'27 Views of Raleigh' excerpt by Kelly Starling Lyons: 'Gateway to the Past'

September 21, 2013 

When I came to Raleigh, I didn’t know what to expect. Culturally rich and family-focused, it felt familiar and foreign at the same time .... But though I met many transplants like me from the North, Raleigh was unmistakably Southern. Tea was served sweet. A house of worship was a staple. And elders wanted to know who your people were. They asked, not to be nosy but to affirm that you were part of a legacy. You came from somebody.

As I got to know my new city ... I felt the pull of history. Being here – where enslaved African Americans toiled and prayed for freedom, where foot soldiers of the civil rights movement stood up for equality and justice, where African Americans created thriving businesses and art – pieces of the past connected with my soul .... The stories my grandparents had told and events I read about in history books came to life as I explored the city .... Raleigh was a gateway.

... My husband and I became members of St. Paul AME on Edenton Street. Church history says it’s the oldest black church in Wake County. In that sacred space, I sang hymns and spirituals I remembered from childhood. As the congregation’s chorus of voices merged into one, the music filled me up just like it had when I was young. But I felt something else when I sang the words, too. Laced between the lyrics was the knowledge that some of these songs were sung during slavery. Some of the songs were sung through the joys of emancipation and the realities of Reconstruction. These songs were a testament to folks whose belief in God carried them through unimaginable struggles and delivered them to a new life. I could feel their faith and love.

Everywhere I looked, I found bridges to yesterday. Family friends lived near Chavis Park, named for John Chavis, a free African American teacher and minister who taught black and white children in Raleigh in the 1800s. One of my friends told me about how families would flock to the park to ride the beautiful carousel and splash in a pool that attracted visitors from other states.

Driving to Krispy Kreme took me past Peace College. The main building, I learned, had been a district headquarters for the Freedmen’s Bureau where freedmen and women could receive help with getting an education and securing jobs. A visit to Shaw University revealed that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the vital organizations of the civil rights movement, was founded there. I marveled at the historical treasures that were just steps away.

Along with finding links to the past in places, I found them in people too. I met the son of Raleigh’s first black mayor who is a community servant and leader himself, a couple who passed out water at the March on Washington in 1963 .... Their lives were testimonies to the heritage around me everywhere.

As I got to know more about the landmarks and people that connected with African American history, my interest in my family’s history grew. My granddad was born in Leaksville (Eden), North Carolina. Would living in Raleigh bring me closer to my roots? The State Library of North Carolina held my answer. A book there ... mentioned of a slave named Ivory, my great-great-great-grandfather. In another part of the library, I saw the death certificate for his son, my great-great-grandfather Peter Hairston, who owned land and built a life in Rockingham County. That discovery sent me on an odyssey to learn more and connect with branches of my family tree that included cousins who live in Wake County.

... Living in Raleigh has heightened my interest in the past and in people's stories of their lives. But here, I no longer just listen to the stories. I have become a teller, too.

... Last year, [my family] ... drove down Oberlin Road. I told my kids about a settlement of freedpeople who once called that area home. They created a community, called Oberlin Village, with houses, churches, and businesses. A minister founded Latta University there in 1892 to educate the descendants of people who had been enslaved.

“Really?” my daughter said. “That’s cool.”

I think so too. I’m grateful that pieces of the past are around us every day. I’ve lived in Raleigh for more than a decade and feel like it is part of me. Here, my kids know that they too came from somebody. They are part of a legacy.

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