African-American Representation on the Chapel Hill Town Council

Whether it is by accident or amounts to a local tradition, the Chapel Hill Town Council has had African-American representation continuously ever since the election of Hubert Robinson in 1953.  Since that time, R. D. Smith, Bill Thorpe, Roosevelt Wilkerson, Barbara Booth Powell, Edith Wiggins and Jim Merritt have maintained a continuous presence on the Council. 
Last year, Jim Merritt was appointed to fill out the term of Bill Thorpe, who had been elected by the voters at the same time that Edith Wiggins retired in 2005.  Edith was originally appointed to the Council after the death of Barbara Powell in 1996.  And actually, Barbara Powell was originally appointed to fill out the unexpired term of Rev. Wilkerson (resigned in 1992).  And Roosevelt’s election in 1987 happened just as R. D. Smith retired, having been originally appointed (I believe) to finish out the term of Hubert Robinson.  That is to say there is a direct line of connection from Mr. Robinson’s 1953 breakthrough to Mr. Merritt’s current service on the Town Council.
Although there were a number of appointments in this chain of connection, these council members were elected and re-elected by Chapel Hill voters on numerous occasions.  For example, Rev. Wilkerson won convincingly in 1987 and 1991; Ms. Powell ran well in 1995; and Ms. Wiggins was handily re-elected in 1997 and 2001 (came in first one time, I think).  And I think Mr. Smith and Mr. Robinson were each re-elected several times.
It will be interesting to see whether this pattern continues on November 3rd.  Certainly Mr. Merritt has contributed to the Town Council over the last 11 months that he has been there.  He also has the unusual distinction of being, like Barbara Booth Powell, a Chapel Hill native, which has been a rarity in the last 30 years or so.  He also had an extensive career in public education and is an accessible and open-minded member of the Council. 

So all things considered, Jim Merritt’s re-election seems likely to me, but there are signs that 2009 could be an unusual year in Chapel Hill politics.  Certainly candidates DeHart and Pohlman have made it clear they hope for a very different outcome from previous elections.  I guess we’ll see . . .



Thanks for posting this, Mark. I was recently telling someone that there had been exactly one African-American on the Council for the past 2 decades that I have been paying attention. In fact in that time (since I came back to Chapel Hill in 1989) ALL of them had joined the Council first by appointment, and then been re-elected.

I also wonder if this year will be different, partially because of the moderate white male slate that seems to be running strong with some parts of the electorate, but also because Jim Merritt seems to be such a lackluster campaigner. His performance at candidate forums has been very disappointing.

So the other thing I was wondering is what happens if Jim is not elected, and we get an all-white Council for 2010? Two of the 12 applicants for Bill Strom's seat are African-American (Aaron Shah and my friend Donna Bell), so their chances would probably increase in such a situation. This is yet another good case AGAINST automatic appointment of the 5th vote-getter.

I've been surprised by Jim's forum performances.  He's so engaging in one on one conversations and I believe knows what he's talking about in regards to town issues. But, for example, the fact that he opened his intro to the social justice forum talking about tax credits to incent businesses to move to CH just seemed off course. 

Was not Bill Thorpe elected back in the 80's?

If I remember his electoral history correctly he: -Lost for Council in 75-Won for Council in 77-Lost for Council in 81-Won for Council in 83-Lost for Council in 87-Lost for Council in 91-Lost for Commissioner in 98-Won for Council in 05He went out a winner!  I miss him all the time. 

I agree with Ruby that this would be the one instance I could think of that would preclude the 5th place finisher from being automatically appointed. 

Wer any of the earlierr appointments on the heels of an election where voters expressed their preferences?

OK, good point. 

Not completely sure, Fred.  The appointments that I remember were: 2008 Jim Merritt 1996 Edith Wiggins 1992 Barbara Powell None of those appointments happened in an odd numbered year, so none were immediately after an election.  On the other hand, I don't remember if any of them were appointed in, for example, January.  I don't think they were.  Edith Wiggins was almost definitely appointed in the fall of 1996.  In 1992 & 1996 (when i was on the Council), I don't remember any discussion of appointing someone who ran in the preceeding election.I also think that in each case, most of the applicants were African-American.  This year is clearly quite a bit different.  For example, two of the above appointments happened as a result of the death of a councilmember.  Rev. Wilkerson resigned in the middle of his term owing to a controversy about the use of the Mayor's letterhead.  All of those are quite a bit different from the present situation.However, I believe this subject will become moot when Jim Merritt wins on Nov. 3.

I was checking bags at the UNC game last night (it is a fundraiser for the campus students at our church, but they were short on people because of fall break, so us old folks got to do it and watch the game afterwards).Somebody was handing out Texas Pete samples before folks walked into the stadium.  Somebody decided that these sample bottles (sealed) constituted "food" and we shouldn't allow into the stadium.The 1st case of this in my line (it had happened a lot in the line behind me) was Ms. Wiggins.   The lady beside me told her she had to leave her 2 bottles at our table.  When I recognized who she was, I couldn't help but tell her we had a special exception for former council members.  Hope nobody thinks that was unethical!Also receiving a lighter look-over than usual in their purses in my line were Walter Dalton's wife, DG Martin's wife,  and Patti Thorp (Emma didn't have a purse). I didn't see if Jill was with him, but Rick Edens was also noted for taking the night off from irritating his neighbors.

There were actually three African-American members of the Town Council in the 19th century and I have posted some information about them here:  if you want to really geek out on this topic. 

It would seem a bit condescending to feel that "token" appointment is the only way to obtain diversity and inclusion on the council. It sounds like the voters have supported qualified and thoughtful AA candidates in the past. I think the current council appointing an AA replacement for Strom just to somehow "balance" the council for some kind of contrived racial inclusion scheme is demeaning and old paradigm thinking. Just my feeling on this thread...

It's easy to see the CH council and mayor results back to 1979.  They're in a large 3-ring binder at the Board of Elections in Hillsborough.  Here are the results for council:2005    Thorpe   4th2001    Wiggins 1st1997    Wiggins  2nd1993    Powell   3rd  (of six who were elected)1991    Wilkerson   2nd1987    Wilkerson  2nd, Thorpe 5th1983    Smith  3rd,  Thorpe  4th1979    Smith   2nd

1991 Thorpe also ran and came in 6th or 7th.


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