In the Board of County Commissioners meeting on Thursday, Commissioner Eric Bouchat withdrew his initiative to establish a diversity commission after the president of Carroll County’s NAACP chapter expressed her opposition toward it.
In the commissioners’ previous meeting on June 18, Bouchat, R-District 4, proposed the diversity commission initiative — which the commissioners decided to rename from the African American Heritage Commission — and received support from the rest of the board. They discussed holding a panel to hear thoughts and opinions from the community on the initiative.
The board didn’t get that far. Jean Lewis, the president of the NAACP chapter, reached out to Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, to say she opposed it.
“I expressed opposition because when the commissioner, Bouchat, started talking, he talked as though he had already spoken with us and dealt with the NAACP,” Lewis said in an interview with the Times. “My opposition was the things that he has thought we should be doing, we have done. The organizations that he suggested, we work together as a group.”
Bouchat previously said he’d like for the commission to look into memorials to lynching victims and Black Americans who served in the Civil War, but Lewis said the NAACP chapter has already been engaged in projects to do both.
She said the chapter has been involved with rededications at Ellsworth Cemetery in Westminster, where Black veterans are buried. And she said the chapter is involved with the Carroll County Coalition of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, which began meeting in February to discuss ways to bring awareness and improved understanding of lynching history.
According to Wantz, after Lewis spoke with him, the board took a step back.
Wantz said, “We’re pulling back the reins to allow for the groups that have been putting the sweat and tears into doing all this research and let them do their job.”
Lewis said she was speaking as an individual, but discussed it with the rest of the NAACP board members.
“We met [Thursday] night, and there was total agreement that we do not do this diversity thing that Commissioner Bouchat introduced,” Lewis said. “Now put your money where your mouth is. We have two main events through the year, I personally send invitations, some of the commissioners come; where’s Bouchat? He wasn’t there when we did the [Ellsworth] cemetery dedication on two occasions. So, there are things that could have been and should have been done that weren’t done.” The two events she referred are the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast and the annual Freedom Fund Banquet.
Bouchat told the Times he did not recall attending those events, though he noted he has been in office only for about a year and a half. The commissioners often rotate on who attends various events. He also said he attends Maryland Lynching Memorial Project meetings and “could try and help with county side of it since it is public property.”
Lewis said the NAACP chapter has a relationship with other commissioners on the board and have worked with them on things, but there are still things that need to be done.
She also expressed concern that the commission would fall by the wayside.
“What was going to be the end result? Was this going to be a group that was founded and it would be dropped after an election cycle? Your support would not be there after that? I don’t think it was necessarily heartfelt,” Lewis said. “They were going to do some research on what they would do. Once they changed it from African American, then they said minority and diversity, you water it down because your interest is not on we as Black people.”
Bouchat said his plan for the commission was to establish a forum connected to the government, with representatives of all the interested parties, who could meet with residents, gather input, and help develop policies to bring before the board that would be reflective of what residents want.
Bouchat said he decided to start the commission after being invited to a meeting with Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, and alumni of the former Robert Moton High School who have expressed a desire to create a museum at the Moton Center, which stands where the school once did. This was also something that Bouchat mentioned as a goal for the commission.
If Bouchat had reached out to the NAACP, Lewis said, then they would have told him how they are working with the former students of Robert Moton as a team.
Lewis said she has participated in civil rights tours in the South where formerly segregated schools have been given to the African American community and the counties have supported them. Lewis said Carroll County didn’t do this, saying the commissioners gave the Former Students and Friends of Robert Moton High School group a room for their museum, rather than the entire building.
“They were given a room in a hallway, and that was their school; the cinderblock building, where all the white schools in Carroll County were brick buildings,” she said. “They’ve asked for a place so they could have a museum, and they should have given them that place back.”
Bouchat said he hopes to revisit the idea of the commission later on.
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“I feel very passionately about this subject, and I’d love to see it move forward,” he said. “If there’s disagreement within the NAACP about this subject matter, then it’s up to them to discuss it amongst themselves and come to a consensus with their constituency. If they want to move forward in the future, I’d love to hear that from them, if they want to maintain where it’s at now, not do anything, I can respect that as well.”