The mayor of a small Georgia town is on the hot seat for remarks she made about a Black candidate for the job of city administrator. Hoschton is a small Georgia hamlet that, until today, many Atlantans didn't know existed. Mayor Theresa Kenerly may have put put the tiny town of fewer than 2,000 residents on the map when she withheld a candidate from consideration for the job of city administrator because he is Black.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted interviews with city officials who say she told a member of the City Council she rejected the resume of a candidate "because he is black, and the city isn't ready for this."
Mayor Kenerly reportedly made the statements during a closed-door session of the council on March 4.
The AJC reached out to Kenerly who said she could not publicly comment on the reported remarks. "I can't say I said it or not said it," she said.
Later, Kenerly issued a statement disputing accounts from other city officials.
"I do not recall making the statement attributed to me regarding any applicant for the City Administrator position, and I deny that I made any statement that suggest prejudice," she said.
The candidate, Keith Henry, of Houston, Texas, was not shocked or surprised by Kenerly's statement. Henry said Kenerly interviewed him over the phone because he was required to pay his own expenses if he traveled to Hoschton to be interviewed in-person.
"It comes with the territory," he told the AJC. "If you live in America as a minority you can't be naïve that it is the reality that you face."
Henry voluntarily withdrew his resume from consideration, in part, because he didn't want to pay the travel expenses out of pocket on the promise of reimbursement at a later date.
Three other candidates are under consideration for the job. Two of them are local and the third drove from the Georgia coast at his own expense, according to the AJC.
City Councilwoman Hope Weeks said Kenerly repeated the racist remarks to her in the parking lot after the council meeting.
"She proceeded to tell me that the candidate was real good, but he was black and we don't have a big black population and she just didn't think Hoschton was ready for that," Weeks wrote in an account dated March 4.
Weeks confided in Councilwoman Susan Powers and both women agreed to take the matter to city attorney Thomas Mitchell.
"Both of us were just appalled, so we thought we had to do something to stop it,” Powers said.
According to a series of emails obtained by the AJC, a deal was made between Mitchell and the City Council members to continue the hiring process that allowed Kenerly to attend, but not participate, in the interviews.
"She is not going to speak or ask questions," attorney Mitchell wrote.
But Powell protested the mayor's continued involvement in the search for a city administrator.
"I am appalled that in 2019 an applicant would not be hired based solely on the color of their skin."
But City Councilman Jim Cleveland defended the mayor, saying she made a tearful apology to the council on March 12.
According to council members who were there, Kenerly said she was only "looking out" for Henry because the city does not have a lot of minority residents.
Cleveland said the mayor "had tears in her eyes. It was in my opinion a very sincere apology." He said he did not think Kenerly was necessarily wrong.
Hoschton is among the last strongholds of the Deep South where pockets of racism remain rooted in entitlement, privilege and ignorance. Of the nearly 2,000 residents of Hoschton, only 201 are non-Caucasian.
Cleveland offered no apologies for the mayor. In fact, he shared his own beliefs that racism is not a thing of the past.
"I understood where she was coming from," he said bluntly. "I understand Theresa saying that, simply because we're not Atlanta. Things are different here than they are 50 miles down the road."
Cleveland, who has served on the council for a decade, said he ranked Henry last among the four finalists, not because he is Black but because he didn't come in for an in-person interview.
"I worked for AT&T for 31 years. I was a manager I probably hired over 100 people myself. I never hired anyone over a phone interview," he said.
Cleveland described Hoschton as "a predominantly white community" that is resistant to change.
"I don't know how they would take it if we selected a black administrator. She might have been right," he said.
Cleveland reflects the racist attitudes and beliefs that Kenerly espouses.
"I'm a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don't do interracial marriage. That's the way I was brought up and that's the way I believe," he said. "I have black friends, I hired black people. 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."
The AJC also spoke with Tonya Akin, owner of Dog Gone Cute Grooming. She expressed disappointment in the mayor's statements and her unwillingness to consider a Black administrator.
"I hope they hold her accountable for that,” she said. "I'm not that kind of person. I accept people for who they are."
Akin said Hoschton is a city in the midst of growth and things are going to change for the good. The city's growth over the last decade is reflected in her own business which started with a single employee and now she has 10.
"I think Hoschton is finally saying, 'Hey, we've got to get with the times,'" she said.