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Members of the Sarah Keys Evans Planning Committee were expected to discuss damage to the public arts plaza in the form of graffiti during a Zoom meeting, one of its members said.

The Roanoke Rapids Police Department is investigating the defacement of the plaza’s brick wall that faces Lewis Street in Martin Luther King Jr. Park which is located at the intersection of Wyche Street and Virginia Avenue.

Ervin V. Griffin Sr., one of the committee members who along with others helped to bring the inclusive arts project to fruition, said the damage was discovered this past Saturday as members of his fraternity did a monthly clean-up project at the park. He said no damage had been observed during the October clean-up project. “We said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It was pretty devastating.”

Griffin said he couldn’t say whether it was done out of hate or for attention. “It wasn’t done in 15 minutes,” explaining the graffiti was intricate enough to be done by someone experienced. “The key is we can’t ignore it. We spent so much time putting it together for the whole community. Hopefully we will find out who and why. I feel the community needs answers. I feel it’s total disrespect in my estimation.”

The plaza was opened in August of 2020 and features the artwork of Napoleon Hill — artwork which tells the story of Keys’ 1952 arrest in Roanoke Rapids for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white Marine when Keys herself was a member of the Women’s Army Air Corps.

Her refusal to give up her seat came before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama.

Roanoke Rapids police Chief Shane Guyant said it is believed the crime happened sometime between Thursday and Friday.

Guyant said the graffiti appears to depict flames but does not look consistent with anything gang- or hate-crime-related. “Based on my 30 years of experience with gang and/or hate-related groups, this graffiti does not resemble symbolism normally left by such criminal-minded groups.  However, I have reached out to the North Carolina Gang Investigators Association and other law enforcement sources for further inquiry.”

Guyant said, “It is extremely concerning that anyone would choose to damage this particular location. This location is a memorial to tremendous individual strength and resolve. It is incredibly shameful that anyone would disrespect this monument.  I hope that someone knows something and will speak up. This is not art. This is criminal vandalism. This type of damage will not be tolerated in this city.”

Anyone with information is encouraged to contact the police department at 252-533-2810, or Halifax County CrimeStoppers through its website