A blackface photo of a newly-elected councilman in Pitman and xenophobic comments are prompting calls for accountability from community members who are taking a look at their latest unlikely Republican to pull off an unexpected election victory.
The group Pitman Anti-Racist Collective (PARC) says Pitman Borough Councilman-elect Vincent Kelly shared a photo on his Facebook page that shows the newly-elected Pitman councilman in blackface depicting him dressed as rapper Flavor Flav at a Halloween party six years ago.
Kelly and fellow Republican Courtney Susan Milward defeated Democratic Council President Paul Blass and Democratic Councilwoman Amy Rudley in Tuesday’s election.
The anti-racism group wants Kelly to quit or apologize for wearing blackface in a 2015 photo depicting him in blackface shared on Facebook.
“Or in the absence of accountability he should step down. We don’t think that somebody who would share that so aggressively is qualified to represent our community,” said Judy Walker, a member of the Pitman Anti-Racist Collective.
The picture has since been taken down. “The Gloucester County GOP planned to “address past social media posts of recently elected county Republicans” on Friday afternoon at a press conference.”
Kelly told the Daily Journal the photo was from 2008 and that he didn’t intend to do blackface.
“I didn’t put blackface on,” Kelly said. “I went to a costume party. And it came … with it. This is what you got with it. That’s what I did. There was no intention to do blackface, or to belittle African Americans, or anything like that. It was a simple Halloween party.”
He said the photo was taken in 2008 although it was shared to Facebook in 2015, and was for a “theme couple” party. Kelly and his wife dressed up as Peg Bundy from “Married… With Children,” while Kelly was Flavor Flav.
Kelly said the event was a theme party, with people asked to come as an “odd couple, Hollywood people.”
His wife, who is in the picture, dressed as Peg Bundy from the show “Married … With Children.”
Kelly, wearing an oversized clock around his neck and a horned helmet, is dressed as rapper and reality TV star Flavor Flav. His face and hands appear darkened.
“They lost the election, and they‘re looking for every single thing to try to get back,” Kelly said. “They don’t realize the mayor gets to, if I do resign, he gets to appoint someone else.”
“Let me tell you something: My great-grandson and my great-granddaughter are mixed race,” Kelly said, adding, “I’ve not a racist bone in my body.
He won one of two seats against a Democrat incumbent by 38 votes during Tuesday’s election. By Saturday, he dropped the denials and excuses, trying to put the incident behind him with an apology and more lies.
Kelly’s Facebook page was down as of Saturday night.
“I apologize to anyone who may be hurt by my costume choice of years ago,” said Kelly in a statement released by the Gloucester County Republican Executive Committee.
In his apology, Kelly acknowledged sharing on social media the photo that shows him dressed as the reality show star and Public Enemy rapper Flava Flav.
Kelly said that the election, in which he and his running mate ousted the council president and a councilwoman, came as a surprise to supporters of the incumbents. The use of the photo is for partisan payback and will not move him to step away from public office, he said.
“In 2008 I purchased and wore a Flavor Flav costume to a Halloween party where guests were expected to dress as a celebrity. At the time Flavor Flav’s yelling of ‘yeah boy’ made him incredibly popular, wearing the costume was a celebration of his fame.
“Years later I briefly used the picture as a cover photo on my Facebook page during the Halloween season, changed the picture after the season and frankly forgot about it until recent events.
“I do understand that we live in a very different time and today, even as a celebration of one’s fame, I would not even consider wearing a costume that included blackface. I apologize to anyone who may be hurt by my costume choice of years ago and will soon reach out to the Pitman Anti-Racist Collective so we can hopefully schedule a meeting and have some open, honest dialogue.”
“It was shared with us by someone in the community on Tuesday night,” Walker said when asked Thursday how long PARC had had the photo. “We verified it, and put the statement out this evening.”
Asked about the group’s political interests, Walker replied, “Pitman is a small town. PARC steering committee members are Democrats. Some members also know Republican candidates. Our group has never endorsed any candidate.
“The issue is a local leader who apparently sees nothing wrong with appearing in blackface,” she said. “We think this is newsworthy.”
Kelly and his wife said that their home for years was a refuge for children caught in bad domestic situations. Those children were Black, Hispanic, and white, they said.
“My daughter, when she was young, used to bring kids from problem homes,” he said. “They just lived here for a year or two, a couple months, until they, parents or whatever, got their stuff together.”
Kelly said the fostering was entirely voluntary, with his family picking up costs out of pocket.
“We haven’t done it in years,” Kelly said. “My kids are all grown. And thankfully, all the ones that were here (are) grown and are productive. Have good families right now. Have their own families.
“I believe in Martin Luther King Jr., what he said,” Kelly said. “A person should be judged by their character, not the color of their skin. Integrity.”
According to its website, the Pitman Ant-Racist Collective was formed in May 2020 “to provide a network for community members to explore racism and white supremacy.”
“By creating a space for outreach and accountability in Pitman and surrounding communities of Southern New Jersey, we strive to identify and address systemic issues of racial injustice,” the website states.
Subcommittees are focused on areas defined as police accountability; educational accountability, outreach, and culture shift. The group specifically solicits information related to racism for publication.
PARC claims the borough seal “has been criticized for not being inclusive to non-Christians, the secular community, LGBTQ, nontraditional households, and persons of color. In the last several years, talk of changing the town seal has grown louder. In some circles, it’s risen to a deafening pitch.”
The same article described Pitman as “amongst the least diverse towns in NJ.”
“In a recent town survey about diversity; although not specifically asked, several town residents reported disappointment on a lack of representation in the town seal,” the article states.
One posting on the PARC site is a “people’s history” blog about Pitman. The title is a “tribute” to the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn, known for his “A People’s History of the United States.”
“We will present stories not just about our community’s racist past but also about the everyday heroes in our community who helped to combat racism, particularly during the years prior to and after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the blog states.
The blog also states it examines the roles “religion and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union played in the promotion of racist ideas and the ways in which some of those same churches later helped to combat racism in our community.”
The borough was organized in the early 1870s as a Methodist retreat, and that denomination still has a strong presence. The borough, about 2.26 square miles in size, is notable for the number and diversity of its churches for a population of about 9,000.