Black History Month

A History and Reflection on the Land before WRPC -written by Vann Evans

On different occasions, several members of the congregation have asked me about the significance of historical markers close to WRPC or the restrictive racial covenants in the deeds to our church property. These questions reflect our congregation’s curiosity and appetite for learning, our wrestling with the problems and divisions our country faces and the role of the church, and a recognition that the intersection of Horne and Vanderbilt has not always been a “community of God’s people, nurtured in the love of Jesus Christ, supporting each other and reaching out to the campus, city and world beyond.”

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The sanctuary where we come together to worship and find peace, celebrate weddings and baptisms, or mourn the loss of loved ones, and the buildings and gardens where we learn, work, and play, find friendship and build community, are firmly set upon grounds long soaked in racial prejudice. We are part of a society and denomination that continue to wrestle with parts of that past as we confront today and tomorrow’s challenges. As we celebrate Black History Month, it seems appropriate to reflect on these barriers and the shape they’ve taken over time, before and after WRPC’s formation, and their interference with the fulfillment of the beloved community.

Before the outbreak of the Civil War, the land on which WRPC now sits was located just outside the town limits of Raleigh and owned by James H. Cook. A prosperous man, Cook owned mills, a large landed estate in Wake County, and multiple properties within the capital city’s borders. When surveyors plotted the path for the NC Railroad, the track bisected a portion of Cook’s lands situated between what is now Hillsborough Street and Western Boulevard. The Cook family’s immense landholdings stretched further west and north along Richland’s Creek and are marked on period maps as “Mrs. Cooke” and “Cook’s Mill.”

Cook enslaved men, women, and children, as many as 25 by 1850. With large tracts of land west of Raleigh, it is difficult to say with any precision where those persons he enslaved worked or resided based on a cursory search of the documentary record. But it is likely that the ground we now worship on and its surrounding area was worked in some capacity by enslaved people. Much of the unskilled and skilled labor furnished for clearing and construction of the nearby NC Railroad was conducted by enslaved men. Property owners like Cook, of course, benefitted from these transportation improvements which added value to their land and increased their wealth.

In June 1865, Cook gifted the large tract of land on which WRPC now sits along with several others to his son-in-law, William J. Brown, a Raleigh merchant who had married Cook’s daughter, Sarah (Sallie) eight years earlier. The Browns resided on a nearby site between the Hillsborough Road and N.C. Railroad until William’s death in 1869. During the settlement of his estate, the North Carolina State Agricultural Society, which was actively searching for a larger plot of land on which to hold its annual State Fair, negotiated with his administrators and widow for the sale of two tracts of adjoining land, including the plot where WRPC is now located.

The Agricultural Society had sponsored and operated the State Fair since 1853 on a site between Hargett and Davie Streets, less than a mile east of the Capitol. No state fairs were held during the Civil War, but the grounds served as a mustering and drilling site known as Camp Ellis, and its buildings were converted to a Confederate hospital. Union soldiers destroyed the fair’s buildings in the closing weeks of the war, and no effort was made to immediately revive the fair until 1869. After its rebirth, the old site quickly proved inadequate, incapable of accommodating larger crowds. The Brown site just west of Raleigh provided a larger space for the state to showcase the state’s agricultural and industrial achievements in the postwar South.

From 1873 to 1925, the State Fair was held at this site on the north side of Hillsborough Street. The Agricultural Society constructed exhibit halls, a grand stand, and a race track. Each fall, crowds from the surrounding area made the trek to the outskirts of town, or rode the train to Raleigh and bought tickets to the fair. The grounds and buildings were also periodically used for other purposes. During the Spanish-American War, the fairgrounds served as an overflow site named Camp Daniel Russell formed to alleviate overcrowding at nearby Camp Bryan Grimes. During World War I, tank training units and soldiers temporarily occupied the site in 1918 while the Federal government constructed Camp Polk.

The evolution of the State Fair and its grounds during this period serves as an apt metaphor for the challenges Black North Carolinians faced, the accomplishments they achieved in the face of countless obstacles, the ascendancy of white supremacists, the legalization of segregation, and abandonment of previously enslaved people in favor of Gilded Age profit and imperialism.

At its core, the leadership of the Agricultural Society included many of the state’s wealthiest white men, many of who supported the state’s Democratic Party, the party which brazenly and proudly eroded the rights of African American citizens between 1875 and 1900. Yet its leadership acquiesced when Charles Hunter, a prominent Black Raleigh educator for whom Hunter Elementary is named, appealed to the society to allow his N.C. Industrial Association, incorporated in 1879, to stage a fair and showcase the accomplishments in industry, education, and agriculture of North Carolina’s Black citizens. From 1879 to 1925, Hunter’s association organized the annual African American State Fair and usually held it the week after the State Fair on the same grounds. The fair provided a forum for Hunter and other prominent Black leaders to “prove” the significant strides made by the state’s African American residents in the face of growing opposition and racism. The state legislature even provided financial support, albeit it a fifth of what it appropriated to the Agricultural Society. Prior to 1900, white political leaders and the society found the African American fair advantageous because it reduced visitation of Black fair goers to the State Fair, and it furnished an opportunity to curry favor with eligible Black voters not yet disenfranchised.              

As the twentieth century approached, the nation turned its back on the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction and its highest court declared “separate but equal” the law of land in 1896. Although they did not camp at the fairgrounds, in 1898 North Carolina furnished one of only three Black regiments, the 3rd N.C. Regiment, raised during the Spanish-American War. These brave men faced wide scale discrimination when they traveled to Tennessee and Georgia, then returned home to discover that white supremacists in Wilmington had violently overthrown democratically elected Black office holders. Largely orchestrated by Josephus Daniels, the owner and editor of the News and Observer who later served a vice-president of the Agricultural Society, newspapers across the state staged an elaborate and successful media campaign to drum up racist sentiment and disenfranchise Black voters. The effort quashed any chance of a successful Fusion government composed of a coalition of Black Republican voters and Populist whites frustrated with Democratic officials and paved the way for segregation and disenfranchisement.

The State Fair remained a popular event throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, but the Agricultural Society’s mismanagement and largesse, coupled with wartime interruptions, and a changing focus perhaps away from its roots in favor of exhibits and events that may have appealed to the more affluent left it in considerable debt. Emblematic of the shift was the appointment in 1920 of the socialite Edith Vanderbilt, the widow of George Washington Vanderbilt of Biltmore, as president of the Agricultural Society. Vanderbilt promptly promoted events showcasing expensive breeds of horses in an effort to turn the fair into a high society event and attract more money and increase ticket sales. Under her leadership, the society constructed an additional racing track and incurred even more debt.

As a child of the 1980s who endured many miles on school buses and countless trips to the State Fair, the inevitable mud covered grounds, and the delightful smell of farm animals and funnel cakes wafting through the air, it is difficult to imagine the fair as an aristocratic social gathering comprised of high browed folk sipping cocktails while scanning the grounds for a superior breeds and perfect gaits. Most North Carolinians evidently did not share this vision either. Not surprisingly, the plan failed splendidly, sinking the society deeper in debt.

As the society struggled, the gates meanwhile remained closed to Black North Carolinians unless they worked as laborers or wished to attend the African American State Fair. Black laborers and units raised during World War I and temporarily housed at the fairground had similarly been barred from using its bathrooms and given inadequate shelter. And yet in spite of the racist obstacles and insults they confronted during this period, North Carolina’s Black population made significant strides in education and business. Black entrepreneurs like John Merrick and Aaron Moore of Durham formed and expanded the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, which would grow into the largest Black owned businesses in the country; men like James O’Hara, Henry Cheatham, and George Henry White would rise to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives; and hardworking freedmen and women built working class and middle class neighborhoods like Method and Oberlin Village, and constructed schools and churches, the institutions that would sustain them during hard times.

Bailouts from wealthy benefactors never rescued the Agricultural Society. Facing mounting debts, the society sold the fairgrounds in 1926. The neighborhood that arose in its wake in the rapidly growing but segregated society of West Raleigh was Fairmont.

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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?

bhm 1Pictured 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.

bhm 2I’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.

bhm 3Pictured 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.

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