Bernita Sims sworn in as mayor of High Point

by Jordan Green

Bernita Sims was sworn as the first African-American mayor of High Point by retired NC Supreme Court Justice Henry Frye in a historic ceremony on Monday night.

Frye also administered the oath to returning council members Becky Smothers, Britt Moore and Foster Douglas, along with newcomers Jeff Golden, Judy Mendenhall, Jay Wagner, Jim Davis and Jason Ewing during the ceremony at High Point Theatre. Sims told an audience of elected officials, family members, campaign supporters and other citizens that she looks forward to engaging the community through three new mayor’s commissions focusing on millennials; youth, education and families; and arts and culture. Sims said the city will continue to collaborate with High Point University and other educational institutions.

“Resurgence and revitalization of our core communities is vital to the success of our city’s continued growth and prosperity,” the new mayor said. “We have much to do to achieve these goals. Our drive to grow the tax base, improve our schools and the quality of education in partnership with Guilford County Schools, to provide quality services to our residents and our commitment to provide the citizens of High Point with a quality of life that meets or exceeds their expectations is part of our mission.

This is a tall order in these economic times, but one that can be achieved with cooperation, communication and commitment by each and every one of our citizens and corporate residents.”

Sims succeeds Smothers, who won an at-large seat in the recent municipal election, as mayor. Mendenhall, who defeated incumbent Ward 3 Councilman Michael Pugh, has also formerly served as mayor.

A discordant note The swearing-in ceremony took place immediately after the adjournment of a city council meeting across the street in the Municipal Building in which outgoing members Pugh, Latimer Alexander IV, Chris Whitley and Jim Corey made their farewell remarks. AB Henley, who is also being replaced on the council, was not present.

Bridget Dawson of Jamestown told council during the public comments segment of the meeting that a High Point police officer treated her in an abusive manner at the scene of a car accident involving her 18-year-old daughter.

Dawson said she asked the officer why he was repeatedly asking her daughter the same question, and the officer responded by throwing her against the car, twisting her arm behind her back and threatening to take her to jail.

She said her husband was able to intervene and talk the officer down, but that the officer flew off the handle when she told her daughter she couldn’t understand why he was acting like that while sitting in the car.

“As I’m talking he runs up, pushes past my husband, reaches over my daughter and starts to pull me out of the car,” Dawson told council members. “He knocks her. I have pictures of her eye where he hit her, trying to get her out of the way. So he grabs me and continues to try to grab me out of the car. So at this point my husband has come back. He says, ‘Come on, sir, you’re not going to be able to do that. You’re not going to be able to continue just doing my wife like that because she did not do anything for this action to take place.’” Then-Mayor Becky Smothers indicated she was aware that Dawson had filed a complaint with the police department.

“I felt like I was being belittled,” Dawson said. “And I felt like a citizen like anyone else. I thought about other children when they don’t have someone else to be a witness. I thought about if I was there by myself what could have happened. I also thought about how I pray for my police officers. I want them to do what they do. But what reason did you have to treat me like this? Do I not have the right to ask you a question?” City Manager Strib Boynton said the police department’s professional standards division was investigating the complaint, and the findings would go to the chief, who in turn would report them to him.

“We take your complaint seriously,” he said. “To come and treat you in that manner, I think that’s unprofessional and unbecoming of an officer,” Councilman Douglas said. “Personally, I can’t think of any reason why that should have occurred. There has been a few times in the past when we’ve had similar situations occur. I know you don’t know anything about that, but I do. We’re supposed to have checks and balances in place to take care of this type of situation, but obviously they’re not working too good.”

Final act After making his farewell remarks, Councilman Pugh stepped down from the dais and walked over to the podium to speak as a citizen. He told his fellow council members that he learned that African- American High Point residents killed in World War I were listed in newspapers with asterisks beside their names denoting ‘negroes,’ and that later the mayor of the city appointed a commission in 1944 that honored white war World War II casualties by giving plaques to their families, but the same honor was not conferred on the black soldiers. He said that African Americans were asked to sit in a balcony during the ceremony.

“Whereas we cannot change history, we can recognize bigotry and injustice,” Pugh said. “And that’s what I’m asking of you.”

The outgoing councilman read a resolution calling on the city to recognize the African-American casualties of World War I and World War II with a plaque with a gold star “for each soldier that paid the ultimate price” to be displayed in a prominent place in the council chamber.

Sims seconded a motion to suspend the rules to allow the resolution, and council voted unanimously to adopt it.