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Seeking inclusivity, small town makes history

As much as the town’s history has informed its identity, it is not immune from change.
Donsenia Teel, Deborah Brooks and Vershumn \"Shawn\" Hawkins
Donsenia Teel, Deborah Brooks and Vershumn \"Shawn\" Hawkins at a voter registration drive ahead of the 2019 off-year election in which Teel and Brooks would win city council seats and Hawkins would be elected mayor, September 27, 2019.

High stakes and high turnout marked last Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. The election in the Plymouth, North Carolina, a small town near the Roanoke River, was significant in its own right.

Vershumn “Shawn” Hawkins was elected mayor of Plymouth, North Carolina capturing 55.7% of the vote. Hawkins is the town’s first black mayor. The national census estimates about 3,599 people lived in Plymouth as of last summer, with 69.5% of the residents self-identifying as black.

Plymouth is a coastal town in northeastern North Carolina, and prides itself on its “wholesome lifestyle, rich in cultural history, along with a deep commitment to the preservation of our environment.” It was also the site of an 1862 Confederate battle that’s been described as “the most effective Confederate combined-arms operation of the Civil War.”

As much as the town’s history has informed its identity, it is not immune from change.

“We’ve had the same mayor for approximately 20 years and there’s not been a progressive movement in terms of forward movement here in the town of Plymouth.”

“We’ve been lying stagnant,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins previously served as a councilmember of Ward 3 in Plymouth for two years. He ran with the campaign slogan “New Leadership. New Ideas. Real Results,” and beat incumbent Brian Roth, who had held the seat since 2001.

The new mayor has made inclusivity a primary focus of his upcoming term.

Hawkins points to an example one winter when he was serving as a council member during a town hall. The elected officials decided to move to a closed session, leaving citizens with nowhere to go but literally out in the cold.

“Unfortunately the community has been left out,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of individuals, of course, who have been in those positions who are running the town that had been working on personal agendas and not the agenda of what the community wants.”

With just over 250 Facebook likes on his campaign page, a viral Twitter thread from Cliff Albright has spread the word of this victory.

Albright is one of the co-founders of Black Voters Matter, an advocacy group aimed expanding voter registration and electing representative officials in local elections.

“After some canvassing, texting and strategic support, folks in Plymouth have made history tonight,” Albright tweeted.

The town also held elections to fill council seats. Donsenia Teel and Deborah Brooks, two women of color, won for Ward 1. Having three of the six council seats filled by people of color marks another historic first for the town. Teel said she felt compelled to run and bring more recreational activities to the community.

“I had an incident earlier in the year and didn’t get the help I needed,” Teel said. “Instead of complaining, I decided to be the change I wanted to see.”

The motivation for Hawkins was similar.

“I had several unpleasant encounters with the town,” he said. “I thought, hey if I’m experiencing a lot of these challenges I can only imagine how others are experiencing them. I wanted to actually be the voice of the people.”

Hawkins hopes that his story will inspire others, and encourages people to be active in their local governments.

“[Local elections are] more important in my opinion than your presidential election because your local government handles and deals with what happens in your life on a daily basis in the town that you live in,” Hawkins said.