I made a late-night run to Walmart to buy, you know, the kind of stuff you get late night at Walmart. While in line, I saw a co-worker from years ago. We chatted. She asked a question and also made a statement that I have heard so many times in my adult life.
She asked, “Where are you from? You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” I told her, proudly, that I was born and raised in Chapel Hill.
I knew what was coming next: “Reeeeeaaaaallllly?! I didn’t know there were any black people from Chapel Hill!”
OK. I have had many reactions to this over the years, but I have managed to remember my manners and my grandmother’s voice is as clear as the ocean sound inside a seashell: “Shug, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Just smile and nod. Sometimes people don’t mean any harm.” Thanks, Grandma. So, I smiled and just said, “Yes, there are plenty of black people from Chapel Hill.” But then …. She went on and on and on. Like many have done. I was not in the mood to explain to yet another ‘doesn’t-mean-any-harm’ person about Chapel Hill and the long history of black people in the town. I had just hugged this person and said it was good to see her. “God help me, I don’t want to cuss,” I thought.
I didn’t. I just nodded like one of those little plastic fuzzy Chihuahua dogs that used to be in the back of people’s station wagons in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
It was my turn at the cashier. So I said, smiling, “Tell your hubby hello. Good to see ya again!” and I thought, ‘Cynthia, now you are just lying!’ My smile turned to an eye roll as soon as she was out of sight.
So, I got my stuff and I went home, but I decided I needed to set the record straight. There are black people from Chapel Hill. Always have been, always will be.
We are every path, road, sidewalk, hospital hall, UNC building, Franklin Street restaurant and bar. Every Rosemary Street block. Every black church that holds up the western border of town – St. Joseph CME, St. Paul AME, FBC (First Baptist Church) and Second Baptist – plus Hickory Grove, Hamlet Chapel, O’Bryant Chapel and Terrells Creek. We are Northside and Tin Top and the Hargraves Community Center. And Merritt Mill and Lindsay and McDade and Church streets. Caldwell, Pritchard, Graham, Sunset, 54, Craig, Eubanks, Piney Mt., Old Lystra, Rogers Road, Old 86 and everything in between, beside and over yonder! We are here from A to Z.
We are the Alstons, Arringtons, Atwaters, Andersons, Atkins, Barbees, Booths, Burnettes, Browns, Bumphus, Brooks, Battle, Bynums, Byrds, Bobos, Baldwins, Boyds, Ballentines, Caldwells, Clarks, Cooleys, Cordells, Cottens and Cottons, Carvers, Couch, Coles, Campbells, Councils, Craigs, Curtis, Davis, Degraffenreidts, Dukes, Durhams, Edwards, Edmonds, Eubanks, Foushees, Fosters, Farringtons and Fearingtons, Farrows and Farrars, Fullers, Geers, Garretts, Gillispees, Guthries, Hargraves, Hines, Hackneys, Headens, Hogans, Heltons, Hoyts, Hortons, Hopkins, Ingrams, Jones, Jacksons, Johnsons, Jacobs, James, Kirklands, Lyons, Lees, Langleys, Lydes, Lampleys, Lindseys, Masseys, Masons, Manleys, Manns, Merritts, McCauleys, McDougalds, Minors, Mitchells, Moores, Morrows, McMillans, Malloys, Millers, Nevilles, Neelys, Nickersons, Nunns, Norwoods, Oldhams, Paiges, Peermans, Perrys, Purefoys, Parkers, Pendergrafts, Powells, Parrishes, Peaces, Rankins, Registers, Riggsbees, Rogers, Robinsons, Smiths, Sharps, Scurlocks, Snipes, Strowds, Suggs, Sellars, Swains, Thompsons, Tates, Taylors, Tucks, Terrells, Tollivers, Van Hooks, Weavers, Webbs, Williamses, Watsons, Watlingtons, Wallaces, Wades, Wards, Washingtons, Vickers, Youngs, Yarboroughs, and I think there was a Zollercoffer here, too!
We helped build and sustain and maintain this “Southern Part of Heaven” that is not just UNC and the home of the Tar Heels. It is the home of Pottersfield, Ridgefield, Lincoln High and ‘… up to the Center’ at Hargraves and Vacation Bible School at all those churches. We bought pickles, chips and candy from Mr. Bynum Weaver – and that same Mr. Bynum ran the black funeral home that gave our beloved relatives a homegoing burial with love, family and pride. We bought penny candy from Mr. Horace Brewer and ice cream cones after Sunday school at The Dairy Bar on Franklin Street – or from the ice cream truck or Mr. Junebug. We rode our bikes on the UNC campus when Charlie Scott changed Tar Heel basketball for the better, paving the way for the likes of Phil Ford, James Worthy and Michael Jordan and played ball in Carmichael Auditorium while Dean Smith was working on ‘four corners’ and was just becoming one of the greatest coaches of all time. We buried our ancestors in the segregated cemetery in the middle of UNC’s campus right beside the nationally renowned PlayMakers Repertory Company. We have watched our neighboring town of Carrboro change from a place where the kids threw rocks at us and unleashed their dogs on us as soon as we got near the railroad track into an accepting town of many colors of the rainbow.
We fished at Grandma’s Lake and rode our bikes around the Old Well and the UNC President’s house where Frank Porter Graham and Bill Friday lived and where Margaret Spellings now lives. We wandered the halls of Morehead Planetarium on any given day, because we could. We housed black WWII soldiers because nobody else would. We went to school with Dean Smith’s kids. We dropped our daddies off at the Elks Lodge. We got Mercurochrome, bandages and cough drops from Big John’s and Sutton’s; and couture fashion from Mr. Diabs and Alexander Julian when he was just a great tailor located on Franklin Street. And some of us are descendants of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, an American blues and folk musician and songwriter who played a right-handed guitar upside down because she was left-handed. We bought the better Big Macs from a place called Burger Chef on Rosemary Street. We go to church with Mama Dip and are friends with her children. We were the people who once lived in the house where the new Marriott hotel is being built on Rosemary and Church streets. We ran restaurants and businesses where there is now The Franklin Hotel and the Midway Business Center. We celebrated major- and pro-league ability athletes and the best marching bands and majorettes at Lincoln High. We elected a black mayor – Mayor Howard Lee – before it was cool. We used to be the only people swimming and playing ball at the Hargraves Center because it was the only place we could go.
We are here. Always have been. We are Chapel Hill, too.