In June 2019, shortly after James Whitfield, a Black educator, was hired as the principal of a middle school in Colleyville, Texas, an administrator with the school district called and asked him to take down photos on Facebook that showed him and his wife, who is white, embracing intimately on a beach.
Puzzled why someone had dug up 10-year-old images of the couple celebrating their anniversary in Mexico, Whitfield nonetheless complied by changing the settings to “Only Me.” But the photos have now resurfaced amid a controversy over racism that erupted in the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District after Whitfield on Saturday wrote a Facebook post about the request. Some have publicly called for Whitfield to be fired, citing unrelated messages in which he invoked race, while others have circulated a petition in support of his work.
When Whitfield, 43, asked what was wrong with the photos, “The response was ‘nothing,’” he recalled in an interview Wednesday. “Then they proceeded to say: ‘We just don’t want to get stuff stirred up. So if you could take it down, we would appreciate it.’”
From that moment, Whitfield said, he had a sense that issues of race would overshadow his tenure as a Black educator rising in the ranks of the district’s public school system.
“I knew what would come one day,” he said. “I knew a day like this would be here.”
Whitfield said he wrote the post — the first time he has addressed his situation publicly — because he could no longer be silent after he was criticized July 26 during a previously scheduled board meeting that was open to residents of the district, where he is now the first Black principal at Colleyville Heritage High School.
At the meeting, Whitfield found himself thrust into some of the most pressing racial debates in the United States, including loaded discussions of critical race theory, last summer’s protests after the death of George Floyd, and programs meant to ensure equality and diversity.
“For the better part of the last year, I’ve been told repeatedly to just ‘get around the fact that there are some racist people’ and ‘just deal with it and stay positive’ each time the racist tropes reared their heads, but I will stay silent no longer,” Whitfield wrote.
“I am not the CRT (Critical Race Theory) Boogeyman,” he wrote. “I am the first African American to assume the role of Principal at my current school in its 25-year history, and I am keenly aware of how much fear this strikes in the hearts of a small minority who would much rather things go back to the way they used to be.”
Critical race theory seeks to understand the roots and persistence of racial disparities, but some of its opponents insist that acknowledging racism is itself racist. Whitfield said in the interview that such studies are “doctoral level” and are not a framework taught at his school.
In a statement, the district did not address the July 26 meeting, at which the photographs were not raised, but it said the request to remove them in 2019 was meant to provide a “smooth transition” just as Whitfield was preparing to lead Heritage Middle School.
“When a social media concern is brought to the attention of the district, we have a responsibility to review it,” it said. “Some of the photos the district received contained poses that are questionable for an educator, especially a principal or administrator. It had absolutely nothing to do with race.”
The district distributed the photos to news organizations when asked about them.
According to Whitfield, the remarks at the board meeting — which he said struck just the sort of tone he had suspected would come his way after the request to delete the photos — sought to hold him, as a Black educator, to a different standard.
Some speakers who identified themselves as parents complained of a “social justice” focus in the curriculum or criticized “political activism” concerning race in the district, which includes most of Grapevine and Colleyville, as well as other parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A woman pushed back at the “blatant bigotry and hate” at the meeting, and another, critical of the tone, said “racism exists.”
The only person to mention the principal by name at the forum was a man introduced as Stetson Clark, who said he and “many” others were concerned about the “implementation of critical race theory in our district,” which he said aligned with “the views and goals” of Whitfield.
Clark said he was “first made aware of Mr. Whitfield’s extreme views on race” when a friend shared a letter written by Whitfield that was sent to parents and students last year that he said showed the principal was concerned about systemic racism, which Clark described as a “conspiracy theory.”
He was interrupted by a board member, who reminded him that it was against policy to cite employees by name. As shouts of “fire him” erupted from the audience, Clark pressed on, saying Whitfield’s letter was “encouraging all members of our community to become revolutionaries by becoming anti-racists.”
Although Clark was reprimanded a second time, he mentioned other objections.
“Because of his extreme views, I ask that a full review of Mr. Whitfield’s tenure in our district be examined and that his contract be terminated effective immediately,” Clark continued, prompting hearty applause and whoops of approval from some in the audience.
In its statement, the district said Clark had violated procedures by criticizing an employee by name and it would not be allowed again.
In his July 31 Facebook post, Whitfield responded to some of the criticisms. He said he had sent a message to parents and students about Floyd’s murder, which took place about a week after he became principal. The message said Floyd “added to the ever-growing list of Black Americans who have lost their lives because of the color of their skin.”
Whitfield also responded to Clark’s complaint about books he has recommended. Whitfield said he has quoted from “A Fool’s Errand,” a book by the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and for his support of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In the interview with Whitfield, he said he had received an “overwhelming outpouring of support” from parents, students and other educators. By Thursday, more than 1,000 people had signed the online petition #IStandWithDrWhitfield and bolstered his messages on Twitter.
But he said he had moved on, focusing on a new school year and his nearly 2,000 students from families who speak over 54 different languages at home.
“My job is to make sure that they feel welcome and that they are going to get a strong education,” he said.