Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly is escorted from the premises following a city council meeting at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. Mayor Kenerly allegedly withheld a job candidate from consideration for city administrator because he was black, an AJC investigation has found. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Hoschton officials hit with angry emails after comments about race

The mayor of Hoschton ignited a national controversy when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported she’d allegedly said her city of less than 2,000 wasn’t ready for a black administrator.

She may have misread her constituents, according to emails sent to the city after the story broke.

“The citizens of Hoschton deserve better than the racist views that are apparently permeating City Hall,” wrote a city resident.

“The world is watching,” another emailer warned, punctuating the sentiment by typing “SHAME” 117 times.

The AJC filed an open records request for dozens of emails and a handful of Facebook messages directed at Hoschton before the city took down both its website and Facebook page following the AJC’s May 6 story. Without exception, the messages were critical of officials’ racially charged comments, with many calling on the mayor and a longtime councilman to resign.

According to two members of the City Council, in March Mayor Theresa Kenerly initially withheld the resume of an African-American applicant for the post of city administrator “because he is black, and the city isn’t ready for this.” The mayor issued a statement saying she had never made prejudiced comments regarding to applicant, but according to multiple sources, Kenerly apologized for the comment in a closed-door meeting of the council a week later and removed herself from an active role in the hiring process.

Hoschton resident Kelly Winebarger protests for the resignation of Hoschton Mayor Theresa Kenerly and Councilman Jim Cleveland at the Hoschton Historic Train Depot in Hoschton, Monday, May 6, 2019. “I don’t want people the think that about our community,” Kelly said as she referenced the controversy concerning the mayor of Hoschton allegedly pulling the resume of Keith Henry from a packet of four finalists for a city position, “because he is black, and the city isn’t ready for this.” ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In defending the mayor, City Councilman Jim Cleveland said the mayor was “looking out” for the city and said he “understood where she was coming from.” He also said interracial marriage went against “Christian beliefs.”

“I have black friends, I hired black people,” he said. “But when it comes to all this stuff you see on TV, when you see blacks and whites together, it makes my blood boil because that’s just not the way a Christian is supposed to live.”

Cleveland, who has served on the council for a decade, walked back those comments in subsequent interviews, saying he is has grown more racially tolerant over the years. However, he said he still believed interracial relationships “can create problems” and the races should remain “pure.”

Neither city official has offered to resign as a result of the comments, but that’s just what some wanted them to do.

Because city officials do not list their emails on the official Hoschton web page, most of the emails were sent to staff, including interim city administrator Justin Kilgore. Kilgore said he has not seen the mayor since an abbreviated meeting a week ago.

“That doesn’t mean she hasn’t been there,” he said. “Like most mayors, she comes in and signs what she needs to sign and comes to the meetings.”

Kilgore, who is the city’s code enforcement officer, said the Hoschton’s non-elected staff is just trying to keep the city running while the controversy rages.

“I don’t know what to tell you about it,” Kilgore said. “We are trying to do our work.”

One person emailed Hoschton officials the word ‘shame’ 117 times after the mayor and a city councilman made controversial statements about race.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It hasn’t been easy. Along with emails calling city officials racist and threatening boycotts, city officials also received requests for interviews from numerous media outlets, including NBC News, the Washington Post and Yahoo! News. The city even cancelled a car show scheduled for last weekend.

“It’s a pretty popular event, but some citizens were concerned about their safety,” Kilgore said.

One email claimed to represent an activist group in Atlanta and threatened to bring 3,000 protesters “to descend upon your city to protest the outdated, harmful, hateful and disturbing language spewed by these city officials!”

City officials said last week they had no permit requests for a protest of any size, except for a candlelight vigil held last week organized by local ministers. The emailer did not respond to a request for comment from the AJC.

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