Newbern, Alabama — There’s a power struggle in Newbern, Alabama, and the rural town’s first Black mayor is at war with the previous administration who he says locked him out of Town Hall.
After years of racist harassment and intimidation, Patrick Braxton is fed up, and in a federal civil rights lawsuit he is accusing town officials of conspiring to deny his civil rights and his position because of his race.
“When I first became mayor, [a white woman told me] the town was not ready for a Black mayor,” Braxton recalls.
The town is 85% Black, and 29% of Black people here live below the poverty line.
“What did she mean by the town wasn’t ready for a Black mayor? They, meaning white people?” Capital B asked.
“Yes. No change,” Braxton says.
Decades removed from a seemingly Jim Crow South, white people continue to thwart Black political progress by refusing to allow them to govern themselves or participate in the country’s democracy, several residents told Capital B. While litigation may take months or years to resolve, Braxton and community members are working to organize voter education, registration, and transportation ahead of the 2024 general election.
But the tension has been brewing for years.
Two years ago, Braxton says he was the only volunteer firefighter in his department to respond to a tree fire near a Black person’s home in the town of 275 people. As Braxton, 57, actively worked to put out the fire, he says, one of his white colleagues tried to take the keys to his fire truck to keep him from using it.
In another incident, Braxton, who was off duty at the time, overheard an emergency dispatch call for a Black woman experiencing a heart attack. He drove to the fire station to retrieve the automated external defibrillator, or AED machine, but the locks were changed, so he couldn’t get into the facility. He raced back to his house, grabbed his personal machine, and drove over to the house, but he didn’t make it in time to save her. Braxton wasn’t able to gain access to the building or equipment until the Hale County Emergency Management Agency director intervened, the lawsuit said.
“I have been on several house fires by myself,” Braxton says. “They hear the radio and wouldn’t come. I know they hear it because I called dispatch, and dispatch set the tone call three or four times for Newbern because we got a certain tone.”
This has become the new norm for Braxton ever since he became the first Black mayor of his hometown in 2020. For the past three years, he’s been fighting to serve and hold on to the title of mayor, first reported by Lee Hedgepeth, a freelance journalist based in Alabama.
Not only has he been locked out of the town hall and fought fires alone, but he’s been followed by a drone and unable to retrieve the town’s mail and financial accounts, he says. Rather than concede, Haywood “Woody” Stokes III, the former white mayor, along with his council members, reappointed themselves to their positions after ordering a special election that no one knew about.
Braxton is suing them, the People’s Bank of Greensboro, and the postmaster at the U.S. Post Office.
For at least 60 years, there’s never been an election in the town. Instead, the mantle has been treated as a “hand me down” by the small percentage of white residents, according to several residents Capital B interviewed. After being the only one to submit qualifying paperwork and statement of economic interests, Braxton became the mayor.
Stokes and his council — which consists of three white people (Gary Broussard, Jesse Leverett, Willie Tucker) and one Black person (Voncille Brown Thomas) — deny any wrongdoing in their response to the amended complaint filed on April 17. They also claim qualified immunity, which protects state and local officials from individual liability from civil lawsuits.
The attorneys for all parties, including the previous town council, the bank, and Lynn Thiebe, the postmaster at the post office, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Town Where Voting Never Was
Over the past 50 years, Newbern has held a majority Black population. The town was incorporated in 1854 and became known as a farm town. The Great Depression and the mechanization of the cotton industry contributed to Newbern’s economic and population decline, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
By the 1960s, catfish became an integral part of the region’s economy. In the 1990s, Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design, and Construction built an off-campus program called the Rural Studio to provide students with experience in building housing and community facilities for low-income residents in the state’s Black Belt Region.
Today, across Newbern’s 1.2 square miles sits the town hall and volunteer fire department constructed by Auburn’s students, an aging library, U.S. Post Office, and Mercantile, the only store there, which Black people seldom frequent because of high prices and a lack of variety of products, Braxton says.
“They want to know why Black [people] don’t shop with them. You don’t have nothin’ the Black [people] want or need,” he says. “No gasoline. … They used to sell country-time bacon and cheese and souse meat. They stopped selling that because they say they didn’t like how it feel on their hands when they cuttin’ the meat.”
To help unify the town, Braxton began hosting annual Halloween parties for the children, and game day for the senior citizens. But his efforts haven’t been enough to stop some people from moving for better jobs, industry, and quality of life.
Residents say the white town leaders have done little to help the predominantly Black area thrive over the years. They question how the town has spent its finances, as Black residents continue to struggle. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, Newbern received $30,000, according to an estimated funding sheet by Alabama Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, but residents say they can’t see where it has gone.
But the bigger question has always been who is the mayor?
At the First Baptist Church of Newbern, Braxton, three of his selected council members — Janice Quarles, 72, Barbara Patrick, 78, and James Ballard, 76 — and the Rev. James Williams, 77, could only remember two former mayors: Robert Walthall, who served as mayor for 44 years, and Paul Owens, who served on the council for 33 years and mayor for 11.
“At one point, we didn’t even know who the mayor was,” Ballard recalls. “If you knew somebody and you was white, and your grandfather was in office when he died or got sick, he passed it on down to the grandson or son, and it’s been that way throughout the history of Newbern.”
Quarles agreed, adding: “It took me a while to know that Mr. Owens was the mayor. I just thought he was just a little man cleaning up on the side of the road, sometimes picking up paper. I didn’t know until I was told that ‘Well, he’s the mayor now.’”
Braxton mentioned he heard of a Black man named Mr. Hicks who previously sought office years ago.
“This was before my time, but I heard Mr. Hicks had won the mayor seat and they took it from him the next day [or] the next night,” Braxton said. “It was another Black guy, had won years ago, and they took it from.”
“I hadn’t heard that one,” Ballard chimes in, sitting a few seats away from Braxton.
“How does someone take the seat from him, if he won?” Capital B asked.
“The same way they’re trying to do now with Mayor Braxton,” Quarles chuckled. “Maybe at that time — I know if it was Mr. Hicks — he really had nobody else to stand up with him.”
Despite the rumor, what they did know for sure: There was never an election, and Stokes had been in office since 2008.
The Costs to Challenging the White Power Structure
After years of disinvestment, Braxton’s frustrations mounted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he says Stokes refused to commemorate state holidays or hang up American flags. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the majority-white council failed to provide supplies such as disinfectant, masks, and humidifiers to residents to mitigate the risks of contracting the virus.
Instead of waiting, Braxton made several trips to neighboring Greensboro, about 10 miles away, to get food and other items to distribute to Black and white residents. He also placed signs around town about vaccination. He later found his signs had been destroyed and put in “a burn pile,” he said.
After years of unmet needs of the community, Braxton decided to qualify for mayor. Only one Black person — Brown Thomas, who served with Stokes — has ever been named to the council. After Braxton told Stokes, the acting mayor, his intention to run, the conspiracy began, the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, Stokes gave Braxton the wrong information on how to qualify for mayor. Braxton then consulted with the Alabama Conference of Black Mayors, and the organization told him to file his statement of candidacy and statement of the economic interests with the circuit clerk of Hale County and online with the state, the lawsuit states. Vickie Moore, the organization’s executive director, said it also guided Braxton on how to prepare for his first meeting and other mayoral duties.
Moore, an Alabama native and former mayor of Slocomb, said she has never heard of other cases across the state where elected officials who have never been elected are able to serve. This case with Braxton is “racism,” she said.
“The true value of a person can’t be judged by the color of their skin, and that’s what’s happening in this case here, and it’s the worst racism I’ve ever seen,” Moore said. “We have fought so hard for simple rights. It’s one of the most discouraging but encouraging things because it encourages us to continue to move forward … and continue to fight.”
Political and legal experts say what’s happening in Newbern is rare, but the tactics to suppress Black power aren’t, especially across the South. From tampering with ballot boxes to restricting reading material, “the South has been resistant to all types of changes” said Emmitt Riley III, associate professor of political science and Africana Studies at The University of the South.
“This is a clear case of white [people] attempting to seize and maintain political power in the face of someone who went through the appropriate steps to qualify and to run for office and by default wins because no one else qualified,” Riley added. “This raises a number of questions about democracy and a free and fair system of governance.”
Riley mentioned a different, but similar case in rural Greenwood, Mississippi. Sheriel Perkins, a longtime City Council member, became the first Black female mayor in 2006, serving for only two years. She ran again in 2013 and lost by 206 votes to incumbent Carolyn McAdams, who is white. Perkins contested the results, alleging voter fraud. White people allegedly paid other white people to live in the city in order to participate in the election and cast a legal vote, Riley said. In that case, the state Supreme Court dismissed the case and “found Perkins presented no evidence” that anyone voted illegally in a precinct, but rather it was the election materials that ended up in the wrong precincts.
“It was also on record that one white woman got on the witness stand and said, ‘I came back to vote because I was contacted to vote by X person.’ I think you see these tactics happening all across the South in local elections, in particular,” Riley said. “It becomes really difficult for people to really litigate these cases because in many cases it goes before the state courts, and state courts have not been really welcoming to overturning elections and ordering new elections.”
Another example: Camilla, Georgia.
In 2015, Rufus Davis was elected as the first Black male mayor of rural, predominantly Black Camilla. In 2017, the six-person City Council — half Black and half white — voted to deny him a set of keys to City Hall, which includes his office. Davis claimed the white city manager, Bennett Adams, had been keeping him from carrying out his mayoral duties.
The next year, Davis, along with Black City Council member Venterra Pollard, boycotted the city’s meetings because of “discrimination within the city government,” he told a local news outlet. Some of the claims included the absence of Black officers in the police department, and the city’s segregated cemetery, where Black people cannot be buried next to white people. (The wire fence that divided the cemetery was taken down in 2018). In 2018, some citizens of the small town of about 5,000 people wanted to remove Davis from office and circulated a petition that garnered about 200 signatures. In 2019, he did not seek re-election for office.
“You’re Not the Mayor”
After being the only person to qualify and submit proper paperwork for any municipal office, Braxton became mayor-elect and the first Black mayor in Newbern’s history on July 22, 2020.
Following the announcement, Braxton appointed members to join his council, consistent with the practice of previous leadership. He asked both white and Black people to serve, he said, but the white people told him they didn’t want to get involved.
The next month, Stokes and the former council members, Broussard, Leverett, Brown Thomas, and Tucker, called a secret meeting to adopt an ordinance to conduct a special election on Oct. 6 because they “allegedly forgot to qualify as candidates,” according to the lawsuit, which also alleges the meeting was not publicized. The defendants deny this claim, but admit to filing statements of candidacy to be elected at the special election, according to their response to an amended complaint filed on their behalf.
Because Stokes and his council were the only ones to qualify for the Oct. 6 election, they reappointed themselves as the town council. On Nov. 2, 2020, Braxton and his council members were sworn into office and filed an oath of office with the county probate judge’s office. Ten days later, the city attorney’s office executed an oath of office for Stokes and his council.
Some community members still don’t know whether Braxton or Stokes is the mayor.
After Braxton held his first town meeting in November, Stokes changed the locks to Town Hall to keep him and his council from accessing the building. For months, the two went back and forth on changing the locks until Braxton could no longer gain access. At some point, Braxton says he discovered all official town records had been removed or destroyed, except for a few boxes containing meeting minutes and other documents.
Braxton also was prevented from accessing the town’s financial records with the People’s Bank of Greensboro and the city clerk, and obtaining mail from the town’s post office. At every turn, he was met with a familiar answer: “You’re not the mayor.” Separately, he’s had drones following him to his home and mother’s home and had a white guy almost run him off the road, he says.
Braxton asserts he’s experienced these levels of harassment and intimidation to keep him from being the mayor, he said.
“Not having the Lord on your side, you woulda’ gave up,” he told Capital B.
“Ready to Fire Away”
In the midst of the obstacles, Braxton kept pushing. He partnered with LaQuenna Lewis, founder of Love Is What Love Does, a Selma-based nonprofit focused on enriching the lives of disadvantaged people in Dallas, Perry, and Hale counties through such means as food distribution, youth programming, and help with utility bills. While meeting with Braxton, Lewis learned more about his case and became an investigator with her friend Leslie Sebastian, a former advocacy attorney based in California.
The three began reviewing thousands of documents from the few boxes Braxton found in Town Hall, reaching out to several lawyers and state lawmakers such as Sen. Bobby Singleton and organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center. No one wanted to help.
When the white residents learned Lewis was helping Braxton, she, too, began receiving threats early last year. She received handwritten notes in the mail with swastikas and derogatory names such as the n-word and b-word. One of the letters had a drawing of her and Braxton being lynched.
Another letter said they had been watching her at the food distribution site and hoped she and Braxton died. They also made reference to her children, she said. Lewis provided photos of the letters, but Capital B will not publish them. In October, Lewis and her children found their house burned to the ground. The cause was undetermined, but she thinks it may have been connected.
“This seemed like the 1930s and in the ’50s. I thought we were in 2022, now 2023,” Lewis told Capital B at Wallace Community College-Selma. “It was just an eye-opener. More than made me afraid, it made me angry. It was something that made me say either you can back up, but then what would you have gained from this? [Braxton] does need the help, and the town does need change.”
Lewis, Sebastian, and Braxton continued to look for attorneys that would take the case. Braxton filed a complaint in Alabama’s circuit court last November, but his attorney at the time stopped answering his calls. In January, they found a new attorney, Richard Rouco, who filed an amended complaint in federal court.
“He went through a total of five attorneys prior to me meeting them last year, and they pretty much took his money. We ran into some big law firms who were supposed to help and they kind of misled him,” Lewis says.
Right now, the lawsuit is in the early stages, Rouco says, and the two central issues of the case center on whether the previous council with Stokes were elected as they claim and if they gave proper notice.
Braxton and his team say they are committed to still doing the work in light of the lawsuit. Despite the obstacles, Braxton is running for mayor again in 2025. Through AlabamaLove.org, the group is raising money to provide voter education and registration, and address food security and youth programming. Additionally, they all hope they can finally bring their vision of a new Newbern to life.
For Braxton, it’s bringing grocery and convenience stores to the town. Quarles wants an educational and recreational center for children. Williams, the First Baptist Church minister, wants to build partnerships to secure grants in hopes of getting internet and more stores.
“I believe we done put a spark to the rocket, and it’s going [to get ready] to fire away,” Williams says at his church. “This rocket ready to fire away, and it’s been hovering too long.”
Correction: In Newbern, Alabama, 29% of the Black population lives below the poverty line. An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage.