Former Black Schools Leader Radio Interview Brings Focus On Race Issues In Green Bay

FILE - Dr. Claude Tiller Jr. speaks at the Aging & Disability Resource Center of Brown County on July 18, 2023, in Green Bay, Wis. The Green Bay school district on Wednesday, Feb, 21, 2024, released the recording of its first Black superintendent's appearance on an Atlanta radio show in which he made blunt comments about race relations, criticized the community and derided one of the district's principals. Tiller Jr. resigned on Saturday after a closed-door meeting with school board members. (Seeger Gray/The Green Bay Press-Gazette via AP, File)
FILE - Dr. Claude Tiller Jr. speaks at the Aging & Disability Resource Center of Brown County on July 18, 2023, in Green Bay, Wis. The Green Bay school district on Wednesday, Feb, 21, 2024, released the recording of its first Black superintendent's appearance on an Atlanta radio show in which he made blunt comments about race relations, criticized the community and derided one of the district's principals. Tiller Jr. resigned on Saturday after a closed-door meeting with school board members. (Seeger Gray/The Green Bay Press-Gazette via AP, File)
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When an Atlanta radio host referred to the Wisconsin city of Green Bay as “about as lily white as I have ever seen," Claude Tiller Jr. responded: “The lily on top of the lily.”

The back and forth was part of a Feb. 6 radio interview that included blunt comments on race that led Tiller, the first Black superintendent for Green Bay's school district, to resign on Saturday.

Tiller's departure, after less than nine months on the job, followed a closed-door meeting with school board members.

Some Black people in Green Bay say Tiller was put into a tough situation in a racially changing school district, and that his approach to addressing those changes could have been better thought out.

Harry Sydney III, a former NFL player who now runs a male mentoring program in Green Bay, said Thursday that Tiller reached out to him after taking the position. However, the two never sat down to talk.

“If he had got me, I would have said to him, ‘This is how you’ve got to proceed,’” Sydney, 64, said. “You have to get other people from here to talk for you. What he’s saying may not have been wrong, but you have to figure out how to say it differently. You can’t come ... and throw a grenade.”

On Wednesday, the Green Bay school district released the WAOK-AM radio recording in which Tiller was caught during a break from speaking on air referring to a female principal as a “wicked witch” and using a disparaging slang word to describe her. Tiller was in Atlanta on a teacher recruiting trip.

Green Bay is not a small town. But the city of about 100,000 in northeastern Wisconsin, has a small-town feel. About 72% of its residents are white, according to U.S. Census data released in July 2023.

People who identify as Black make up about 4.2% of the population, while 17.1% are Hispanic or Latino. Another 4.1% identify as Asian, while just over 3% are American Indian or Alaska natives.

Sydney played running back for five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and one with the Green Bay Packers. He also was the Packers' running backs coach for six years afterward.

Sydney, who operates My Brother's Keeper Inc. with his wife Madonna, calls Green Bay “an incredible place,” and acknowledges that racism exists in that community as elsewhere.

“You’ve got knuckleheads everywhere,” he said. “But as much as you have knuckleheads, you’ve got good people. There are a lot of good people in Green Bay — of all colors.”

During the radio interview, Tiller was asked about his conversations with mostly white teachers and how he had to “go debunking some microaggressions.”

The entire interview, including conversations Tiller had with the host during breaks, was livestreamed on Facebook. The host informed Tiller his appearance would be streamed.

“They think majority of us we like fried chicken and watermelon,” Tiller said on one break. "I prefer my chicken baked.” He added that, as “a bald head black man with a bow tie, they get my passion confused with anger.”

Tiller didn’t respond to a phone message left by The Associated Press on Wednesday evening.

In a statement after his resignation, he said his remarks during the interview were “specifically directed toward the broader systemic issues within public education that contribute to ongoing challenges.”

He added that he offered his perspective “with candor, anchoring my narrative in both my professional insights and personal experiences as an educational leader of color.”

“Simply put, I spoke my truth.”

Ace Champion, who is Black, moved to Green Bay in 2003 from New Orleans. His two sons attended Green Bay public schools and later graduated from college.

A private chef who also teaches cooking in and around the city, Champion noted Green Bay is predominantly white, saying, “I don’t mind it. This gives me a way to express my culture and myself.”

“When I moved up here there was an illusion that because I was Black I had to be around Black people to succeed,” said Champion, 47. “Success has no race or color."

Aaron Walker, 39, originally is from Chicago and has lived in Green Bay since 2014. He works in law enforcement.

“There is a large explosion of people migrating to Green Bay for housing and schools and what appears to be more opportunity,” said Walker, who also is Black, noting the city is changing rapidly.

“I think Green Bay is a great place to raise a family,” he added. “I believe Green Bay has all the properties to be a great place, not just for people who live here, but for people who want to live here.”

Tiller, with his comments, simply may have “closed the door for himself,” according to Walker.

“You come with a different set of perspectives and goals, and your values and intentions and morals are all the same as the people around you," Walker said. “But you have to play the game. ‘I’m a Black man and I have to tread lightly.'”

Robin Scott, executive director of a nonprofit called We All Rise that supports the African American community, said Black leaders like Tiller “are thrown into situations that are already in crisis and we’re used almost like puppets to fix it.”

“Dr. Tiller represented the diversity that we need here in Green Bay, the diversity that could give Black and brown, and even our allies’ children something to look up to," Scott said.