A History and Reflection on the Land before WRPC (Part II) - written by Vann Evans
WRPC was born in the segregated South. The deed to the church’s earliest lots in Fairmont, like so many neighborhoods in Raleigh and throughout the country, included restrictive covenants prohibiting the sale of property to “negroes or to any person of negro blood” and barred people of color from residing there. Only “domestic servants and their families” employed by property owners were exempted. The deeds included a number of other restrictions set to expire in the next decade, but the prohibition on Black ownership and occupancy was to remain permanent. In this environment, WRPC flourished.
This was the West Raleigh my great grandfather relocated to from Atlanta in the 1930s. With a high school education, his racial views were probably typical of many white families of his day if not worse, and the commute to downtown Raleigh from where he worked was convenient. With a trolley line that extended down Hillsboro just past Horne Street, and the automobile’s increasing affordability, West Raleigh’s suburbs grew quickly. The Evans family rented a newly constructed home on Clark Avenue before buying nearby and joined Fairmont Methodist.
Spurred by enrollment at N.C. State which increased from around 1300 in 1927, the year WRPC was chartered, to over 5000 by 1948, and residential growth up and down Hillsboro Street, businesses flocked to the area. My great grandfather’s was one of those. The linen supply business he managed moved from downtown to a newly constructed facility on Hillsboro Street and opened around 1941. Photographs show a workforce segregated by race and responsibility. I’ve often wondered if the Black men and women employed there lived in nearby Method or Oberlin, or what they thought as they commuted up and down Hillsboro Street past a university that would not admit its first African American students until 1953 (graduate) and 1956 (undergraduates). Did their exclusion from company picnics bother them? Were the sites--perhaps segregated city or state parks—intentionally selected to exclude them? What did Ellen McGuire, a previously enslaved woman who retired in 1939 from N.C. State after a long career, think about these slights?
Pictured Right: African-American workers at Raleigh Linen, located just west of WRPC, 1941
As they made the journey to work each day, these workers possibly looked over to the north side of Hillsboro Street and reminisced about the grand African American State Fair held there between 1879 and 1925, or yearned for a time where they could enjoy the fair at its new site. When the Agricultural Society sold its lands in 1926 and the State Fair relocated further west to its current site in 1928 after a two-year hiatus, the African American Fair’s officials gained approval to hold the fair one more year, but the state legislature refused this privilege in 1929 and stopped its annual appropriation. The last African American State Fair was held in 1930, and for the next eighteen years, Black North Carolinians were prohibited by law from attending the State Fair. A few years after WWII, the fair installed African American exhibits as a concession but it remained segregated until 1965.
My job affords regular reminders of the evils of segregation, racial prejudice, and their legacy. But as easy as it is to be discouraged by these discoveries, I find hope in the stories of perseverance, hard work, and accomplishment displayed by countless Black men and women who have made Raleigh a better place and the examples of cooperation that continue to inspire. The Method community’s Berry O’Kelly, a successful business and civic leader who helped promote African-American education, is just one of those leaders. The auditorium at the Berry O’Kelly School stands as a reminder of one on the colossal achievements of this period. With generous support of Julius Rosenwald, the Sears and Roebuck executive whose philanthropy helped improve education for thousands of African American children throughout the rural South, Black communities in towns and rural North Carolina communities across the state contributed moneys, labor, and materials toward the construction of new schools and campus buildings. Their funding and maintenance were aided by state and local governments, as Rosenwald stipulated, a lesson that with commitment, resources, and cooperation, even the most imposing obstacles might be conquered. The Rosenwald schools that still survive remain a source of pride for the graduates and communities.
I’m awed by the bravery of students and their families, ordinary but extraordinary young people like Oberlin Village resident, Joe Holt, Jr., who attempted to integrate Raleigh’s public schools in the face of threats and opposition. Or the N.C. State students who integrated the nearby university which played such an important role in the growth and life of WRPC.
Pictured Left: Joe H. Holt, 1957.
And I’m fascinated by the story of Percy High, a Shaw University student who went on to become a Baptist minister in the Triangle, and is seen below integrating Pullen Park’s Pool in August 1962. High told reporters at the time, “We didn’t come here to integrate the pool. We came here to swim. We were riding around, it was hot and we decided we wanted to go swimming. We had the money in our pockets, so we got the tickets.” Although I know there was a little more planning and coordination involved, when I recently spoke to one of the young men who accompanied High on that hot August day, he reiterated the importance of love and friendship.
Pictured Right: Integration of Pullen Park Pool, August 1962.
Women played an instrumental role in the Civil Rights movement, and none was more important than Ella Baker, who grew up in nearby Lillington, NC. Baker organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960 at Shaw University a few months after the sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. and Nashville, TN. Young people at N.C. State and in Raleigh and across the South would embrace her message of nonviolence as they endured racism during the boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and voter registration drives of the 1960s.
There were those influential Black leaders who worked out of the public eye and behind the scenes in the business community, like High Point’s Bob Brown, one of Martin Luther King’s closest confidents. As a public relations consultant, Brown raised money for the Civil Rights movement and played an instrumental role convincing businesses to integrate their workplaces and stores. When I spoke with him about two years ago, he shared the importance of his faith.
And I was reminded by the recent CBS Sports documentary, “Big House, the Pearl, and the Triumph of Winston-Salem State” about the power of friendship and admiration forged in competition. Whether as teammates or adversaries, sports have a long history of healing divisions and racial wounds. Some of my most enduring childhood friendships are rooted in sports. The Winston-Salem State men’s basketball team was the first historically black college to win a NCAA championship of any kind. The Wake Forest standout basketball player, Billy Packer, later a coach and commentator, recounts a story of bringing the Winston-Salem State basketball team to Wake Forest’s campus during the 1966-1967 season for a secret scrimmage. The documentary shows footage of white and Black fans sitting together, cheering the team, admiring the play of the flashy guard from South Philly, Earl “the Pearl,” Monroe.