Alabama town's first Black mayor claims he's been locked out by white predecessor
“I want to take my rightful seat," Patrick Braxton tells ABC News.
The Black mayor of a tiny Alabama town says he has been blocked from his mayoral duties since 2020 by the town’s white former mayor amid allegations that race has played a role in keeping him out of office.
Patrick Braxton alleges in a federal lawsuit that his predecessor locked him out of Newbern's town hall shortly after he took office three years ago.
“I want to take my rightful seat, and I want to hold each and every one of them accountable for what they did,” Braxton told ABC News.
Braxton was the only one who filed candidacy paperwork with the county clerk by the town's 2020 mayoral election deadline, so he won by default. Months later, he was sworn in by a state judge. And, like previous mayors before him, he appointed his own city council members, who were sworn in that same evening.
The council members told ABC News that, in a town where 85% of the residents are Black, it felt good to finally have a city council that looked more like the people they serve.
After Braxton was sworn in, he said there didn’t seem to be any problems. Braxton says he met with the former mayor, who handed him the keys and “walked off.”
And early on, Braxton said there was no debate that the incumbent mayor was being replaced. In a city resolution that was signed by the former mayor, the city confirmed that Braxton was "declared to the office of mayor."
Braxton and his council members say they were able to have one meeting at the town hall. But they said when they returned the next day, the doors were locked, barring them from entry.
“I feel that it is all about race, and I don’t mind saying that that’s what it’s about, because I’ve lived here all my life,” Janice Quarles, one of the Black council members, told ABC News.
“I’m not trying to divide the town. I just want to make the town better,” Braxton said.
Braxton, 56, was born and raised in Newbern, a town of around 200 people. He became its first Black mayor after filing paperwork to declare his candidacy at the county courthouse.
Newbern, an old cotton town that’s barely a mile long, has nearly a dozen churches, but not a single grocery store. The town in Alabama's Black Belt has deep roots in slavery, and even its cemeteries are still racially segregated.
For more than 60 years, both Black and white residents in town, including the former white mayor, say that the job was just handed down from one person to the next.
The mayor prior to Braxton was Haywood Stokes III. His father, Haywood Stokes Jr., who died 10 years ago, preceded his son as mayor.
In response to the federal lawsuit, Stokes and his lawyers “admit the town of Newbern has not held an election for years prior” to decide who leads their constituents. But they deny that there’s any racism or conspiracy to keep Black people out of office.
According to their lawsuit, Braxton and his council are also locked out of the town’s financial accounts at a bank on the other side of the county.
Meanwhile, the Black city council members say that the old city council continues to collect taxes, pay the lawn crews and somehow conduct regular business.
Stokes did not respond to requests to share his side of the dispute. In court filings, he accuses Braxton of living outside the city limits, which, under most circumstances, would disqualify him from being the mayor.
Braxton has more than one home – one outside the official city limits where he lives with his family and one that he uses as his city residence, which he rents.
Stokes also argues in court filings that he is the rightful mayor because of a special election he claims was held to vote with the new city council weeks before Braxton's city council was sworn in. In this alleged special election, according to Stokes' court filings, only the old city council members were qualified to run, and, because of that, they kept their jobs. Stokes says his old city council then put him back in charge.
In his lawsuit, Braxton says his side didn’t even know that a special election had occurred and says that if it did, it took place in secret and that “no notice of a special election…was ever published.”
Activist LaQuenna Lewis has been working to help the mayor and his legal fight. She says she has received threats filled with racial slurs in the mail.
“This is why I just can't say it's not race. I received a lot of hate mail that referenced lynchings and name calling, referenced my children. So, this is personal for me. And this is serious. This isn't a game. And obviously people want it to go away,” Lewis said.
Braxton says he wants the state or federal court to come to town and make things right. But if they don’t, he says he’s not going away and that there will be a real election when his term is up.
Braxton says a white lady once told him that “this town wasn’t ready for a Black mayor.”
To that, he says, “They better get ready, cause I’m here.”
ABC News' Brianti Downing and Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.