additional minority member to the body.
In the District 4 election, voters will choose between Democrat Vivian Thomas and Republican Pete Peterson.
Conversely, Henry County’s five-member school board will be down to one black member in the new year after Donna McBride, who represented District 4, lost her seat in July to Sophe Cooke Pope, who is white.
These transitions follow what had been a low-key election last year of Darius Pattillo as Henry’s first black district attorney.
“The county has had a long history of people pretty much getting along,” said Henry historian Gene Morris said. “There have been problems from time to time, and there have been bad people, but it’s been a pretty congenial county.”
The political reordering reflects the seismic population growth in Henry over the past four decades. It was once a rural county that in 1980 was 81 percent white residents. Today, the county has exploded into a suburban majority-minority population center with about 235,000 people.
By 2015, the county’s white population had dropped to 47.3 percent while the number of minority residents — who made up slightly less than one in five residents in 1980 — increased to 49.4 percent, according to the latest figures from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Between April 2017 and this past April, Henry added 5,800 people, a population jump bested only by Forsyth County, the ARC said.
That population boom may have helped Henry leaders avoid the strife that threatens to tear Stockbridge apart, experts said. Instead of focusing on racial division, county leaders and residents have been forced to work together to address the impact of growing so quickly, such as traffic congestion, infrastructure headaches and the need for more police and fire protection.
“Henry County went from a sleepy kind of country town to a county dealing with real urban issues,” said Joshua Meddaugh, an associate professor of political science at Clayton State University who lives in Eagle’s Landing.
That doesn’t mean the demographic shift has been completely harmonious.
A call in 2017 by Commissioner Dee Clemmons, who is black, to remove Confederate flags from Hampton’s 204-acre Nash Farm Battlefield and its gift shop sparked outrage among many longtime residents.
The request, which took place as the nation was mired in a debate over the removal of Confederate symbols in public spaces, resulted in a heated county commission meeting where tensions flared between supporters and opponents of the move. The operators of the gift shop closed the facility shortly after memorabilia owners pulled their items from display.
Then in June, the American Civil Liberties Union and other community groups held a forum to discuss law enforcement conduct toward black and Hispanic residents and the absence of minorities on the police force compared to the county’s population.
The meeting was, in part, a reaction to the scrutiny Henry Police came under after cellphone video showed former University of Toledo cornerback Desmond Marrow being slammed to the ground and choked until he was unconscious during an arrest at a local shopping center parking lot in late 2017.
Harvey Newman, professor emeritus from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, said law enforcement and job opportunities are areas where the racial identity of leaders can have a significant impact. While there are generally no racial differences on how leaders feel about matters of infrastructure, economic development and traffic, minority leaders are more likely to view policing through a different lens than white elected officials.
“Changes in law enforcement to reflect the population are generally very important to the community to provide some measure of protection against police selective enforcement, or in some instances violence,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that a majority African American commission ought to be giving attention to.”
Regina Lewis-Ward, who is running to represent Henry in state House District 109, said voters and leaders all want the same basic things — a strong education system, public safety and a healthy community. The cityhood fight stands out because it is so anathema to how Henry County has generally operated.
“We tend to really work well together, which is good,” she said. “Unless there is a big issue like Nash Farm, which became loud because what was going on nationally amplified it at the time, we really do want what is best for the people here. Sometimes the only difference is what avenue we take to get to the same conclusion.”
In the end, experts said the county may be facing less division than Stockbridge and Eagle’s Landing in their fight simply because what’s at stake is not the same. Eagle’s Landing cityhood advocates, disappointed with the city services Stockbridge is providing and wishing for better economic development, want to chart their own destiny.
Stockbridge leaders say if voters approve the new city, Eagle’s Landing, in a Nov. 6 referendum it would devastate their town, which would lose half of its residential and commercial tax base. Critics of the secession movement have argued in court papers and in public comments that those in the gated golf community are seeking to break away, in part, out of a desire to maintain white political power.
Observers of modern demographics say efforts to seek racial exclusion through geography are often futile, particularly in a place like metro Atlanta. The old stereotypes of suburban and urban populations no longer hold.
Traffic congestion and the spread out nature of the metro area means people can’t move too far from employment centers without impacting their quality of life. Those forces, plus the desire of minorities to enjoy the lifestyle in suburban communities, means counties across the metro area have become more diverse in the past 40 years.
“The white flight into Henry, first from South DeKalb back when it was (still) majority white, and then from Clayton County, doesn’t work anymore,” Morris said. “If you’re going to white flight out of Henry County and still work in Atlanta, there’s nowhere to go.”
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