In a rural NC county rife with turmoil, voters elect first Black woman to county board

By Ivey Schofield

When Barbara Featherson was sworn into office last week as the first Black woman to serve on the Columbus County Board of Commissioners, the local notary made a blunder. 

The notary, Harlene Walters, certified Featherson as the board’s newest member “on this fifth day of December, 1900.” 

As she corrected the error, chuckles filled the commissioners’ chamber. 

But some residents of this rural county in southeastern North Carolina say they are frustrated that the county is having such “firsts” nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century.

“I know (Walters) made a simple mistake, but you would think something like that would happen in 1900-something,” Latoya Beatty, chair of the Democratic Women of Columbus County, said of voters electing a Black woman to the county board. “I feel very surprised that we’re still having the first African American anything.”

Some residents say they hope Featherson will help unite Columbus County, where divisions along racial and political lines became very apparent – and made national headlines – ahead of the Nov. 8 election. 

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Jody Greene, who resigned as Columbus County sheriff 15 days before the election, came under fire when a recorded phone call from 2019 was released to the media in September. During the call, Greene called deputies “Black bastards” and threatened to fire anyone associated with the former sheriff, who is Black. 

Despite the controversy, Greene won 54% of the vote in November to get a second term as the county’s first Republican sheriff.

That day, Featherson was the only Democrat to win any partisan office in Columbus County – an example of local voters’ continuing political shift to the right.     

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

Featherson told the Border Belt Independent in late November that she decided to run after Jerome McMillian, who previously held the District 1 seat that includes Fair Bluff, Boardman, Evergreen, Chadbourn and west Whiteville, supported Greene’s request for riot gear in June 2020. 

“I don’t ever remember a riot in Columbus County,” she said. “We don’t need riot gear.”

The seven-member board ultimately voted 5-2 to deny Greene’s request. Featherson said she told McMillian she was disappointed in him for voting yes.  

“Then I thought, ‘There’s no point for you to get upset about stuff and cry about stuff and not do anything about it,’” she said. 

Featherson beat McMillian, who is also Black, by 46 votes in the May primary. (McMillian recently switched his party affiliation to Republican and is now the chief deputy at the sheriff’s office.) Featherson won 82% of the vote on Nov. 8 against a Republican write-in candidate. 

Some residents also say they hope Featherson will keep the other county commissioners – six white men, five of them Republicans – in line. 

“America cannot stand up straight without a Black woman,” said Marcus Norfleet, who also ran against Featherson in the primary. “It’s taken us that long to get her to where she needed to be. That can be seen as an indictment against our community and county at large.”

Featherson, 70, said she just wants to do her best. 

“My hopes are that I will make a difference in this county, not just as a Black woman or a woman,” she said, “but as a good, hard-working commissioner for all people.”

A farmer and federal employee

Featherson grew up with a large family: five siblings on her mother’s 16-acre property and eight cousins on her uncle’s 16 acres in the Mt. Olive community in Columbus County. Her family, she said, was one of the largest Black farm owners in the county, growing wheat, corn, other vegetables and fruit.

“We farmed together, we played together, we rode buses together,” Featherson said. “We all just grew up right in this area.”

Featherson said she had a good childhood, ultimately graduating from West Columbus High School. That’s where she met Jimmy, her husband of more than 40 years. 

After high school, Featherson took out a small loan and moved to Durham to get a general business certificate from Southeastern Business College. At the end of the program, she took a civil service exam. 

When Featherson returned home to Columbus County, she learned that she was qualified to get a job at the Social Security office in Whiteville. 

“It was God-inspired,” said Featherson, a devout Christian. “I always had this thing in me about wanting to help.”

Featherson, who said she was the first Black woman to work in the office, stayed there for the rest of her 40-year career, moving up the ranks to ultimately become manager of the branch. Before retiring nine years ago, she helped people navigate the public claims process, including researching and filing for benefits and reversing government oversights. 

“(The benefits) had a change in their life,” she said. “It was very rewarding.”

Not only was Featherson a federal employee, she was also a farmer and a mother of two boys. She would work eight hours at her job and then return home to take her children to sports games and oversee the people who farmed her land. 

“It was stressful,” Featherson said. “I had to divide my time between too many different things to be effective in all of them.”

Her son Ryan Featherson called her “the leader of the family.” She was responsible and caring, he said, like a mother should be. 

“As a young child, I always thought she should be (in) a role of importance in that community,” he said. “She finally made it to that step. She did it.”

Cheers erupted after Barbara Featherson was sworn into office.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

Prayer to power

In 2020, when her gym closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Featherson began walking in her neighborhood for exercise. She noticed that many of her neighbors were dying. 

“It really troubled my spirit,” she said, “and it seemed to hit the minority population worse.”

In Columbus County, 286 residents have died of COVID, according to the latest data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Experts say the real number is likely higher.

Then Featherson watched the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in 2020 when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes. 

“I have five Black men that I love – two grandsons, two sons and a husband,” she said. “I actually wept because it became very personal to me.”

Then came McMillian’s vote in favor of riot gear. 

Featherson said she began to talk to God about what she should do. She prayed until the final day to register for her candidacy. She made it to the elections office in Whiteville three minutes before the deadline. 

“It wasn’t something I had discussed with anyone else,” Featherson said. “I just said to myself, ‘This is what God intends for me to do, so I am going forward with it.’”

‘The woman for the job’

Featherson said she hasn’t regretted her decision to run, but she admitted she had no idea what she was getting herself into. 

“I didn’t realize it would be so time consuming,” she said. “I didn’t realize it would be so expensive either.”

When she first filed to run, Featherson checked the box on the form that indicated she would not spend more than $1,000 throughout her campaign. 

“I had to go back and redo that declaration,” she quipped.

In the general election, Featherson’s campaign, which she said her family contributed to significantly, raised $1,275 by Oct. 23, according to The News Reporter. That didn’t include money spent during the primary. 

Norfleet, who called himself a “transplant” of Columbus County, said he didn’t know Featherson until he filed for candidacy – the day before she did. 

“I would not have run if I had known she was running,” he said. “I believe she’s the woman for the job.”

Norfleet said when he saw Featherson at campaign events she was always encouraging of him and his candidacy. 

Featherson also encouraged a young resident, who was hesitant about voting, to cast her ballot, Beatty said. 

“She’s a people’s person, she’s down to earth,” Beatty said, “and she’s able to interact with the young and the old.”

Ryan Featherson took time off work and drove back and forth from Greensboro, where he and his family live, to help with his mother’s campaign. 

“I felt like it was very important for my mom to capture the win,” he said. 

Barbara Featherson, third from left, was sworn in on Dec. 5 as the first Black woman to serve on the Columbus County Board of Commissioners. Her mother, husband and son stood with her during the ceremony.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

During both campaigns, Featherson said she had a lot of help from family, friends and strangers who put up signs, called residents and encouraged voters at the polls. 

“They were troopers,” she said. “They really picked me up.”

When Featherson won in November, she said she was speechless. 

“I felt like my efforts had paid off,” she said. “I was in awe that as many people voted for me as they did.”

‘Continued support’

In the weeks following her election, Featherson says she has reflected on her campaign. But she still didn’t know what to say about being the only Democrat in Columbus County to win. 

Beatty said she was disappointed. The local Democratic Party had hosted candidate meet-and-greets across the county and attended every community event possible. 

“Everybody was reared up and excited,” Beatty said. “For us to have one victory with Barbara Featherson was very upsetting.”

The Democratic Women of Columbus County was reinstated last month after a hiatus during the pandemic. Beatty said she was looking forward to encouraging more Democratic women to run for office in the future. 

Nortfleet said he was looking forward to Featherson’s matriarchal presence on the commissioners’ board for the next four years. 

“Mama’s home now,” he said. “And when Mama’s home, people mind their manners.”

Featherson said she credited God for making her the first Black woman in the local Social Security office and now the first Black woman on the Columbus County Board of Commissioners. 

“I just feel like he has directed my life in ways I didn’t see,” she said.

Featherson said she deliberately didn’t set goals for her time in office, since she is just one member of a seven-member board. 

“There are some things I’d love to see, but I’m not promising anything,” she said. “I would just ask for continued support to help me do the job of a commissioner so that our county can grow.”