By Andrea Wuerth
There was Earl and Ronny. Miss Frieda, Miss Lily and Miss Gwen. And the Reverend Williams. All sitting in the front room of the Marion Cheeks Jackson Center. Connected to each other through a shared experience: growing up in the 1950s, 60s and 70s surrounded by a network of unofficial mentors in Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood. They were gathered recently on a Tuesday night in August, next door to the church many of them grew up in, because they are mentors to a new generation of kids, growing up in very different times without the benefit of the tight-knit community they knew.
The kids they are mentoring live scattered throughout Chapel Hill, often far beyond the borders of the Northside neighborhood. Kids who know very little if anything at all about the history of Northside or about segregation, civil rights activism, and school desegregation in their own backyards. The mentors, armed with their personal histories, are changing that.
They tell kids about their own experiences in segregated schools and neighborhoods, in sit-ins and protest marches, and as some of the first black kids to attend integrated schools. But tonight they are here to share their stories with each other.
Very quickly, the discussion begins to focus on relationships. Relationships in the various Northside neighborhoods (Pottersfield, Sunset, Tin Top, Pine Knolls) between black kids “coming up” and a whole range of adults who all knew who they were and who their parents were. They were teachers, ministers, other people’s parents, extended family members, shopkeepers. And sometimes, as Miss Frieda pointed out, it was an older kid who looked out for you or reminded you how to act. The others nodded and agreed emphatically. The stories just came rolling out, one after the other.
They also talked about relationships with white people in Chapel Hill—bosses, policemen, university students, politicians. And astonishingly, when talking about the people who so often looked down on them, they emphasized the importance of keeping the lines of communication open, of staying focused and developing long-term goals– most often very long-term goals– and of acknowledging the small victories.
According to Reverend Williams, speaking with a knowing smile and slow nod: “Chapel Hill is a unique place. You could talk to the whites. It ‘s unlike any other place.”
In the front room at the Jackson Center, most of those present echoed this sentiment, that relationships between black and white people were what made Chapel Hill such a unique place. And yet, these relationships so often appeared to be a sort of dance. In the early 1960s, when white town leaders anticipated rising discontent with their reluctance to integrate the schools or the police force, they would make a step towards the black community, implementing a change in the right direction. White town leaders were able to give an inch so that they would not have to give a yard. And the town of Chapel Hill was able to maintain its progressive reputation Social justice requires more than a step; it requires that both partners choreograph the dance. And the music has got to be something other than “Dixie.” This hasn’t happened.
Though some of the assembled generously put a positive spin on it, black-white relationships sometimes were based upon mutual acknowledgment and even mutual regard; but the stories they told show they were not based upon equality or upon recognition that both parties’ viewpoints were equally valid or upon the value of different perspectives.
The town’s liberal reputation seems to rest on an unspoken paternalism. The relationships between whites and blacks in Chapel Hill both before and after segregation was officially outlawed, were and still are based upon inequality, held in place partly by friendly gestures, partly by the threat of violence.
Reverend Williams recalled a relationship with a Mr. Pendergraft, the owner of a garage on Franklin Street. His uncle, a black man, had worked for Mr. Pendergraft for decades. Somehow this relationship guaranteed his uncle that no harm would come to him, despite the fact that everyone knew he hosted weekly Klan meetings. In fact, when Reverend Williams was small, he remembers looking for his uncle and instead running in to Mr. Pendergraft dressed in his Klan robes. Robby Bynum tells the story of how he had to be counseled by elders in the Northside community to help him overcome the fear that gripped him whenever he had to leave the safety of his neighborhood and venture into white Chapel Hill.
Violence could be avoided if a person was not perceived as threatening the balance of power in which white people’s freedoms and privileges were accepted and unquestioned. Relationships with whites were possible, even encouraged, so long as everyone understood that the balance of power would remain firmly in the hands of white people. An occasional glimpse of a Klan robe was a clear reminder of how far some whites in town would go to see that the balance wasn’t upset. And so, as some of the mentors mentioned, parents would often tell kids to stay away from Franklin Street when the civil rights marchers came through. Those relationships their parents had established with white people in town could be seriously jeopardized if word got out that a family member was protesting.
The liberal traditions the university town celebrates are understood very differently by those who grew up on the “other side” of Franklin Street. Many black residents talk about surviving and getting by here, living, often fearfully, by a code—written and unwritten– that existed just as it did in the rest of the state. That’s what I hear behind Rodney’s gracious words: “Don’t let your feelings get in the way of your spirit.”
So many liberals live in all-white neighborhoods, unaware of the dwindling supply of affordable housing, well-paid jobs, educational support and business opportunities. But more importantly, what’s missing is a community knit together by lasting, meaningful relationships. Without a neighborhood and a feeling of community, these networks are strained and have to be created deliberately rather than organically.
This group of volunteer-mentors were all in, ready to connect with students, ready to continue the work of mentoring kids they don’t know but want to know. And they have a wealth of experience and wisdom and love to offer.
Every person in the room at the Jackson Center that night had experienced Chapel Hill’s racism. And yet every one committed themselves fully to building bridges and honoring the tradition of building relationships. How long will it take for white people to accept relationships based upon real and true equality? I think it’s clear that it can only happen when the oppressors hear the voices that are speaking truth to power. And to really listen.
If you want to hear history speak its truth, start talking to the mentors of Northside. The Jackson Center is open.
Andrea Wuerth is a volunteer participant in the Center’s Learning Across Generations local history curriculum and our Oral History Archive. She agreed to let us post her blog entry after archiving Hollywood’s oral history interview. Access to Andrea’s full blog can be found here.