Like a lot of small towns in the counties pushed hard up against the Louisiana border, Huttig, in Union County, has seen better days. At the elementary school, which closed in 2008 after the local plywood mill shut down, a sign out front reads "Gone with the Wind," grass grows in the cracks in the parking lot, and the windows in the gymnasium hang mostly shattered.
But financial woes aside, most of the folks in town seemed to get along fairly well until earlier this year, when the city's long-time police chief, who is white, was fired by the town's mayor, the first black to ever hold that office. Since then, pets have been poisoned, threatening letters have been sent to the mayor and KKK-themed graffiti has been sprayed around town.
Huttig, population 731, elected Tony Cole as its mayor in 2010. Though the six-member city council is evenly divided between white and black, as is the population of the town, Cole is the first African-American to ever run for mayor in Huttig, much less win. His tenure so far has been anything but smooth. Letters and graffiti started appearing soon after he moved to fire Huttig police chief Byron Sartor in January. Cole, who had worked as a police officer in Huttig for three years before becoming police chief of nearby Strong in 2007, claims he identified a pattern in Sartor's arrests and ticket writing.
"I try to keep away from assumptions, because you can make a mess of yourself," Cole said. "I went back and checked police records, tickets, arrests, things of that nature. All of them, pretty much, were [against] blacks, and whites that deal with blacks."
Sartor was rehired as a police officer by the city council, but officially let go in August for what Cole said was improper use of a city-owned vehicle. Cole said he believes supporters of the former chief are the source of the letters and signs. Attempts to reach Byron Sartor for comment were unsuccessful at press time.
Cole describes the letters he's received as "full of hate," with a barely literate one beginning "Dear Tony the Ape." He has forwarded them to the FBI. In addition, "KKK" and "KKK is here" have been spray-painted onto buildings around town. In March, over a dozen dogs in town — many of them, Cole said, belonging to those who are understood to support the former police chief — died after being fed what a veterinarian later determined were millet seeds coated in strychnine, a common rodent poison. Someone hung a hand-lettered sign near a local swamp which warned that the alligator-infested slough would be the "swimming hole" of Cole and the husband of a black city council member. The weekend before Thanksgiving, somebody threw small white crosses, hand-lettered with "KKK" in red, into the yard of Cole's house and four other locations around town, including the lot of a businesses owned by a black alderman. The same night, a sign showed up across from City Hall which said Cole should resign. Cole, who was born in Oklahoma City, suspects that the sentiment that has come out of the woodwork since he was elected might be the reason he was the first black candidate for mayor. He said his primary goal as mayor has been to find ways to bring black and white together.
"I have a mixed grandbaby, and I don't want him to grow up worrying about color," Cole said. "It shouldn't be an issue. Everybody is human, whether you're black, white, green or purple. We have to learn how to love. If we learn how to start loving, we'll get rid of all the hate."
Laura Manning is a city council member in Huttig. Her husband has been the focus of some of the incidents this year, including being singled out on the "swimming hole" sign. She said that blacks and whites have always gotten along well in Huttig, and thinks the case is "being handled the wrong way by being taken to the media." She believes those responsible for the letters and signs don't even live in town.
"There are good people in Huttig, black and white," she said. "But in every town there are going to be some bad people. ... This is my town, and I love my town. I don't want to do anything to put it in a bad light. As my mama said: The more you stir it, the more it's going to stink."
Union County Sheriff Mike McGough said his office is investigating the incidents in Huttig. He said the FBI is also aware of what's going on there, though he doesn't know if they plan to formally investigate. McGough believes the invocation of "KKK" is simply meant to frighten black residents, and isn't an indication of organized KKK activity in Union County.
"There are supporters and non-supporters [of Sartor], and those are the two groups that are the center of the controversy down there," McGough said. "There's been some graffiti sprayed around town, and if we identify who did it, we'll arrest them."
McGough said it's sad that the town is divided. "The community just has to get together," he said. "The leaders and the city council need to sit down and, instead of yelling at each other and spray painting up the town, they need to talk to one another — to talk about their differences and resolve them in an adult way."
Cole is staying positive. He helped start a group of community leaders who meet to try to resolve issues in Huttig, and calls the letters and anonymous signs acts of cowardice. He said he doesn't worry about being personally harmed. "I've made no changes. I live my life," he said. "I'm a praying man, a God-fearing man, so things like this don't get up under my skin. But I do worry for other families, as well as my own family. I feel like I can take care of myself and protect myself, but you can't be everywhere at the same time."
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