Saying the group was discriminatory, two Sussex County council members declined to give $100 from their councilmanic grant funds to the Lower Sussex NAACP Youth Council.
At the end of each meeting, council members award nonprofit grants from their discretionary accounts.
Normally, the votes are little more than formalities, but not during the May 13 meeting.
After a motion was made to award $100 from each council members to the Lower Sussex NAACP Youth Council, Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, said he would not participate; Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, supported Wilson.
“Take my name off. I’m not giving anything unless you describe what that says.
What does NAACP stand for?” Wilson asked. “I don’t understand. We are voting for something we don’t know what it stands for.”
“You don’t know what it means? You don’t know what it stands for?” asked Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach.
“I know what it stands for and so do you, at least I hope you do,” Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, told Wilson.
“Not exactly,” Wilson answered.
It’s then that Finance Director Gina Jennings told Wilson what the acronym stands for: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“What color?” asked Phillips. “I’m with Mr. Wilson. This is an organization that obviously is directed at a certain race. It strikes me as inappropriate in this day of racial equality. You can pull mine from that as well.”
“It sounds like discrimination to me,” Wilson added.
The Lower Sussex NAACP Youth Council was seeking a grant to support its summer activities, including a financial freedom workshop, a family fitness challenge and sending members to the national convention in Las Vegas.
In a letter to council, Lower Sussex NAACP youth advisor Manuel Davis wrote that the founding mission of NAACP remains the same today as it did when the organization was founded in 1909 – to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racebased discrimination. The youth council meets regularly at Milton Public Library.
Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, who made the original motion for $100 from each council member, changed his motion to $500 from three members. Deaver, Cole, Vincent and in a surprise move, Phillips, voted in favor of the motion; Wilson voted against it.
“I will vote yes in respect of your accounts,” Phillips said.
After the vote, Wilson asked where the Lower Sussex NAACP workshop/convention was taking place.
“Not where the klan meets,” Deaver responded.
Vincent told Wilson information about the grant request was included with the meeting packet.
“I don’t see it,” Wilson said.
It didn’t end there. During a discussion on the next grant request, Deaver chided Phillips when he added $500 from his councilmanic account to a $500 proposed grant for to the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra Society.
“Are they all white people there?” Deaver asked.
That comment caused Vincent to step in. “I think we need to keep these comments to ourselves,” he said. “Some of these things don’t need to be said by anybody up here.”
On May 14, Delaware Republican Party Chairman Charlie Copeland responded to the council discussion.
“While there is a great deal of room in the Republican Party for debate and discussion on the issues of the day, there is no room for the forces of intolerance and discrimination. Period,” he said.
He applauded Cole for making the motion to award the grant to Lower Sussex NAACP.
Copeland said the council discussion raises a larger issue. “As someone who has participated in numerous NAACP events over the years, I strongly believe that Delaware needs an open, honest discussion about race. This discussion is long overdue and should begin today,” he said.
NAACP officials aired their disappointment in a statement released May 15.
“For the last 105 years, the NAACP has worked tirelessly to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all people regardless of race,” said Richard Smith, president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference. “We find the remarks of Councilmen Sam Wilson and Vance Phillips – men focused on our name instead of our impact – sad and shameful.”
Jane Hovington, president of the NAACP’s Lower Sussex branch, was equally miffed by Wilson and Phillips’ actions.
“The NAACP is a nonpartisan organization committed to empowering communities across the state of Delaware to reach their full potential,” she said. “We refuse to tolerate racism and bigotry in any way, shape or form.
“The remarks made by Councilmen Sam Wilson and Vance Phillips about our organization were misguided, unnecessary and fail to give credence to the tremendous work our organization is doing in the lives of residents throughout the state.”
Wilson goes on the defensive
After the meeting, Wilson said he didn’t support the grant because the money would go out of state to support a trip to a conference in Las Vegas. “How does that help Sussex County? Why put it on the agenda?” he asked.
In addition, he said, NAACP is more akin to a political organization. “I’m not supporting that,” he said.
He said he was being facetious when he asked other council members what NAACP stood for. “I know they didn’t want to say colored people. They put it on the agenda, so let them talk about it. When you ask for a grant, you have to bold enough to talk about it,” he said. “I knew this was a hot topic that no one wants to touch.”
Wilson said he grew up during segregation. “Sam Wilson didn’t make those rules; it was the culture and the times. If you talk about that history, people call you a racist. I guess I need to read my history books better,” he said.
“I’m no more a racist than anyone else,” Wilson said, adding he has black friends and supporters and rents to all races in his manufactured home park.
He said no one has mentioned that during the same meeting he voted for grants to the African-American (AFRAM) Festival in Seaford and for a West Rehoboth housing project.
“Those are to support mostly black groups, but the money stays in Sussex County. I’ve certainly given money to other black organizations over the years. It doesn’t matter to me if they are black or white; it depends how beneficial the grants are to the taxpayers of Sussex County.”