By Renée S. Gordon
Revolutionary War Canons at Battleground Park in Greensboro.
Photo by Heath Oldham
Blacks were introduced into what is now North Carolina by Spanish explorers who attempted to colonize an area near Cape Fear in the early 16th-century. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake abandoned a number of slaves near Roanoke that had been taken during raids in the West Indies. The first Europeans to permanently settle, along with their slaves, migrated from other colonies in the 1650s. Settlement began in earnest when, in 1663, Charles II granted the Carolina Charter, roughly the land from the southern Virginia border to Florida, to eight Lord Proprietors. To ensure that their investment was profitable they instituted a system under which each settler who brought a slave into the colony would receive a certain amount of land.
Early colonists generally purchased slaves from other colonies because, due to the dangerous, shoal-lined coast, slave ships did not dock in any of North Carolina’s ports other than Wilmington. This changed by the end of the 17th century and by 1710 nearly half the population, 308, were blacks. In 1790, there were 100,572 enslaved people and at the start of the Civil War more than 325,000 were held in bondage.
North Carolina’s story is not as simple as those numbers would have you believe. The Quakers of Piedmont North Carolina, many transplanted northerners, were actively engaged in the anti-slavery movement. Levi Coffin, who would become known as the “President of the Underground Railroad,” began his career as conductor and stationmaster as a teen in North Carolina. In 1821, he started a Sunday school to teach blacks to read but was met with harassment. In 1826 he relocated to Indiana and guided fugitives, not on the initial steps on the journey, but near the end. North Carolina’s most famous escapees, David Walker, Harriet Jacobs and Lunsford Lane who later settled in Philadelphia, each wrote accounts of their flight to freedom. True to the dichotomy that is North Carolina, John Carruthers Stanly, born a slave, was for several years the largest owner of black slaves in the state and held 163 in bondage.
It was the last state, after heated debate, to secede from the Union and 15,000 whites fought against the Confederacy. Ten percent of the slaves escaped and fled to the Union lines during the war and ultimately North Carolina had more volunteers and more casualties than any other state.
At the end of the 19th-century industrialization brought with it greater opportunities for whites and an onslaught of segregationist laws and policies for blacks. At the turn of the century, blacks comprised 75% of the labor force, filling the lowest paid positions. The stage was set for the coming Civil Rights struggle and the area known as the Piedmont Triad, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point in the north central portion of the state, was to figure prominently in events that would indelibly shape American history.
The Greensboro Historic District is bounded by Elm, South Davie, South Green, East & West Washington Streets. Elm Street is anchored by Bennett College and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T) at one end.
Bennett College was established as a coeducational institution in 1873. It was named in honor of Lyman Bennett whose donations facilitated the purchased of land. In 1926, it became a college for women and remains an outstanding, private, liberal arts institution. www.bennett.edu
In 1958, Dr. King went to Greensboro to speak but was denied a forum at A&T, probably because of its status as a state school. President Dr. Willa Player of Bennett allowed him to speak in Pfeiffer Chapel. Ezell Blair. An A&T student, heard him and was moved to act on his convictions.
On February 1, 2010, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum opened on the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in in the F. W. Woolworth Building, 132 South Elm St., in which the events unfolded. Four students seated themselves at 4 PM at the “Whites Only” lunch counter. When refused service they continued to sit until the store closed. Within two weeks, sit-ins were being staged throughout the South and that year 60 stores were integrated.
Tours begin in the lobby where the inductees into the Alston-James Civil and Human Rights Hall of Fame’s names are inscribed. All tours of the are guided and include two floors, 30,00-sq.-ft., of exhibit space. The museum’s mission is to focus on Civil and Human Rights through the lens of the movement in Greensboro.
On the lower level the introductory gallery opens with a diaphonous American flag through which visitors see slave shackles, auction signs and other symbols of America’s contradictions and a video provides background information. As you move into the second area, “The Hall of Shame,” you pass a Klan robe in a solitary showcase, a precursor of the displays in the gallery. This area contains photograhic depictions of the horror of the Jim Crow Era and ends with a photo of Emmett Till.
“A Moment That Changed America” begins with a video re-enactment of the planning session of January 31, 1960 in an A&T dorm at 2128 Scott Hall. At the conclusion of the film a replica of the room and bricks from the hall are on view.
The “Walk of Courage” is lined with a mural that depicts establishments the four freshmen would have passed on their walk to Woolworths. A portion of the passage is filled with portraits of people, Douglass, Truth, Tubman, etc., who were their spiritual companions and models. The path ends inside the store, facing the lunch counter. It has been retro-fitted to look as it did then, complete with stools, menus and posters. Five mirrors behind the counter become video monitors and you become part of history as figures appear in the glass and suddenly you are there reliving the sit-in.
The sit-in continued until July 25, 1960 with students from nearby Dudley High School taking the place of college students during summer break. The lunch counter was integrated by the manager when on that date he had the black employees of the store change into street clothes and sit down to be served.
The tour continues with places and situations that were considered battlegrounds. A highlight in this section include a two-sided soda machine. One side was for blacks and one side was for whites only. The “black” side cost more.
The final gallery, “A Changed World,” culminates with a quote from President Obama, “These now are the walls we must tear down.” The last showcase features East Berlin, South Africa, and Tianamen Square. www.sitinmovement.org
The “Greensboro Four,” Ezell Blair, Jr, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNiel and David Richmond are depicted in a bronze sculpture on the A&T campus in front of the Mattye Reed African Heritage Center. 1601 E. Market St.
A&T was North Carolina’s first land grant college. Founded in Raleigh in 1891, it moved to Greensboro in 1893 because the residents of the city donated $11,000 and 14-acres of land. It houses five of the oldest extant structures in the state
Greensboro Historical Museum, 130 Summit Ave., is a wonderful place for an orientation on Greensboro’s history. Visitors walk-thru facsimiles of historic buildings beginning with the Piedmont Hotel, the city’s first and Mrs. Clegg’s hotel, an African American establishment. O’Henry and the Richardson family of Vick’s fame are represented here.
The Confederate Arms Collection, donated by Dr. Murphy, is the jewel of the museum’s holdings. The story of William Finley, a slave forced to work in the Dickinson Armory, is interpreted here. There are more than 300 objects in the collection, one of the largest in the country. www.greensborohistory.org
The African American Atelier Art Gallery is located inside the Greensboro Cultural Center. The gallery exhibits art created by artists with a North Carolina connection. 200 N. Davie St., wwwafricanamericanatelier.org
Greensboro’s Proximity Hotel is the sole hotel in this hemisphere to receive the LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. As both a luxury hotel and the greenest in America it has been the accommodation of choice for the famous and the conscientious including President Obama. In keeping with their commitment to cultural diversity and to honor the opening of the International Civil Rights Museum the Proximity is offering a spectacular package that includes a Loft King guestroom with in suite breakfast, round trip transportation and a donation to the museum.
The hotel is lush and luxurious with all the standard amenities plus free WI-FI, pool, the Print Works Bistro, Fitness Studio, spa services, exemplery service and platinum hospitality. It has been featured in numerous magazines and travel programs. You can be a part of history when staying at the Proximity. Information, reservations, gift certificates and photographs are available on the website. www.proximityhotel.com
North Carolina is a surprising destination. You can learn more and plan your visit at www.greensboronc.org
Remember to return for part two.
I wish you smooth and safe travels!