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'Cotton and the Blues': UNC Helps Preserve Iconic All-Black Towns

Darryl Johnson, Black Mayors
Leoneda Inge

The mayors of some of America’s oldest all-black towns gathered at UNC Chapel Hill this week.

The conversations centered on history, race and how to keep these communities economically viable.

The gathering was almost like a family reunion.  The mayor of Hobson City, Alabama doesn’t always get to see the mayor of Mound Bayou, Miss.

“I’m Darryl Johnson, I’m mayor of the greatest city in Mississippi.  Mound Bayou, Mississippi."

I must say, I’m a little partial to Mound Bayou.  I lived there as a small child during the years when one of the country’s first community health centers opened.  But Johnson’s lineage has got me beat.

“I’m so much from Mound Bayou, four of my great grand-parents on my mother’s side were earlier settlers of Mound Bayou," said Johnson.

Mound Bayou was founded by two former slaves in 1887.  The histories of the other four towns in this consortium ring similar bells: Tuskegee, Alabama; Hobson City, Alabama; Grambling, Louisiana; and Eatonville, Florida.

UNC is trying to make sure these communities are still standing for generations to come.

Bill Ferris is Associate Director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South.

“These five historic black towns are iconic.  They are to the black community what Israel is to the Jewish people, what Ireland is to the Irish," said Ferris.  "They are the homeland of black experience.”

But all of these towns are struggling, a problem they share with many rural communities. 

“Well the bottom line for us is money," said Johnny Ford.

Johnny Ford is the longtime mayor of the City of Tuskegee, the largest of the five communities making up the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance and home to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University.

“We have all kinds of ideas, we have all of this history, but we do not have money and resources to preserve it, to promote it, to capitalize on it," said Ford.

Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee University
Credit Leoneda Inge
'Lifting the Veil of Ignorance' monument was unveiled on the campus of Tuskegee University in 1922.

Ford says joining forces with UNC will help connect with foundations, corporations and governments.

Bryan Giemza is the director of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection, the largest of its kind.  His team spent the past several months visiting each of the five historically black towns.

“We see this story as incredibly important because if you look at the count of historically black towns and settlements throughout the United States it’s diminishing and we want to stop that loss," said Giemza.

Giemza says the trick is doing it in a way that’s really thoughtful and involves an equal partnership.  Capitalizing on cultural tourism is a big part of the conversation.

Sade Turnipseed has been working to build a Cotton Pickers of America Monument on the outskirts of Mound Bayou.  She says it will also include a share-croppers interpretive center, right along the Blues Highway.  Turnipseed says the world needs to know cotton and the blues are inseparable.

"They went into a very soul wrenching sound that they had to kind of draw up from the ancients to just soothe their spirit."

“I’ve never picked a piece of cotton ever, but I know and understand the trauma of the stories that grand mama, them told.  And when it got so bad, they just went into a moan.  They went into a very soul wrenching sound that they had to kind of draw up from the ancients to just soothe their spirit," said Turnipseed.

And that sound became the spirituals, the blues and the music of today.

When teams of communities weren’t brainstorming about the future, they were serenaded by North Carolina Central University’s Jazz band and vocal ensemble. 

Eatonville, Florida is an example of a community that has used music, the visual arts and history to bring thousands of people to the hometown of writer Zora Neale Hurston.

Tadayuki Hara is an Associate Dean in the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida.  He’s studied the impact of the annual Zora! Festival.

“So that is a wonderful, one wonderful business model. However, having said that, that happens for one week.  How about the remaining 51 weeks of the year?  They don’t have enough cash flow. We have to think about that part," said Hara.

The questions keep coming.  Architect Everett Fly of San Antonio, Texas keeps smiling as all the mayors prepare to head home.

“The fact that all five of the mayors from the towns showed up plus three mayors from North Carolina Black Towns and Settlements is very encouraging," said Fly.

Fly helped secure a major grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to begin this process.  They hope to meet at UNC again next year.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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