After sheriff resigns, Black residents say racism is part of life in Columbus County

By Ivey Schofield

Hours after the suspended Columbus County sheriff resigned from his job on Monday amid allegations of racism and corruption, a civil rights activist said he wants to make sure Jody Greene’s law enforcement career is over forever. 

“We’re not jumping up and down because of a resignation,” Charlotte civil rights activist John Barnett said of Greene’s decision, which came at the start of a 10:15 a.m. court hearing to determine whether he would be removed from office. “We need that badge in hand so he’ll never work again.”

Many of the people who gathered outside the Columbus County courthouse and attended a rally hosted by the local NAACP on Monday said the controversy surrounding Greene highlights a larger problem of racism that permeates politics, leadership and education in this southeastern North Carolina county. 

Greene was suspended by a North Carolina judge on Oct. 4 for making racist remarks during a recorded phone call from 2019. He is also accused of firing a Black sergeant he suspected was aligned with the previous sheriff, trying to intimidate county commissioners and having an affair with a detective.

In a Facebook post Monday, Greene denied the allegations.

John Barnett, a Charlotte civil rights activist, addresses a crowd outside the Columbus County Courthouse on Monday. To his left is Juwarn Britt, who says he was beaten by Aaron Herring, now the chief deputy of the sheriff’s office, in 2015.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

Other incidents have rattled the community in recent months.

In July, the chief of Lake Waccamaw EMS made racist and homophobic comments at a Mexican restaurant in Whiteville. The chief, Shannon Worrell, later resigned, and the county terminated its contract with the station. 

That same month, more than 60 Black residents protested the Columbus County school board’s decision to reassign the district’s only Black principals to assistant principals. “We are not going to sit here quietly,” Timothy Lance, a former school counselor and local pastor, said at the time. “We are here after 400 years of being mistreated.”

During a press conference outside the courthouse Monday, Barnett said he also wanted the removal of Aaron Herring, chief deputy of the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office.

Juwarn Britt, speaking during the press event, said he was beaten by Herring in the backseat of a patrol car in December 2015. Britt, who is Black, said he was arrested on suspicion of selling marijuana, which he denies doing, and Herring was an officer with the Whiteville Police Department at the time. 

Herring was found not guilty in 2018 on charges of simple assault and willful failure to discharge duties in the case. 

“We’re asking for justice here in Whiteville,” Britt said, surrounded by his family and members of the Black Panthers. “No justice, no peace.”

The Rev. Andy Anderson leads a rally for the Columbus County NAACP on Monday. Anderson said Jody Greene’s resignation “isn’t a time for celebration, but it’s a shame we’re even here.”
Photo by Les High

Painful history

Like much of the American South, Columbus County has a painful history of racism. 

By the 1950s, Thomas Hamilton, a grand dragon for the Ku Klux Klan, formed groups in Chadbourn, Fair Bluff, Tabor City and Whiteville. He was later sentenced to four years in prison for kidnapping and assaulting Evergreen Flowers, a Black woman from Chadbourn. 

In 1953, The News Reporter and the Tabor City Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for editorials that led to the arrests of about 100 Klan members. (Les High, the former publisher of The News Reporter, is now the publisher of the Border Belt Independent.) 

Seven decades later, in spring 2020, the Oath Keepers formed a chapter in Columbus County. The paramilitary organization has been tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol following the 2020 election.

Tara Ganus speaks at the NAACP rally in Whiteville after Greene resigned Monday. Photo by Les High

The local group denied any ties to white supremacy and disbanded from the state branch following the riot in Washington, D.C.

Democrats still outnumber Republicans 1.5 to 1 in Columbus County, once a powerhouse for tobacco and textiles, but the political climate has shifted to the right.

Republican Donald Trump won nearly 64% of the vote for president in Columbus County in 2020. Republican George W. Bush won the county with about 51% of the vote in 2004.

Some Black residents say the shift has paralleled a resurgence in white supremacy, echoing a time when the KKK ignited racial divides in Columbus County. 

Audience members listen to speakers Monday at the Columbus County NAACP rally in Whiteville.
Photo by Les High

In the days after the 2019 phone recording was first reported by WECT in late September, hundreds of Black residents gathered at a local church to express their anger – and their desire for lasting change. 

“We want real diversity, equity and inclusion work done in this county,” Curtis Hill, president of the Columbus County branch of the NAACP, said during the meeting. “Because when the cameras leave, we’re still here.”

On Monday, Andrea Gardner stood in front of news cameras outside the courthouse and waved a neon sign proclaiming her son’s innocence.

Elizabeth Grimes prays during Monday’s NAACP rally at the Brunswick Waccamaw Missionary Baptist Association building in Whiteville. Photo by Les High

Gardner’s son, a 25-year-old Black man named Corey Hines, was sentenced last month to life without parole for a 2017 murder that she says he did not commit. She said she has phone records showing her son was not at the scene of the crime. 

Lolita Stanton also went to the courthouse Monday morning. She said bond amounts are too high, often disproportionately affecting Black men. Her nephew, she said, was held under a $750,000 bond when he was arrested on drug charges.

“We’re going to lose everything we’ve got just to get somebody out of jail,” Stanton said. “It’s not reasonable.”

‘You’ve got the power’

Hill is calling for an investigation into Greene’s tenure as a law enforcement officer. The state NAACP also asked the federal government to look into potential civil rights violations by the sheriff. 

The U.S. Department of Justice does not investigate incumbent elected officials so close to Election Day, said Theodore Shaw, a civil rights lawyer and professor at the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“That’s going to be a wait and see after the election,” he said. 

But any federal investigation could focus on potential voting rights transgressions, Shaw said. Former sheriff Lewis Hatcher, the incumbent who lost to Greene in 2018, alleged that at least 180 absentee ballots were unaccounted for, enough to potentially swing the election his way. 

Residents gathered in Whiteville on Monday. Photo by Les High

Jim Davis, the first Black sheriff of Hoke County, encouraged Columbus County residents to speak to federal investigators who ask for their testimonies.

“You’ve got to expose the wrongdoing that is happening in this county,” he said at the NAACP meeting Monday.

At David’s request earlier this month, the State Bureau of Investigation is investigating Greene for potential obstruction of justice.

David said he removed Greene from the list of state-approved witnesses due to “his racial bias,” the court filing stated. 

Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the state NAACP, pleaded in front of dozens of people at the Brunswick-Waccamaw Missionary Baptist Association to make their disapproval of Greene’s actions known by casting their ballots. 

“You’ve got the power,” she said, “but you’ve got to use that power.” 

Greene said Monday he resigned so he could focus on his reelection campaign. David, the district attorney, said he would refile a petition calling for Greene’s removal if Greene wins on Nov. 8 against Democratic challenger Jason Soles.

“Justice,” Hill said, “is on the ballot.”

Deborah Maxwell, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, speaks Monday.
Photo by Les High