The Jackson Center’s motto is without the past, you have no future. Ms. Velma embodied this more than almost anybody I’ve ever met. In fact, I’ll never forget my first town council meeting with Ms. Velma (which I should note was probably her 1,000th meeting). Ms. Velma got to the microphone and started, “Now you all need to know some history. Back during the war…with the English, in the 1700’s…my great great grandmother…” Now, as many of you know, at Chapel Hill town council meetings, there is a 3 minute time limit for comments. By the time three minutes, five minutes, had passed, Ms. Velma was still in the 1840’s. And the mayor – Mark Kleinschmidt at the time – did not know what to do. He couldn’t ask this 90-year-old seasoned activist to sit down or hit the buzzer like they do for most people. So she went on: 8 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Now most people when they go on this long don’t have a point. Ms. Velma did. She wanted people to know that black people had been in this neighborhood for centuries and that they had a right to stay here. She wanted every council member to know that when they voted on a development moratorium and changes to protect the neighborhood, they weren’t just voting on a current issue. She wanted those investors sitting in the audience to know they couldn’t get away with this. This issue had history, and that history was deep and challenging. And Ms. Velma’s people had built this town and university; they made everything here possible. She finished by claiming something like: “And now, you have a chance – will you support the black people who have been here for centuries, or will you let us be pushed out of the town we have built?
Ms. Velma lived in her same home on Lindsay St for 98 years. Living 98 years is remarkable; living 98 years in the same home is unheard of. Except with Ms. Velma. Can you imagine how well she knew this place? She saw this neighborhood change drastically, but she didn’t sit by and watch change. She helped define it, fight for it, make it better. She fought for noise ordinances, trash rules, conservation districts – anything and everything that would help preserve its dignity. She fought well into her 90’s and inspired many of us younger people to see that our voices could make a difference. And she was an exemplary neighbor, always greeting people from that expansive porch. Sometimes I’d see her visiting with a young person on the porch and stop to ask who it was; often, she wouldn’t even know. She was just telling her story to a new neighbor. Ms. Keith Edwards once said that there is a difference between a house and a home: a house is bricks, wood, a structure. A house becomes a home when the people in that house represent a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of kinship. Ms. Velma helped define home for so many of us. We so need neighbors like Ms. Velma who ground us in what real community looks like, who share the history of a place, and who defy “market forces” to stay in that place for—and for the benefit of–generations.
As most of you probably know, Ms. Velma had a beautiful voice. She could sing. And whenever we got the chance—holidays, birthdays, Valentine’s day– a group of us from the Jackson Center would go to serenade her. In recent years, Ms. Velma could not remember the words to songs anymore, but she would grab our hands and, in that stunning operatic tone, she would sing. Ms. Janie of course—her constant caregiver and companion—sang along and cheered her on. I witnessed dozens of folks moved to tears by the beauty of Ms. Velma – at 96, 97, 98 years old – sitting up all of a sudden to join us in song.
The words no longer mattered when Ms. Velma sang; she had the spirit. She made the songs so much more beautiful. And I think in life, as people of faith, this is what we can most hope for – that even if a lot of ourselves leave us, our memories leave us, that deep spirit of faith, the blessing of communion with neighbors, our ability to break into hymns of praise we have sung our whole lives through – that if that is what remains, we will know we lived, truly lived a beautiful life just as Ms. Velma did.
– Hudson Vaughan