Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston has a message for students at Immaculata Catholic School, where she was scheduled to speak during Black History Month until a priest canceled her visit at the school, citing concern over “pro-gay marriage concerns.” Alston is married to a woman.
“You deserve better than that,” Alston said during the City Council meeting on Monday night.
After outcry from Immaculata students and their parents over the cancellation, the priest changed his mind and invited Alston again.
Alston is an alumna of the private K-8 Catholic school, and was invited by the school’s African American Heritage Committee to speak during Black History Month. The theme is “Influential African American Women.” In addition to being a council member, Alston is an attorney who has worked to exonerate people wrongly accused of murder.
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Alston, who is in her mid-30s, said when she was a student at Immaculata, she was one of few black students or any black people at the school.
She said it broke her heart to think of current black students preparing for a celebration of their history and heritage only to have it taken away from them.
“The recision of my invitation to speak at the school because of who I love, the cancellation of the African American history month celebration were shocking, unfortunate and the result of what I believe to be a hasty and bigoted decision that does not reflect the values of many in this community,” Alston said Monday night.
She said the students deserve better.
“Over the past week it has been the students, their parents and many of you in this room who have made that point abundantly clear,” Alston said.
The Rev. Christopher VanHaight, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which governs the school, rescinded the invitation and canceled school that day over “pro-gay marriage concerns.” His decision was backed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh.
Alston had planned to talk about her life of public service. After meeting with VanHaight last week, he re-invited her to speak to students. A date has not yet been set.
Parents and students at Immaculata said they still wanted Alston to speak and sent her messages of support throughout the ordeal. She also received invitations to speak at other schools.
Immaculata parents who had invited her to speak wrote a letter saying they had “deep sadness at the cancellation of [Alston’s] speaking engagement” and “any pain she is experiencing as a result.” The letter was signed by parents Oriana Johnson, Danielle Sutton, Kaaren Haldeman, Kendra Maultsby-Mudd, Jessica Murrell, Armide Newby, Aisha Soderberg, Keia Sanderson and Kathy Everett-Perry. They said they were stunned and frustrated over VanHaight’s decision.
Daniel Golonka, an eighth-grader at Immaculata, is one of the students who urged the re-invitation of Alston to speak. He wrote a letter to the editor supporting her.
“Ms. Alston is strong, and I hope she continues to change our community for the better,” Daniel wrote.
Alston thanked Immaculata students in her statement Monday night.
“I want to applaud them for their commitment to each other and for the lessons they are teaching all of us about resilience, overcoming bigotry and the power that we have to create change when we stand up for each other,” she said.
Alston also talked a little about her family.
“I have an amazing wife and daughter. We trust each other, we laugh together, we disagree, we watch a lot of ‘Doc McStuffins’ and we help each other experience happiness,” she said.
“We also continue to work towards our full recognition as individuals and as a family, for full and equal rights for LGBT people and for the space for those who need to fight for something else. I love my family and I love yours too, no matter what they look like,” Alston said.