Celebrating civil rights: New magistrate discusses challenges of being a prominent African American in Jefferson County
SHEPHERDSTOWN — In July 2018, Arthena Roper officially took her place as a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education. After having served for 14 years as Jefferson County School’s first cultural diversity facilitator and professional development coordinator, she had decided to run for the position, which she viewed as an opportunity to make a difference in the county’s public school system.
But after spending almost a year in her new position, Roper had grown aware of the challenges of working as an unpaid public servant.
“A year ago citizens of Jefferson County, West Virginia elected me to serve as a member of the Board of Education,” Roper wrote in a May 10, 2019 public Facebook post. “I remain humbled by the vote of confidence. I think public education is the hallmark of a thriving community and society.
“I have learned hard leadership lessons in this year that I would like to pass on to those who want to become a servant of the people,” Roper wrote. “Public service is a tough, but noble, job. When I look back over my life, I am proud to mentally and emotionally give of myself to serve my community. I believe in our potential.”
However, during the summer, Jefferson County Magistrate Mary Paul Rissler announced that she was retiring from her unexpired term on Nov. 29. Leaving with one year uncompleted of her four-year term, Rissler needed a replacement.
“This summer, I was called by Judge David Hammer, and he asked me to become a magistrate,” Roper said, during a speech she gave on Jan. 11.
On Sept. 11, Roper was officially appointed by Twenty-Third Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Michael D. Lorensen as Rissler’s replacement.
According to Roper, the change was perfectly timed, as it meant she had to resign from her position on the Jefferson County Board of Education on Sept. 9.
“I was thrilled to be in that capacity,” Roper said, mentioning she struggled as a board member, because she was the token African American on the board. “It was very difficult.
“No one wants to see the angry black woman — let’s admit it,” Roper said. “We’ve been a minority here in West Virginia for forever, so we know that we have to know what we know — to come in with confidence. But not too much confidence, or people will react in fear.”
Magistrates are appointed based on their own merit and standing in the community, and aren’t required to have more than a high school education. Roper’s three master’s degrees made her more than qualified for the position, but did not protect her from being publicly scrutinized after the announcement was made, which Roper said she found frustrating.
However, over the two months she has spent in her new role, she has already made a difference in how those affected by the opioid epidemic are dealt with. Roper has made a point to avoid imprisoning people convicted for opioid cases, because of their inability to pay bail.
“This is exactly what I was made to do. I know it,” Roper said, mentioning she will be running for the same magistrate position in the next election. “I told my husband, if I don’t win in May, I’ll have to campaign for the next four years, because I love this work. I love the opportunity to serve.”