Celebrate 75 Years With the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP

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By the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP | Research by Mike Ogle

Seventy-five years ago on Oct. 23, 1947, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP officially convened for the first time. The national organization had been founded 38 years prior in 1909, spurred by the thousands of racial terror lynchings plaguing the nation. By 1947, lynchings were still occurring but with less frequency, and many more issues needed to be confronted on a path toward racial equity and justice.

A 1947 edition of The Daily Tar Heel had an announcement of the formation of a local NAACP branch.
A 1947 edition of The Daily Tar Heel had an announcement of the formation of a local NAACP branch. Courtesy of Digital NC

The year 1947 in America was a time of tension and change. Especially in the South. Chapel Hill was no different. Black American soldiers were returning from fighting a war against oppression and genocide in Europe, where they personally experienced better treatment than they were used to, only to come home to familiar racial tyranny here. Black Americans had been fighting back for generations – during slavery and in the eight decades since – each successive generation making more gains and then demanding more. But progress had been slow and painful. Now it was becoming apparent that they did not intend to live under Jim Crow much longer.

In Chapel Hill, we faced what would infamously be called “candy- coated racism.” In Carrboro, a sundown town dangerous for Black people to venture into at night past the railroad tracks, there was nothing sweet about it. In 1947, the year the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch was founded, the Journey of Reconciliation’s organizers made Chapel Hill a stop on the First Freedom Riders’ trip testing compliance with the outlawing of segregated seating on interstate transportation. Chapel Hill was intentionally selected because the year before a police officer had pointed a gun at a man’s head for riding in the wrong section of a bus. When the interracial group of Freedom Riders arrived at the downtown bus station, white people violently attacked them. Those Journey of Reconciliation Freedom Riders were vigorously prosecuted for violating segregation law by a sitting local judge, who was operating as a private prosecutor. According to a Freedom Rider who wrote for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine founded by W.E.B. DuBois, that judge – a friend of every powerful person in the county – delivered a passionate white supremacist speech in Chapel Hill court. The Freedom Riders were sent to chain gangs.

Local Black people had been politically active here since emancipation, and surely before as well, even in the face of violence and terror. A few months after the Civil War’s end, UNC students attacked a political meeting of Black people, hurling rocks and threatening to burn down the building before participants leapt from the second floor to escape. Amid decades of Jim Crow, labor organizing by Black workers at UNC such as janitors and laundry and cafeteria workers became a central component of local organizing. So too did developing schools. Throughout and including the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, local Black people feared losing jobs or risking family members’ employment for speaking up or joining demonstrations. Most worked for poverty wages. Many were employed by the university. Many spoke out anyway at great risk. At times in the first decades of the local NAACP, branch members hid their membership cards, and notices for branch meetings were discretely publicized.

Before our NAACP branch opened, numerous other advocacy groups existed here, such as the Hostess Club, the Janitors’ Association and the Negro Civic Club. There would be many more over the next 75 years that have continued to fight alongside us. That spirit has always lived among our community. On Oct. 23, 1947, the first official meeting of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP was held at what was then called the Negro Community Center, now named the Hargraves Center. The community center had been barracks for Black sailors when the U.S. Navy trained in Chapel Hill for World War II but were barred from bunking with their white fellow sailors on campus. The community center had just been built, in part, because of a race riot in which white locals indiscriminately fired guns into a crowd of Black people. In response, the powers that be decided it’d be best if Black people had a recreational place to congregate inside their neighborhood, and the towns and university purchased heavy weaponry for local police.

The early meetings of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP took place at a rotation of meaningful locations: the Negro Community Center, St. Joseph Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, First Baptist Church (then Rock Hill Baptist) and Second Baptist Church. At the second meeting, branch members elected our first officers. Our original branch officers were Adolphus Clark, president; Hubert Robinson, vice president; Lucy Edwards, secretary; and Ruth Pope, treasurer.

Among the first issues the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP tackled were developing night classes to advance educational opportunities, getting community representation on town commissions, building town recreation facilities, advocating for police reform and equitable legal representation, registering voters and getting out the vote, a school bond for overcrowded Lincoln High School, pedestrian safety for school children, civil rights, hosting social functions, publishing a newspaper about branch activities and establishing a youth council for the branch. Meetings sometimes featured musical performances, including by the Orange County Training School band.

The NAACP was at the center of the fights to get Black students admitted to UNC. The NAACP’s legal apparatus, including Thurgood Marshall, backed the push by the family of 12-year-old Stanley Vickers to force Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to desegregate years after Brown v. Board of Education. When brave teenagers sparked the sit-in movement in Chapel Hill, Floyd McKissick had them sign up as NAACP members so the organization could provide legal representation. Long after the university desegregated, the NAACP picketed North Carolina Memorial Hospital, now named UNC Health, for its segregated services, which severely diminished the medical care available to Black residents across North Carolina.

For desegregation to be realized locally, most of those civil rights battles had to be won in court or the halls of Congress. In the years that followed, there have been many other triumphs, as well as tragedies. Howard Lee was elected the first Black mayor of Chapel Hill (the first Black mayor of a predominantly white, Southern town), and Robert Drakeford soon followed in Carrboro. However, neither town has had a Black mayor since. James Cates, a local young man, was stabbed by white supremacists, and police stood by as he bled to death on campus. Braxton Foushee, as one example – a longtime community and political leader, a lifetime NAACP member and still a branch stalwart – helped bring needed progress to Carrboro after being elected as the first Black alderman in Carrboro in 1969. He hasn’t missed a chance to exercise his right to vote since first becoming eligible more than 60 years ago.

During the most recent 25 years, the branch has been involved in causes very much connected to – and sometimes still quite similar to – ones that required our founders’ attention 75 years ago. We’ve continued to stay on top of labor fights, both with private and public employers. We’ve fought to keep people in danger of eviction in their homes while advocating for a badly needed increase of affordable ones. We’ve helped individuals with public housing and workplace discrimination grievances. We’ve helped organize mobile home communities threatened with erasure. We were at the forefront of renaming Airport Road as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and in getting a state historical marker for those Journey of Reconciliation Freedom Riders who were attacked just before the branch was formed in 1947.

We’ve supported student activists and Confederate monument demonstrators. We helped get the Confederate flag banned from public schools and have continued the ongoing struggle for equity and opportunity for our children in the school system. We host candidate forums to help educate the public on those running for elected offices in our towns and county. We hold town, county and university leaders accountable. We’ve pressed for and won more just law enforcement and prosecutorial practices, and we’ve fought onerous no-trespass lists for public housing. We host frequent educational programs, film screenings, forums, history lessons and public discussions, as well as support local artists.

At one of our early meetings shortly after the branch was first formed, members read aloud biographies of the national founders of the NAACP from 1909 such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells. On the occasion of our branch’s 75th anniversary, we find it similarly appropriate to take a look back at the original founders of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP:

ADOLPHUS DOUGLAS CLARKADOLPHUS DOUGLAS CLARK, or A.D. Clark, as we still call him today, is the namesake of the Hargraves Community Center’s swimming pool and was elected the first president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP. He was the son of a formerly enslaved man and had served in the U.S. Army in France during World War I. He became a widower and single father at a young age before remarrying and was a lifelong leader at the church of his youth in Chatham County. He was chairman of the Negro Civic Club and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Swimming Pool Association. He had been a founder and head of the Chatham County NAACP as well. After beginning as a landscaper at UNC, A.D. became the supervisor of the university library’s mailing, shipping and receiving department for 30 years. There, he was a popular employee who devoured books in the library after not having attended high school. Upon his retirement after 50 years as the head of the Chatham County Usher’s Union, his pastor said: “To know him is to love him. A man of courage speaking and doing those things that are for the betterment of mankind.”

HUBERT ROBINSON became the branch’s first vice president in 1947, and six years later, he was elected as the first Black alderman in Chapel Hill of the 20th century. Hubert and others had been meeting to organize the branch for at least two months before the first official meeting took place, and he was temporary chairman during that time. He was also the butler, chauffeur and gardener for the family of Frank Porter Graham, one of UNC’s presidents, and was later a janitor at the university. He was an active member of many organizations, such as the Negro Civic Club, the Negro Community Center, the PTA, community advisory boards and the Masons. He also served as a truancy officer to improve Black student attendance. He said a major factor in school absences was parents’ inability to afford proper clothing and shoes. “I investigate their financial condition,” he said then, “and if they can qualify, I give them a note to the welfare department and [they] give them an outfit.” In his scrapbooks, he pasted news articles marking progress in battles for racial equality across the country alongside examples of successful Black Americans. Hubert was an integral part of the Democratic Party in North Carolina and was appointed to positions by governors, and in his archived papers are a signed letter from John F. Kennedy and an invitation to Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration.

LUCY EDWARDS was elected the first branch treasurer. Her formal education concluded with the second grade, but like so many others like her, she strived and achieved in the face of tremendous challenges. Lucy lived with her family on West Franklin Street in the days when the area was a place where Black people owned homes and many businesses. Two of her sons served in the U.S. Army. Like many other women from her side of town, she worked for UNC at the University Laundry on Cameron Avenue as an ironer. Later on, she went into business for herself, opening her own shop on West Franklin Street, the Edwards Hand Laundry, which was located where Mediterranean Deli’s market is now, then across the street from the Hollywood Grill and Cab Company, also Black-owned businesses. Lucy was also a den mother for the Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts. In the second year of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP branch’s existence, Lucy stepped aside after her term but remained active with the branch. A.D. Clark took over the treasurer duties, and Henry Edwards, Lucy’s West Franklin Street neighbor in his mid-20s, replaced A.D. as branch president.

RUTH POPE, the first branch secretary, was the daughter of the only African American to run for mayor of a capital city in the South during Jim Crow, and their family home in Raleigh is now
a museum. Ruth graduated from Shaw University and earned her master’s degree at Columbia University. She was a beloved home economics, child care and family living teacher in Chapel Hill for decades, working at the Orange County Training School and Lincoln High School for more than 25 years during segregation and then was one of the few Black educators kept on after school desegregation. She continued at Chapel Hill High School for many more years. Ruth also taught adult classes and mentored many young women, and she established a child care center at Chapel Hill High where teachers could leave their young children in good hands. She helped found a national home economics club for Black youth and served as president of the North Carolina Association of Home Economists several years before schools were fully desegregated. In 1972, she was named the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Teacher of the Year. Upon receiving the honor, Ruth said: “I believe that everyone should have an opportunity for a well-balanced education. … To this end, I devote my time to youth, in and out of school.”

We tell their stories on our branch’s 75th anniversary because it is important to remember and honor our founding men and women. We also tell these stories because their stories are our stories. We see in them the countless hundreds who have served as Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP officers, committee chairs and executive committee members over the last 75 years. We see in them the thousands of branch members over that time, too. We are all connected: the ancestors and descendants of this struggle. There are too many people to name and too many battles to conjure. But as the struggle has continued, so have we.

In recent years, our open branch meetings have typically taken place at the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association community center when they aren’t online on Zoom. And any time you’re at a local coffee shop, you’re likely sharing space with one of our committees or subcommittees strategizing at another table on issues of housing, education, labor, criminal justice, economic development, environmental and climate justice, health and wellness, legal redress, religious affairs and political action.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP has taken on countless issues over 75 years. We’ve experienced many victories as well as many defeats – or rather, victories yet to come. As we celebrate our branch’s 75th anniversary, we are fortunate to have seven living presidents to celebrate along with us: L. Gene Hatley, Eugene Farrar, Michelle Laws, Robert Campbell, Anna Richards and our current president, Dawna Jones.

We salute all former and current officers and members – of all races, ethnicities and faiths – for joining us in these fights. The struggle continues. So does the solidarity. Together, we win.

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