Our Sunday Long Read this week of Juneteenth comes from ProPublica, the painful story of Cecelia Lewis, an award-winning Black middle school principal hired as the first diversity administrator in Cherokee County, Georgia's school district.
In April of 2021, Cecelia Lewis had just returned to Maryland from a house-hunting trip in Georgia when she received the first red flag about her new job.
The trip itself had gone well. Lewis and her husband had settled on a rental home in Woodstock, a small city with a charming downtown and a regular presence on best places to live lists. It was a short drive to her soon-to-be office at the Cherokee County School District and less than a half hour to her husband’s new corporate assignment. While the north Georgia county was new to the couple, the Atlanta area was not. They’d visited several times in recent years to see their son, who attended Georgia Tech.
Lewis, a middle school principal, initially applied for a position that would bring her closer to the classroom as a coach for teachers. But district leaders were so impressed by her interview that they encouraged her to apply instead for a new opening they’d created: their first administrator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
DEI-focused positions were becoming more common in districts across the country, following the 2020 protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The purpose of such jobs typically is to provide a more direct path for addressing disparities stemming from race, economics, disabilities and other factors.
At first, the scope of the role gave Lewis pause. In her current district, these responsibilities were split among several people, and she’d never held a position dedicated to anything as specific as that before. But she had served on the District Equity Leadership Team in her Maryland county and felt prepared for this new challenge. She believed the job would allow her, as she put it, to analyze the district’s “systemic and instructional practices” in order to better support “the whole child.”
“We’re so excited to add Cecelia to the CCSD family,” Superintendent Brian Hightower said in the district’s March 2021 announcement about all of its new hires. (The announcement noted that the creation of the DEI administrator role “stems from input from parents, employees and students of color who are serving on Dr. Hightower’s ad hoc committees formed this school year to focus on the topic.”) Hightower acknowledged “both her impressive credentials and enthusiasm for the role” and pointed out that, “In four days, she had a DEI action plan for us.”
During her early visits, Lewis found Cherokee County to be a welcoming place. It reminded her of her community in southern Maryland, where everyone knew one another. But leaving the place where she’d been raised — and where, aside from her undergrad years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she’d spent most of her adult life — wasn’t going to be easy. Before her last day as principal of her middle school, her staff created a legacy wall in her honor, plastering a phrase above student lockers that Lewis would say to end the morning messages each day: “If no one’s told you they care about you today, know that I do ... and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it!”
Lewis was beginning to prepare for her move South, spending as much time with friends and family as possible, when she got a strange call from an official in her new school district. The person on the line — Lewis won’t say who — asked if she had ever heard of CRT.
Lewis responded, “Yes — culturally responsive teaching.” She was thinking of the philosophy that connects a child’s cultural background to what they learn in school. For Lewis, who’d studied Japanese and Russian in college and more recently traveled to Ghana with the Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad program for teachers, language and culture were essential to understanding anyone’s experience.
At that point, she wasn’t even familiar with the other CRT, critical race theory, which maintains that racial bias is embedded in America’s laws and institutions and has caused disproportionate harm to people of color. In a speech the previous fall, then-President Donald Trump condemned CRT as “toxic propaganda” and “ideological poison.”
The caller then told Lewis that a group of people in a wealthy neighborhood in the northern part of the county were upset about what they believed were her intentions to bring CRT to Cherokee County. But don’t worry, the district official said; we just want to keep you updated.
What happened next made national news, or at least, FOX News. Angry white racists mobilized thanks to astroturf groups specifically designed to "warn parents about the horrors of CRT" and they didn't just chase Lewis and her family out of Cherokee County, when she decided to quit and then get a job in Cobb County and Atlanta, the same parents hunted her down and told Cobb County schools that they would end up on FOX News next if they didn't fire her immediately.
And they did fire her. They chased Lewis out of the state entirely.
The same story is being repeated all over the country. Every school teacher, administrator, and employee is suspect of belonging to the "cult of CRT" until proven innocent by a jury of enraged white parents.
Increasingly, public education is now the enemy of MAGAs
An enemy that needs to be destroyed by any way possible.