NC Civil Rights Trail features stories from around the state
Published 4:38 pm Friday, February 3, 2023
February is Black History Month, which should come as no surprise to anyone. It’s an annual event we hold each year to lift up the stories of Black people and celebrate accomplishments that might have otherwise been forgotten in the sands of time.
So as this year’s Black History Month begins, I thought it would be fitting to remind everyone of something that doesn’t get as much attention as it probably should. The North Carolina African American Heritage Commission has been putting together a “North Carolina Civil Rights Trail” since 2020. The group has been erecting markers throughout the state these past few years to help reveal a variety of local stories about the Civil Rights movement.
The group’s website explains, “For generations, people in North Carolina have used spaces and places to organize, strategize, and protest to advance the civil rights of people of color, especially African Americans. It is here that young people – from Raleigh to Durham, from Elizabeth City to Greensboro – were activated to protest racial injustice. It is here where everyday people from Rocky Mount, to Robeson and Halifax Counties resisted oppression and intimidation.”
The goal is to place a total of 50 markers across the state to highlight these different endeavors. The markers point out birthplaces of important people, sites of legal action, specific places where protests and other activities occurred, and even locations where civil rights leaders visited. Several markers have already been approved and put in place.
One of the first markers approved and placed on the trail was right here in Hertford County, and my editor, Cal Bryant, covered the story for this newspaper.
The marker was placed at New Ahoskie Baptist Church in August 2021 during a celebratory event that brought together many of those who worked towards ending segregation in the 1960s. The local church served as a meeting place during the Civil Rights movement where leaders planned efforts to end local segregation and expand access for the Black community to public offices, resources, and employment.
As someone who wasn’t born until a few decades after all this, I’ve always found it fascinating to learn more about what people did during those days, and see how their efforts did not go to waste. (Though, of course, there is still more work to be done today.)
Another local connection on the Civil Rights Trail is a marker dedicated to James H. Jones of Northampton County. Other former reporters of this newspaper and myself have written about Jones’ legacy before.
Jones led local efforts for school integration in the 1960s and 1970s, and became the first African American to serve on Northampton County’s school board, beginning in 1971. He later became the chair of that board in 1981, the first Black person in all of North Carolina to hold that title. His daughter, Anna Jones, later produced a documentary to share her father’s story with a wider audience.
If you’re unable to travel around the state to visit the NC Civil Rights Trail in person, you can also check it out virtually online by visiting the aahc.nc.gov website. There, you’ll find a map to explore and several dots to click on, which expand to share more information about each location.
There are still plenty of stops on the trail in the Roanoke-Chowan area and the surrounding counties. Indian Woods Baptist Church in Bertie County, for example, is included on the map for hosting the Black Belt Civil Rights and Anti-Poverty Conference in 1965, where attendees worked to advocate for voter rights registration. The conference drew over 1,000 people from 14 counties.
Further east, there are points on the map in Edenton – to mark a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in May 1966 – and Elizabeth City – to mark sit-ins and marches organized by local students from Elizabeth City State Teachers College (present day ECSU).
To the south, there are points on the map in Williamston – to mark the Williamston Freedom Movement and Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1963 – and Bear Grass – to mark a civil rights rally during that same year.
And to the west, there are a trio of points in Enfield (Halifax County) to celebrate the birthplace of Louis Austin (a Black newspaper editor), to remember the Halifax County Voters Movement, and to detail the 1966 Johnson v. Branch court case (that protected Black teachers from termination due to civil rights activities).
The map spans all across North Carolina, from the mountains in the west to the Virginia and South Carolina boarder and several points in between. There are plenty of compelling tales to read about.
I was interested in the Adkin High School Walkout story from November 1951, where all 700 students simply got up from their desks and headed outside to the streets. The students organized the event without the knowledge of their parents, teachers, or even the school administration. The protest was planned after the Kinston School Board denied a request to fund facility improvements, including modernizing the gym.
Though many of the stories featured centered around schools and churches and similar gathering places, there are others which remind readers of how deeply segregation ran. For example, two Black doctors in High Point forced the city to desegregate recreational facilities. They did this by coming to play golf at the Blair Park Municipal Golf Course repeatedly until city officials finally relented.
These are only a few examples of stories along the NC Civil Rights Trail. I encourage everyone to take a look to learn more about this part of our history.
The African American Heritage Commission is still accepting applications for the last round of trail markers, and I look forward to seeing what else will be included on the Civil Rights Trail in the future.
There is a lot of interesting history all around us, if we take the time to discover it!
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.