Cecelia Lewis is a dedicated educator who takes pride in leading students to personal growth beyond the classroom. However, according to Pro Publica, her future as an administrator focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion took a surprising turn when white residents forced Lewis to resign from two positions in neighboring towns in Georgia.
Lewis was a principal at a middle school in Maryland County. However, she wanted a career change and started applying for new academic positions out of state. In April 2021, she and her husband ultimately decided to relocate to Woodstock, a small town roughly 31 miles outside downtown Atlanta.
She also accepted a position with Cherokee County School District after district officials encouraged her to apply for the new opening they had established — an administrator position committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. While the new role was different for Lewis, she welcomed the challenge and believed the job would allow her to analyze the district’s “systemic and instructional practices” to support a child’s well-being.
Superintendent Brian Hightower welcomed Lewis in the district’s March 2021 announcement for new hires. “We’re so excited to add Cecelia to the CCSD family,” he said.
At the time, Lewis and her husband didn’t officially move into their north Georgia county home. Instead, Lewis was spending time with family and friends when she started receiving anonymous phone calls from residents in the Cherokee County School District. One of the callers asked her if she had heard of critical race theory (CRT).
Lewis explained that she was unaware of the social and intellectual movement that prompted conservative leaders statewide to denounce the course. However, she had no idea those phone calls would lead to attacks from white parents in the district who feared the educator would be teaching their children what they deemed as “institutionalized racism.”
The following month, a school board meeting was held at a golf course with parents from across the county discussing several topics, including Lewis and critical race theory. Several presenters at the gathering questioned critical race theory, including Rhonda Thomas, a conservative who founded a nonprofit organization entitled “Truth in Education,” aiming to educate parents and teachers on left-wing “radical ideologies” being taught in schools.
“So what is critical race theory?” Thomas asked the crowd. “It teaches kids that whites are inherently racist and oppressive, perhaps unconsciously,” and that “all whites are responsible for all historical actions” and “should feel guilty.”
She added: “I cannot be asked for repentance for something my grandparents did or my ancestors did, right?”
Thomas’ comments created false claims about critical race theory since the course is only taught at the collegiate level. She then prompted other leaders and parents to question Lewis’ DEI-focused position with the district.
“And when I got a text message from somebody saying that this person was hired, I immediately was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, where are my people?'” said Mandy Heda, a Cherokee County GOP precinct chair whose a parent with four children in the school district.
While Thomas, Heda, and other attendees assumed Lewis was a Black educator with far-left beliefs, they did not know her former district was a predominately white county that voted for Trump in 2020.
During the meeting, Heda insisted that the pushback against Lewis was not about her skin color. Additionally, it was about what her children would be learning with Lewis’ alleged influence.
“You cannot tell me, you know, that you can’t find somebody else qualified,” Heda responded. “And if you’re looking for her to be Black, that’s fine. But that’s not what this is about. This is not about the color of her skin. It’s what she’s going to bring into our district and what she’s going to teach our children.”
A few days after the meeting, Lewis received calls from angry Cherokee County residents who accused her and the district of using CRT on social media. In addition, several emails and letters were sent to her school in Maryland, calling the educator a Black Yankee and saying that the county did not welcome her liberal thinking.
“They ultimately just said, you know, ‘We don’t want you here, and we don’t want you to push us to find out what will happen if you come here,’” Lewis told reporter Nicole Carr.
On May 20, 2021, another Cherokee County school board meeting was held that night, with hundreds of residents showing up for the event. Lewis received yet another call from someone asking her if she would be tuning in to the meeting. While Lewis did not plan on watching it, she and her husband decided to tune in from her laptop.
More than a dozen Republican lawmakers, officials, and parents condemned critical race theory while calling for Lewis to be fired from her position. She was left in tears after what she and her husband witnessed from county residents, who ultimately threatened her safety if she moved there.
The following day, Lewis resigned from the job she had never started, citing a hostile environment as one of her primary reasons.
“The message I received from the Cherokee County community, who has never met me or tried to get to know me, not the position, is we do not want you here, you don’t belong here, and you’re not welcome here, highlighting the fact that the work of celebrating and appreciating diversity, instead of denying or judging it is much needed in this district,” Lewis said.
She added, “I pray that this does not happen to any student or family the school system is charged with serving, protecting and supporting under their care,” she said. “After much prayer, deliberation and counsel from family and friends, my decision to terminate my contract with CCSD came down to me no longer feeling safe and the work I was hired to do not supported or prioritized by the CCSD Board of Education.”
Lewis later accepted a position with Cobb County School District, where she was only employed for two months before angry parents forced her to resign in fall 2021, PBS reported.