In response to a request made under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, the Charleston County School District recently released e-mail records in which district employees and school board members discussed the investigation of a controversial postgame ritual involving the smashing of a watermelon by the Academic Magnet High School football team.
Among other things, the e-mails show that Superintendent Nancy McGinley initially resisted a push to remove Coach Eugene “Bud” Walpole from his coaching position. The episode and its aftermath ultimately culminated in McGinley’s resignation, and it also sparked discussion of the lack of racial diversity at the district-wide magnet school.
The investigation centered around claims of racial insensitivity on the part of the football program. Most teams on the Raptors’ 2014 season schedule are from majority-black schools, and the ritual reportedly included drawing a face on the watermelon, smashing and eating it near the field after a victory, and making what McGinley would later describe as “monkey sounds.”
According to the e-mails, some parents and players said they were unaware of the racist stereotype involving African-Americans and watermelons. It’s a trope that dates back to 19th-century minstrel shows, and it has made headlines as recently as October 2014, when a political cartoon in the Boston Herald depicted an intruder asking President Barack Obama whether he had tried watermelon-flavored toothpaste. One parent accused the district employees in charge of the investigation with bullying students; another wrote, “Our team and students are utterly confused about any wrong doing and are now flustered for their most important game of the season.”
In an Oct. 13 e-mail to McGinley, AMHS Principal Judith Peterson said that, for the most part, she saw no problem with the watermelon ritual. “I am confident that it has been done with spirit but in good taste because I trust the coaches,” Peterson wrote. But the team’s Oct. 10 celebration, Peterson wrote, “was different.” That night, after a hard-fought 20-19 victory over Garrett Academy of Technology, the team returned to their school’s campus during a freshman lock-in.
“The coaches ducked into a room to talk, but the team ran into the courtyard and smashed a watermelon on the patio,” Peterson wrote. “They were loud and running into the patio, and the teachers in charge of our 9th-grade event that evening did have to speak to them, find the coaches, and have them clean up the watermelon.”
According to Peterson, she spoke with Walpole the following Monday afternoon, and “he said he and the coaching staff were disciplining the players for this action.” Later, when Associate Superintendent Lou Martin issued a report on the incident after speaking with the players and coaches, he would write that Walpole had “admonished the players on Monday for smashing the watermelon in the quad but not for any other activity.”
On Oct. 14, after Peterson wrote that she would meet with the coaches and team and “advise them of our decision to halt the post-game celebration activity,” McGinley wrote back, “I agree that this is the best course of action. Please proceed.”
But school board member Michael Miller was not satisfied with the response. He wrote that Peterson’s account of the watermelon ritual was “distinctly different from the accounts told to me by a member of the AMHS football team” and requested further investigation to “‘sniff out’ the truth.”
McGinley wrote back, “I did not say this is over.” On Oct. 15, she wrote that she had turned the follow-up investigation over to Martin and Kevin Clayton, an Atlanta-based diversity consultant who had been hired by the district on a five-month, $50,000 contract earlier in the year.
Martin and Clayton went to AMHS on the morning of Oct. 16 to interview the players and coaches of the football team. According to the report they submitted to district officials, they brought the students into a lecture hall and interviewed them individually. He writes that they spent six hours and 15 minutes interviewing 29 players.
According to Martin, players said that upperclassmen started the ritual. He wrote that players said the ritual involved locking arms, swaying side to side, and “chanting ‘ooo-ooo-ooo,'” which, Martin wrote, “could very easily be interpreted as animal sounds.” As for the image drawn on the watermelon, he wrote that it “was clearly in our opinion a monkey face.”
Martin wrote that players said the watermelon was usually placed on the bench during games, but that on the evening of the Garrett game, it was accidentally left on the bus, delaying the ritual until the players returned to their school’s North Charleston campus.
“Some of the seniors,” Martin wrote, “expressed an attitude of if ‘someone is offended by the watermelon, that is their problem and not ours.” In a later e-mail, Martin would write that he had to explain the fraught racial history of the watermelon to some of the students. “When students asked us why we thought a watermelon could be offensive we explained the historical reference of the term and encouraged those who asked to google watermelon – negative connotations,” Martin wrote.
Martin wrote the following recommendations for the district:
• All players will be required to attend a Dignity and Respect series of seminars constructed by Mr. Clayton to be completed by November 19, 2014.
• The team will be required to participate after the season in a “Lend a Hand” activity tied to a cultural community event they will devise and submit for approval.
• Seniors who refuse to comply or complete the assignments will not be permitted to participate in commencement or any other sport at AMHS for the remainder of the year.
•Underclassman [sic] will not be permitted to participate in any sport for the remainder of their high school years in CCSD.
• Coaches will be issued a letter of reprimand and removed from coaching football at AMHS or in CCSD.
After speaking with the team’s coaching staff, Martin wrote that one assistant coach “expressed remorse for not being more alert and aware of the ramifications of the watermelon and its connotations.” An interview with Walpole went differently, though, according to Martin.
“He was very defensive until the final few minutes of the interview,” Martin wrote. “He asserted that he knew of the smashing but was ‘too occupied’ with responsibilities to pay close attention. He reluctantly acknowledged he should have been more aware and taken an active intervention in the process.”
The day after the interviews were conducted, complaints started coming in from parents of AMHS football players. One parent said their son had missed two exams as a result of the investigation. Another called the superintendent’s office to complain that his son had been placed in a lecture hall for three hours.
“He said the students were interrogated one at a time, isolated, no bathroom break, no lunch, missed three classes, etc.,” wrote an administrative assistant who summarized the complaint. “He said his son is a minor and has rights. As the parent, he was not consulted.” The administrative assistant also wrote that the parent was “planning to seek legal counsel.”
Martin wrote back that the complaint was “not accurate with respect to bathroom breaks and lunch.” He added, “A school or district investigation permits questioning students without parent permission.”
Meanwhile, McGinley was pushing back against Martin and Clayton’s recommendation that Walpole be fired. “How strongly do you feel about firing the coaches?” McGinley wrote on Oct. 17. “Would a letter of reprimand and ‘Probation’ be enough to get their attention?” Martin acquiesced, but Clayton doubled down on the call for Walpole’s removal.
“I think at a minimum the Head Coach should be fired and not allowed to Coach in the district,” Clayton wrote. “My rationale is because of his contempt and arrogance that he displayed during the interview. It wasn’t until [Martin] discussed the possibility of his termination did he show any sense of remorsefulness. He is not a competent leader of young men and women.”
Miller, on the other hand, wrote the following in an Oct. 20 e-mail to his fellow school board members: “Firing the coach does not address the problem. It makes the coach the fall guy to an issue that is larger than you all know.” McGinley forwarded Miller’s e-mail to several district employees, writing, “Apparently nothing we do will satisfy Mr. [Miller].”
The following morning, on Oct. 21, the district announced Walpole’s removal with a press release: “An investigation was conducted and, as a result of the investigation, the head football coach will no longer be serving as a coach for Charleston County School District.” By midmorning the same day, an online petition to reinstate Walpole had already reached 1,000 signatures. On Oct. 22, the district announced that Walpole had been reinstated.
In announcing the reinstatement, McGinley said in a press release that Walpole had submitted a written statement in which he promised to attend sensitivity training with students and to “counsel my students before games to be extra vigilant in their actions when dealing with others of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.” One school board member, the Rev. Chris Collins, e-mailed McGinley that evening to complain that the board had not been involved in the decision to bring Walpole back.
“This is not how we do business at all,” Collins wrote. “Though the coach could be innocent, you have created another stir in the community. People will now say we didn’t do anything to resolve underlining issues.”