Greenville, North Carolina, Wrestles With Fallout of Donald Trump’s Rally and ‘Send Her Back’ Chants

President Donald Trump listens to a question during an interview with The Associated Press in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Welcome to Greenville,” the Rev. Bob Hudak wrote in an open letter to Donald Trump before the president’s visit this month to his North Carolina home. The reverend extolled Greenville as a “growing city with an extraordinarily diverse population of citizens.”

He pointed to East Carolina University, where Trump was to hold his campaign rally July 17, and to Vidant Medical Center, which serves a 29-county region. Both institutions, he wanted the president to know, were among the reasons the community of nearly 100,000 attracted so many immigrants.

Hudak, who has worked with interfaith leaders to build a sense of  inclusiveness, was distraught when Trump used his rally to continue his attacks on four congresswomen of color who, the president tweeted, should return to the countries “from which they came.”

Chants of “Send her back!” erupted in the arena of East Carolina University after Trump singled out Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.

Recounting the events that put Greenville in the national spotlight, Hudak placed his hand over his chest during an interview with USA TODAY last week.

“It’s breaking my heart,” the 71-year-old retired Episcopal priest said. “Things not only don’t seem to be getting better, but people are more entrenched, and racism is a card that’s being played whether people want to admit it or not.”

More than a week after the rally, the chants continued to reverberate throughout Greenville.

City leaders were eager to show that the sentiments are not reflective of the community. Although the university did not sponsor the event, officials responded to angry alumni threatening to withhold donations and reassured parents that a hijab-wearing daughter or dark-skinned son would be safe on campus.

Stunned by the backlash

Although the city’s mayor is among the Trump supporters who denounced the chants, others who attended the rally are stunned by the backlash.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” said Diane Rufino, a founder of the local tea party organization. “They see racism where it doesn’t exist.”

Trump ignited another controversy with a tweet Saturday criticizing Baltimore – a majority-black city – as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess ” where “no human being would want to live.” The comments were part of a tirade against the city’s black congressman, Elijah Cummings.

As Trump’s words roil Baltimore and as Greenville wrestles with the aftermath of his rally, the president plans to hold his next campaign event Thursday in Cincinnati, a city that exploded in riots in 2001 after a police officer shot an unarmed African American man.

Greenville, once a leading tobacco marketing and warehouse center, is slightly more than half white, 38% black and 5% Hispanic. Unemployment is less than 5%.

On the grounds of the Pitt County Courthouse is a monument to “our Confederate dead.” A petition to remove the statue was circulated in 2017, sparking a counter petition to protect the monument.

At the first stoplight in Greenville, visitors are greeted by a welcome sign that boasts, “We are building an inclusive community.”

The city has grown 50% since 2000, and signs of the expansion are everywhere. There’s a new transportation hub, a new cancer center and a $30 million new road connecting the Vidant Medical Center and the university, two of the area’s major employers – along with companies that make boats, forklifts, pharmaceuticals and hammocks.

A billboard marks the future site of a $90 million life sciences and biotechnology building that ECU is constructing. The school’s new student center opened this year. ECU owns a swath of old tobacco warehouses waiting to be repurposed.

“If we want to continue to grow, we want to have a great image,” Mayor P.J. Connelly said, promoting what the city has to offer but expressing concern about possible damage from the rally.

On the banks of the Tar River in the Town Common is a new “inclusive playground” where children in wheelchairs can roll into a swing. At the park’s other end, a memorial is being constructed to the former Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church. A plaza area will tell the story of a former tightknit African American community that was moved out of the 20-acre public space through an urban renewal program decades ago over which there are lingering hard feelings.

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Source: USA Today