On Monday, Dec. 4, in Vance County, a superior court judge administered the oath of office to Peter White, the rural county's first black sheriff. That same day down in sleepy Laurinburg, Shep Jones became sheriff, the first African American in Scotland County's history. For both men, the swearing-in ceremonies marked the conclusion of heated campaigns that were colored with allegations of racism and party disloyalty when white, registered Democrats entered the fray as unaffiliated independent candidates after the primaries.
White, a retired major with the N.C. Highway Patrol, defeated incumbent sheriff Thomas Breedlove by fewer than 200 votes in Vance's three-way Democratic primary, but went on to take 57 percent of the vote in a runoff election. With no Republicans in the race, the victory all but guaranteed White the sheriff's office. But then George Hoyle, a sheriff's deputy and the son-in-law of Rep. Jim Crawford, a hopeful for speaker of the House, gathered more than 1,000 signatures to get his name on the ballot.
Shep Jones handily won the Scotland County Democratic primary, defeating incumbent Buddy Blalock and another challenger, Mike Webb. Still, two candidates—Ralph Kersey and Alfred White—were able to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.
"Many persons in the African-American community thought that it was a racial action to prevent an African American from becoming sheriff," Terry Garrison, a Vance County commissioner and president of the local chapter of the NAACP, says of the late campaign entry there. "At the same time," Garrison says, "we recognize that politics is politics."
Garland Pierce, president of the Scotland County NAACP and a member of the state House, was a little more forthcoming, stating that even Ray Charles could see the motives behind the petition campaigns.
"Not only was the black community upset," Pierce says, "we had well-wishers from the white community."
Al McSurely, lawyer for the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, helped get state-level organizers from the Democratic Party involved in the Vance race. "There were two factors that caused us concern," McSurely says. "How quickly Hoyle was able to meet fairly high standards [to get on the ballot], and the fact that he was Crawford's son-in-law.... It became clear that he had strong backing."
"Here's a black man who said, 'Not only will I serve the county but I'll also help bring the Democratic Party into the 21st century by getting blacks and whites working together," McSurely says of Peter White. "That initiative was undercut by an obviously racialized independent candidacy."
Jerry Meek, chair of the N.C. Democratic Party, issued strong press releases in favor of both black candidates. "Obviously, we support the Democratic nominee," Meek said. Meek went the extra mile for White, speaking at a campaign rally and recording a phone message that was automatically distributed the day before the election.
McSurely hinted that Hoyle's familial connections may have helped smooth his way into the race against White. "If Crawford wasn't involved, at the very least he could have dissociated himself from the candidacy," McSurely says. "He did not do that."
Hoyle chose not to comment for this story, but he did tell News 14 Carolina that he entered the Vance sheriff's race after the primary because he didn't want to run against Breedlove, his boss—not because of any racial motivations. Rep. Crawford says "there was absolutely nothing racial about the sheriff's race."
In the Scotland County race, Alfred White hung up the phone when asked, "When did you decide to run for sheriff?" He won only 225 votes in the general election. The second latecomer to the race, Ralph Kersey, could not be reached for comment.
Both of the newly elected sheriffs downplayed the role of racism in their elections, a change from comments sources say they made during the campaign.
"There were some folks that said it had some racial overtones to it," Jones says from Scotland County. "Personally, I didn't take it that way." The Fayetteville Observer reported that in 1999 Jones, then a sheriff's deputy, was fired following allegations by former Sheriff Wayne Bryant that he refused to follow orders. Jones said he was fired because he spoke out against a white deputy who used a racial slur against a black deputy. Jones was later vindicated: He sued, alleging racial discrimination within the department, and won $25,000 in damages.
Vance Sheriff Peter White, who recently fired Hoyle and three other deputies, did not return several phone calls for comment.
"In law enforcement in particular, the shifting of power to people of color has traditionally been a very difficult transition," McSurely says.
Jones County also elected its first black sheriff this fall. John Hall defeated the incumbent and three other opponents in the Democratic primary and went on to beat his Republican opponent in November.