Update: This story has been updated to reflect a statement from Tony McKnight.
On Friday, May 17, a photo of Orange County School Board Chair Will Atherton was sent to The Daily Tar Heel. The photo showed Atherton in a costume, with a brown substance used around his mouth, nose, eyes and chin.
The image and a note were mailed anonymously. The return address on the envelope appears to match the address listed on Board Vice Chair Tony McKnight’s voter registration. It also matches the address listed for him on Orange County’s website.
McKnight said Monday morning in an email that he did not write or send the letter.
"Someone has falsified information in attaching my home address to this document," the email said.
“Come to the Orange County Schools Board of Education meeting and ask the Board Chair Will Atherton about his blackface photo,” the note read.
McKnight, who was elected with Atherton at a May 6 meeting, could not be reached by The Daily Tar Heel for comment at the original time of publishing this article. McKnight did not respond to two calls, an email or a knock on his door on Sunday.
In the picture, taken in 2010, Atherton dons a shaggy brown sweater and brown face paint. The image also appears to show black ears drawn on his forehead.
Atherton said he was playing the role of “Brown Bear” from the children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” in a skit to support Hillsborough Elementary School’s read-a-thon. Two of Atherton’s four children were students at Hillsborough Elementary at the time.
“That’s all it is,” Atherton said. “It’s me dressed up as a parent to support the read-a-thon as Brown Bear.”
Hillsborough Elementary physical education teacher Chris Walker, who was also in the picture and played a detective in the skit, said Atherton did not have any mal intent with his costume.
“It can seem out of place, out of context, if you don’t have all of the information that goes along with it, if you just look at a photo,” Walker said.
Board member Hillary MacKenzie offered an interpretation on the photo.
“I don’t think Will had malicious intentions, but I think it demonstrates his lack of awareness around racism and unconscious bias,” MacKenzie said.
Atherton said he does not believe his costume was insensitive.
This was not the first time the image, which was originally posted on Atherton’s now-inactive campaign website, had been brought up with concerns of blackface.
“I have seen this when I was running for Board of Education,” Atherton said. “This did come up. Someone did send it to some people. Those people fortunately reached out to me.”
The picture sent to The Daily Tar Heel looks to have been a screenshot from Atherton’s website.
The blackface accusation comes just two weeks after former-Board Chair Brenda Stephens was ousted from her position with only three meetings left in her term. The 4-3 vote fell along gender lines. McKnight voted for Atherton to be the new chair.
“My guess is this all has to do with last week’s vote, and it’s someone just trying to do a desperate attempt to discredit me in some way,” Atherton said. “It’s pretty sad.”
The Board of Education will meet Monday, May 20 at 7 p.m. at Gravelly Hill Middle School.
The Daily Tar Heel is committed to covering the Covid-19 outbreak and its impacts on the UNC, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County communities. Our normal print distribution will be altered as the situation continues to evolve.
To make sure you stay informed with reliable accurate news from the DTH, sign up for our newsletters.