By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
For the first time in the city’s history, the Franklin City
Council could have a 4-3 African American majority.
City leaders adopted a redistricting plan based on the 2020 U.S. Census count which noted that there were 5,000 African Americans and 3,000 whites in the city.
The recent redistricting will allow Franklin to join the Hampton Roads cities of Hampton, Newport News, and Portsmouth with majority Black councils due to their population shifts over the past 20 years.
On May 9 members of the council city council voted to adopt a redistricting plan which will give African Americans a 4-2 majority on the council.
The city council had three redistricting map options and chose, by a vote of 5-2, to adopt the proposed Franklin redistricting Map C, which created the four majority-minority districts in the city.
Voting against the adoption were Ward 1 Councilman Mark R. Kitchen and Ward 2 Councilman Ray Smith.
Adoption of Map C take Smith out of Ward 2. But according to Attorney Vivian Seay Giles, he can remain in the Ward 2 seat for the remainder of his current term, which does not end until Dec. 31, 2024.
By then the four majority Black districts will be in place if the Black voters choose an African American to replace Robert “Bobby” Cutchins who is white and
now represents Ward 6.
Ward 6 will have a majority Black voting population, according to the new redistricting map.
During the April 25 City Council meeting the panel was unable to decide on its redistricting plan. The vote on Map C during that meeting resulted in a 3-3 tie, with Mayor Frank M. Rabil joining Kitchen and Smith in voting against it and Ward 6 Councilman and Vice Mayor Robert “Bobby” Cutchins abstaining.
Currently, there are three African Americans on council—Greg McLemore, (Ward 3) the longest serving; Linwood Johnson (Ward 4); and Wynndolyn H. Copeland (Ward 5)—and four white men.
The transition to an African American majority will take place in November when three of the seats (3, 5, and 6 ) will be up for election on the ballot.
The council’s choice did not arrive without some tension and drama.
McLemore, who has been the most outspoken and assertive of the Black council members during his 12-year-long tenure worked to steer the panel toward this change.
He said he had some unexpected help from the City Manager and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC) which prepared proposed redistricting plans A, B, and C.
Plans A and B would have retained the redistricting lines contrived after the 2010 redistricting cycle which had three majority Black districts.
According to McLemore, after the April 25 council impasse, Franklin City Manager Amanda C. Jarratt consulted the HRPDC which drew up Map C featuring four majority-minority districts.
Opponents of Map C on council and citizens said it was an example of racial gerrymandering.
The City Attorney indicated that Map C was indeed legal in nature.
The minority Black districts will be in effect after the November elections when the Office of Mayor and Wards 3, 5, and 6 will be on the ballot.
According to numbers in redistricting Map C, Ward 6 which is now represented by Robert “Bobby” Cutchins will shift from a majority White District to an African American district.The district will be roughly 44% white and 49% African American.
As in most cities, the council selects members of some of the most powerful board and commissions, including the School Board and Planning Commission.
Several Black civic leaders have already hinted at running for the seat this fall.
At the end of the Council meeting where the voting maps were approved, McLemore led a round of applause signifying the historic moment.
But he and Black civic and political leaders are well of the low percentage of voting across the city – 20 percent.
Those numbers were later provided from the last May election.
‘This is a great victory for the Black community and
Franklin as a whole,” said McLemore. “But Black people must make the best of it, We[ve got to get out and vote and not sit on our hands.”