Petition creates rancor

An effort to change the way the Durham school board is elected leads to tempers flaring at a store

Staff WritersJune 15, 2005 

A political tussle over the makeup of the school board turned into a showdown at an East Durham shopping center Sunday, complete with covert planning, name-calling and dueling information tables outside a Family Dollar store.

Charlotte Woods, the founder of Concerned Citizens for Accountable Government, says she was trying to collect signatures for a petition to change how Durham Public Schools board members are elected when a dozen members of the rival Concerned Citizens of Durham suddenly appeared.

Woods says changing the elections will hold board members accountable to all citizens. But her opponents have accused Woods of merely trying to unseat black school board members Jackie Wagstaff and Regina George-Bowden. The mostly black Concerned Citizens of Durham is intent on stopping her.

The group had been alerted to Woods' petition-gathering Sunday by a bit of subterfuge. Sheryl Smith, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Durham, said she had called Woods to find out what she was up to. Smith posed as "Sheila Davis," a black supporter of the petition effort and told Woods she would join her at the shopping center. Woods, who is white, was grateful to have a black supporter willing to stand with her in a predominantly black neighborhood.

Smith drove by the shopping center and saw Woods with former school board member Kathryn Meyers, a supporter of the petition. Originally contemplating wearing a wig and big sunglasses as a disguise and pretending to be Sheila Davis, Smith instead went home to get her own petition against schools Superintendent Ann Denlinger and a table and chair to stake out a spot next to Woods.

Smith then called some of her cohorts to let them know what was going on. Her group has accused Woods of hoodwinking black residents into signing a petition last year to oust former Durham City Manager Marcia Conner. She said they wanted to make sure that Woods did not do that this time.

About 3 p.m., after Meyers had left, Smith began telling a crowd of people whom Woods was trying to get to sign her petition that they were being misled. Smith said the conversation got a little heated, but she said Woods held her own and did not appear frightened.

Woods describes the scene differently, saying she found herself surrounded by a hostile group. One member of the Concerned Citizens of Durham, former school board candidate Steven Matherly, got into a shouting match with her.

"He screamed that I was a white racist bitch," Woods said. "He told me to go back to the plantation in Hope Valley."

Woods, who lives in the Rockwood neighborhood, says that Matherly butted her with his belly and that she feared for her life.

"I was terrified," said Woods, 66. "I really thought that he was going to hit me."

Woods said that she has contacted law enforcement officials about the incident.

Matherly emphatically denies that the two ever physically touched, though he said they were "less than a foot apart" during the exchange. He said that both he and Woods were yelling, that he called her a "biddy" and did tell her to go back to the plantation. He said he has no regrets about the incident and doesn't think Woods should have felt threatened.

"Come on, she's as old as my mother," Matherly, who is over 6 feet tall, said Tuesday. "If she felt threatened by me then why didn't she yell for help or run away?"

Smith and Wagstaff said the manager of the Family Dollar called the police and asked to have Woods removed from in front of the store. Woods moved a little ways down and set up her table near the post office.

Two hours later, Smith said, she returned and found Woods still waiting for the nonexistent Sheila Davis. With a big smile, Smith then revealed her alias.

"They set me up," Woods said. "I was duped."

Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or mbieseck@newsobserver.com.

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