BEVERLY — More than two dozen residents expressed support for Kennan McKenzie Wednesday night in the wake of recent racist remarks aimed at the School Committee's only Black member.

Speaking during a School Committee meeting at Beverly Middle School, the residents apologized to McKenzie on behalf of the community and vowed to continue to speak out against racism in the city.

"We're so sorry for the way Dr. McKenzie was treated last month," Megan Sudak, a Beverly High School teacher, said in an email that was read by School Committee President Rachael Abell. "That is not what Beverly is all about. If we don't speak up we are part of the problem."

McKenzie was the subject of verbal attacks during last month's School Committee meeting by two residents who singled her out and questioned her qualifications. One of the residents suggested McKenzie got on the committee because of Andre Morgan, the school district's director of opportunity, access and equity, who is also Black.

McKenzie has a Ph.D in education and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is the director of the Aspire Institute and an adjunct assistant professor at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.

About 70 residents showed up at Wednesday night's School Committee meeting. Eleven spoke in person, while Abell read emails from several other residents.

The residents denounced the attacks on McKenzie, calling them "hateful," "despicable," and "appalling."

"If that can happen publicly, it makes me worry about what is happening privately in the homes of some Beverly families," Mulberry Street resident Rachel Hand said in an email.

Clifford Avenue resident Paul Willenbrock, who has lived in Beverly for 47 years, said he was "upset and saddened" to hear the remarks directed at McKenzie.

"It is time now for diversity to flourish in Beverly with residents treated equally and with love and respect," he said.

Kittridge Street resident Sarah Bartley thanked McKenzie for "taking a risk that something like that would happen."

"We all benefit from her willingness to step out and serve in this way," Bartley said. "My kids do."

"Thank you for your courage," Brian Carlson, pastor of Antioch Community Church in Beverly, said in an email. "Thank you for refusing to disrespect those who disrespect you."

Abbott Street resident Kitia Fisher said she thinks the Beverly schools are doing "an amazing job" in terms of teaching diversity.

"As a person of color living in Beverly I do feel that the culture has shifted," Fisher said.

Two members of the Unitarian Universalist First Parish Church of Beverly's anti-racism task force criticized the School Committee's handling of the Sept. 8 meeting during which McKenzie was attacked. Diana Niethamer and Brad Willenbrock said the two residents should have been shut down from speaking once the nature of their remarks became evident.

"Instead, two white citizens were allowed to publicly insult a Black committee member during a meeting, insinuating that she is not qualified to sit on the committee and that she has a racial agenda which is hurtful to white people," Neithamer and Willenbrock wrote in an email to the School Committee. "This was painful to watch. Why did no one defend Dr. McKenzie by putting an end to the attacks?"

McKenzie listened to the expressions of support on Wednesday but did not comment during that portion of the meeting. After the meeting, she said the "outpouring of support was very heartfelt and reassuring to me."

"But I also know this is bigger than me and not just about me," McKenzie said in a text. "It was important for the community to also have a sense of voice and some catharsis -- to exercise agency around promoting values of civility and anti-racism."

McKenzie said she felt a "heart connection to many new faces I had not seen before and appreciated my family and new Beverly friends being there."

"This response underscores that there are so many people who want to elevate our public discourse despite our differing perspectives," she said.

The meeting marked the second time that the community has publicly supported McKenzie in the aftermath of the attacks. On Sept. 13, more than 50 community leaders gathered on the steps of City Hall in a show of unity.

Staff Writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at pleighton@salemnews.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.

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