When Terry Bellamy identified problems within her hometown, she did not simply sit back and complain. She ran for office and won, becoming the youngest member and the only African American on Asheville, North Carolina's city council. However, Bellamy did not allow the differences between herself and her fellow council members to prevent them from working together. Maintaining a moderate political position, a calm attitude, and an optimistic enthusiasm, Bellamy developed a reputation for working out effective compromises among council members with very different positions. She was so successful in addressing Asheville's concerns that, at the age of thirty-three, six years after her election to city council, she was elected to the office of mayor.
Bellamy was born on July 9, 1972, in Asheville, a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Her father, Floyd Smith, was a factory worker at a local manufacturing company, and her mother, Luella Whitmire, worked as an administrative assistant. Young Terry and her three brothers and sisters were largely raised by their mother and two grandmothers. When the children were very small, the family lived with Whitmire's mother, moving to an apartment in a low-income housing project as soon as they could afford to.
Learned Public Responsibility at Home
However, for Luella Whitmire, the projects were just one step in a long-range plan. She was determined to buy a house for her family, and she worked ceaselessly, often holding down three jobs at once, until she made her dream a reality. By the time Terry had finished elementary school, her family lived in their own home. Besides learning hard work and determination from her mother, Bellamy also learned a sense of community responsibility. Along with working to support her family, Luella Whitmire also found time to volunteer to help anyone who needed her, from homeless people to those locked up in prison.
Living in a small town, Bellamy's childhood revolved around her playmates, many of whom became lifelong friends. As the oldest child in her family, she learned early to help her mother with the housekeeping, and at the age of 15, got her first job at a local drive-in restaurant. She continued to work part-time until her graduation from high school, following the restaurant job with a position at an Asheville department store.
Bellamy was a good student who liked school and had a wide variety of interests. From seventh through twelfth grades she supported the school's football and basketball teams as a cheerleader, and she also joined the drill team and the debate team. In seventh grade she began learning leadership skills as a member of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and she continued her ROTC career throughout high school.
As Bellamy began to consider college, she spoke to her cousin Stewart McDay, who had left Asheville to attend Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. He McDay encouraged Bellamy to be adventurous and come to Charlotte and attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He offered her his support and help. She agreed, and joined her cousin in Charlotte, where she began her studies in English.
Far from being fearful, Bellamy enjoyed the freedom and novelty of her new school. While having fun with new friends, she learned a lot, both from her classes and from the experience of being on her own. In order to make closer connections with other students, she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African American sorority that had been founded at Howard University in 1908. In 1994, she graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a bachelor's degree in English.
Returned to Asheville
Upon graduation from college, Bellamy headed home to Asheville, intending to continue her education. She took graduate courses at nearby Western Carolina University while seeking work in Asheville. In 1995, she returned to the projects where she had lived until she was eleven years old, but this time she went as part of a project offering help and support to young residents.
The Hillcrest Enrichment Program had been started in 1977 by community activist John Hayes, in order to empower and encourage young people growing up in one of the poorest and highest-crime areas of Asheville. The program offered both academic tutoring and creative activities, such as a marching band and drum corps, to help build self-esteem and imagination among at-risk youth. Terry Bellamy had met Hayes while she was a middle school student in Asheville, and he had become a valued advisor and mentor. She went to work with him at the Hillcrest Enrichment Program in 1995 as an office assistant, and quickly rose to become assistant director.
As Bellamy worked in the poorest communities in her hometown, she began to see that working people needed help in order to continue living in Asheville. As she said to Patricia Gaines of AOL Black Voices, "After (high school) graduation a lot of people left because they couldn't afford to live here. Opportunities were limited and they couldn't afford housing. Instead of leaving, I decided to do something about it."
In 1997, she left the Hillcrest project to become part of an organization devoted to helping low-income Asheville residents own their own homes. Since 1988, Mountain Housing Opportunities has worked with funding sources, banks, and volunteers to build, renovate, and repair affordable housing for poor working people and senior citizens. Bellamy joined Mountain Housing Opportunities as a community development coordinator, and was soon promoted to marketing development manager.
At a Glance …
Born Terry Whitmire on July 9, 1972, in Asheville, North Carolina, married Lamont Bellamy, 2000; children: two. Education: University of North Carolina-Charlotte, BA in English, 1994.
Career: Hillcrest Enrichment Program, office assistant, assistant director, 1995–97; Mountain Housing Opportunities, community development coordinator, marketing development manager, 1997–; Asheville City council, 1999–2005; City of Asheville, mayor, 2005–.
Selected memberships: Association of Fund-raising Professionals; Asheville Buncombe Education Coalition, advisory board member; Asheville Business Council; For Our Kids; Martin Luther King Celebration Committee.
Selected awards: One Youth at a Time, Volunteer of the Year, 2002; American Institute of Architects, Asheville Section, Appreciation Certificate, 2006.
Addresses: City of Asheville; P.O. Box 7148, Asheville, North Carolina 28802.
Became Part of City Government
However, even working to provide safe and secure low-income homes for her fellow citizens was not enough for the community-minded Bellamy. She was developing definite ideas about Asheville's problems, and she began to want to become part of developing solutions. She was most concerned about the rising dropout rate in the city's schools, and the lack of living-wage jobs. Though affordable housing was an important part of a thriving community, Bellamy saw that people also needed education and jobs in order to remain in Asheville. She did not want to see her city become a place where working class people could not afford to live.
In 1999, Bellamy decided that she wanted to be one of those who made public policy, and she ran for city council. Having earned the respect of the community for her work in the Hillcrest Enrichment Program and Mountain Housing Opportunities, she won her seat on city council, getting more votes than any other council candidate. At age 27, Terry Bellamy became the youngest member and the only African American on Asheville's city council.
Bellamy soon developed a reputation as a levelheaded centrist, whose self-possessed attitude enabled her to talk to people with very different politics and help them reach a compromise. In 2001, the city council demonstrated its respect for her by choosing her to be vice mayor. In 2003, she ran for another term and won easily, again receiving the most votes of any candidate.
An important example of Bellamy's political negotiating skill occurred early in her second term as a council member. On May 30, 2003, the police chief, mayor and City Council of Asheville, received a letter from a local elementary school principal challenging the city administration to increase safety in nearby public housing apartments where many of her students lived. Though most of the white city council members had other priorities, Bellamy, who had spent her elementary school years living in public housing, was deeply touched by the issue. In what some journalists called a "budget revolt," she worked behind the scenes to organize a coalition of both liberal and conservative council members to find a way to include the safety of low-income children in the city's budget. In a surprise move, she then presented the reworked budget, which included funds for community police officers to patrol public housing projects, to the mayor and other members of city council.
Became Asheville's First Black Mayor
Bellamy's devotion to her community led her in 2005 to run for mayor. She won the election, becoming not only the first black to ever hold the office, but one of only three African Americans to be mayor of a city with more than 50,000 residents and less than 20 percent black. Only 17 percent of Asheville's 70,000 residents are African American, but Bellamy received almost 57 percent of the vote.
As mayor, Bellamy has continued to be responsive to her community's needs. One of her first acts as mayor was to hold a public meeting to invite input from all Asheville citizens, in order to build a bridge of communication and trust between the city and its residents. Her priorities remain the same as when she was first elected to city council, to increase safe, affordable housing, ensure living-wage jobs, and protect Asheville's youth by decreasing dropout rates, reducing drug use, and improving public safety.
While busy with the duties of her public office, the quietly dynamic Bellamy continues to work full time at Mountain Housing Opportunities. She teaches in the nursery of her local church, River of Life International, and she also volunteers her time as a troop leader with Girls Scouts. In addition, she is a devoted partner to her husband Lamont and a dedicated mother to her two children, Seth and Imani.
Jet, November 28, 2005.
"Bellamy Wins: Asheville Elects First African-American Mayor," Citizen-Times.com, www.citizentimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051109/NEWS01/51109003&theme=ELECTIONSEASON (May 9, 2006).
"Meet Asheville, N.C.'s Youngest Mayor Ever," AOL Black Voices, http://blackvoices.aol.com/goodnews/canvas_directory/good_news/_a/meet-asheville-ncs-youngest-mayor-ever/20051130174909990001 (May 9, 2006).
"100 Days: Bellamy Settles in as Mayor," Citizen-Times.com, www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=200660430031 (May 9, 2006).
"Terry Bellamy," Mountain Xpress, www.mountainx.com/news/2005/1005bellamy.php (May 9, 2006).
"Terry Bellamy: If You Really Understand the Lives Our Students Are Forced to Live …," National Association to Protect Children, www.protect.org/bellamy.html (May 9, 2006).
Elect Terry Bellamy, www.terrymbellamy.com/cms/ (May 9, 2006).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Terry Bellamy on May 16, 2006.
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