In 1944, Audrey Tutt Smith of Luray attended her first day of school at the age of 6.
On Saturday, over 75 years later, Smith stood waiting outside the old schoolhouse-turned-community center for a protest calling for Mayor Barry Presgraves’ resignation to begin.
“Who would have thought how many years later, we’re back in the same place,” Smith, 81, said.
The Luray protest was organized by town resident Michelle Billings in response to a controversial Facebook post by Presgraves a week before.
The post read “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick.”
Aunt Jemima, a breakfast brand from Quaker Oats, was retired in June after the firm said the Black character’s origins were “based on a racial stereotype,” according to The Associated Press.
The Biden campaign has made clear its intention to pick a woman of color as Biden’s vice presidential running mate, according to The Associated Press.
“It is and it was racist,” Smith said of Presgraves’ post, adding she found no humor in what Presgraves said was a joke.
Over 100 people attended the protest, which began with speeches outside the West Luray Recreation Center before the crowd started to head toward the town office downtown.
“I do want to express that we are marching in peace,” Billings said over a bullhorn outside the rec center. The crowd applauded.
Local law enforcement, including from the Luray Police Department and the Page County Sheriff’s Office, helped to guide traffic around the protest.
At several instances, three motorcyclists, two together and one alone, tried to disturb the protest by revving their engines over speakers’ comments, according to Luray Police Chief C.S. “Bow” Cook.
The most intense moment came when two vehicles started loudly honking at each other as the motorcyclists revved their engines pulling into the lot across from the town office while the protesters were again giving speeches adjacent to the Luray town offices across the road, according to Cook.
“All in all, it went well as far as the protection and security,” Cook said Sunday.
Cook said he had been in constant talks with groups to make sure the event went peacefully, but he found out the morning of the march that the Shenandoah Socialist Collective would be attending.
He said he was told by Town Council member Leah Pence, who has been vocal about Presgraves stepping down and marched with protesters and gave a speech Saturday.
Members of the Shenandoah Socialist Collective attended the event with handguns holstered, but Cook said they were there to protect protesters and help deescalate tensions if they rose between protesters and counterprotesters.
Cook said law enforcement did research on groups that may have attended the event to minimize the risk of a fight or conflict breaking out.
In the lot facing the town offices, a handful of counterprotesters held a sign in support of the mayor.
The counterprotesters declined to give their names, but said there was a political motive behind trying to remove Presgraves from office for what they considered a joke about Biden’s senility that people are taking too seriously.
They also questioned why there was a protest happening against Presgraves, but there was not as much political pressure when a photo was discovered in Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook featuring someone in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume.
A couple protesters against Presgraves remaining in office told the Daily News-Record Saturday that they agreed that Northam should have been held to account more seriously over the photograph than he was.
One protester was taken into custody at the community center by the police before the march due to unrelated warrants from Rockingham County, according to Cook.
Disabled Army veteran and Page County resident Randy Bunch said the protest was “not uncalled for” as he stood leaning against his truck and watching the protest pass before him.
“Making a statement like that, [Presgraves] can’t lead the town anymore and be respected. He should have kept his mouth shut,” Bunch, 64, said.
However, Bunch added that he did not approve of the Black Lives Matter organization due to some of its political elements.
Luray resident Betsy Kramer said it was “crazy” that somebody would make a post like that given the political climate.
“I have a biracial grandson so it’s crazy just with what’s going on in the world, and the racism needs to stop really,” she said while leaning against a railing outside the Luray Comfort Inn as the protesters’ chants faded as the line rolled over the hill toward the town offices. “We should all love each other.”
Despite the protest, Luray Town Manager Steven Burke told the Daily News-Record Tuesday that unless Presgraves were to resign, little can be done since the Town Council cannot sack him.
“Our town charter does not allow council to remove elected officials. … There is no ability for council to vote out someone,” Burke said. “Citizens have the ability to petition the court to recall a member, but there is no ability for council to take action.”
Presgraves has told local media that he has no intention to resign over the post.
On Tuesday evening, Presgraves posted on social media apologizing for the Aug. 1 post.
“I posted a picture 8-1-20, I am sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings. Lesson learned. It was not my intent to hurt anyone. I took it to be humorous. SORRY,” Presgraves posted.
Presgraves, who has been Luray’s mayor since 2008, is not running for reelection and his term expires this year.