Beckley council has votes to enact CROWN Act

Woodrow Wilson High School student Matt Moore and his mother Tarsha Bolt pose for a photo together during a visit to the Register-Herald offices last year. (Register-Herald file photo)

While a bill that protects Black West Virginians from hair discrimination is stalled in the state Legislature, Beckley Human Rights Commission is recommending that the city pass a local ordinance to protect the roughly 4,000 city residents who are affected. 

A majority of the seven-member Beckley Common Council have pledged support for such a local ordinance, once the HRC presents it to Council, they told The Register-Herald on Saturday.

Nearly identical CROWN Act bills, which seek to legally prohibit discrimination based on certain hair textures and hairstyles, have been presented to the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. Republican committee chairs in both chambers have refused to take up the bill for discussion.

Both Morgantown and Charleston have already passed local ordinances to offer the protection to Black citizens and others while they are inside city limits. Charleston Common Council member Tiffany Wesley-Plear told Charleston Council that Black women, in particular, have grown up being preached to about beauty standards that were developed for white women.

A 2019 study found that Black women are 80 percent more likely to change their hairstyles to "fit in" in a professional setting.

Tarsha Bolt, a member of HRC, had pushed for the CROWN Act to pass the Legislature in 2019 after her son was told to remove his dreadlocks in order to play basketball at Woodrow Wilson High School. Bolt said in 2019 that there was no cohesive policy at the school regarding Black hairstyles, which meant that her son had been following U.S. Army policy when he wore the dreadlocks for his Junior Reserves Officers Training Course (JROTC) but that he was in violation of the basketball team's standard.

When the boy removed his dreadlocks to play basketball, she said, his hair no longer met the JROTC standard.

Dr. Kristi Dumas, also a member of the HRC, said that Black women and girls are are sent the message that they must separate themselves from their race and culture in order to assimilate into workplaces that promote Eurocentric standards of professionalism. She wants a city ordinance to ensure that Black citizens cannot be discriminated against if they choose to wear their natural hair, ethnic styles or protective hairstyles like box braids and locks. 

Ward V Councilwoman Janine Bullock, who represents the city's most racially diverse ward, said she will support a hair protection ordinance if it appears before council but did not elaborate.

"I will support the 'CROWN Act' ordinance," stated Bullock, who is currently the only Black member of Beckley Common Council.

At-Large Councilman Sherrie Hunter said she will also support a local ordinance that protects Black and ethnic residents from discrimination based on hair texture or ethnic or protective style.

"I will strongly support an ordinance to protect against hair discrimination," Hunter said. "I will be a 'yes' vote for the ordinance presented by the Beckley Human Rights Commission.

"I want everyone to feel welcome in the city of Beckley, regardless of the texture of their hair."

Ward I Councilman Tom Sopher said he plans to support the ordinance.

"I feel it may need to be expanded," he added. "What about beards, or what about safety and health concerns?"

He did not offer additional information.

Ward III Councilman Robert Dunlap, a local attorney and developer, is a member of the Beckley Human Rights Commission and had supported the proposed state CROWN Act last year, which state lawmakers did not pass. He plans to vote in favor of protections for Black hair.

"The Commission has already taken a position on the CROWN Act last year," said Dunlap. "I was involved in writing the resolution in support of the CROWN Act last year, and certainly, nothing has changed my perspective about reducing and eliminating discrimination in all forms."

Ward II Councilman Bob Canter was not immediately available for comment on Saturday.

At-Large Councilman Cody Reedy and Ward IV Councilman Kevin Price both said they will learn more about the proposed ordinance before making a decision.

Mayor Rob Rappold, when asked if he endorses the upcoming ordinance, stated, "Anytime we can help our city be more open minded and accepting, I am in total support."

In January 2019, Council amended the city's human rights ordinance to extend protections to include sexual orientation and gender identification. Rappold voiced support for the ordinance, which West Virginia University-Institute of Technology had officially endorsed.

Price and Bullock voted against the amendment in 2019. Canter, Dunlap and Reedy were on council in 2019.

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