Pennsylvania Avenue, the east-west divide of Southern Pines, crosses U.S. 1 and ascends to the west side – “Jim Town” as it was once known – backlighting home decorations, making them look blighted and destitute. In 1923, the west side was chartered as a black township, the first in N.C. and one of the few on the East Coast. To this day, in spite of the wealth and development grown up all around, nothing much has changed for this large, lackluster neighborhood of meager homes dotted with some more prosperous brick houses of the African-American middle or working class.
I moved from New York City to Southern Pines 40 years ago after losing my job during the city’s financial crisis of 1975. I crossed the Mason-Dixon line, a slave, non-slave state boundary, and discovered the “wrong side of the tracks.” This was a small resort town, and almost everything west of the railroad tracks going through the middle of town was the black side of town.
Since I arrived, the number of golf courses, gated and nongated country club communities, expensive horse farms, new restaurants, hotels, motels and shopping centers built is truly amazing. The west side of Southern Pines sits in the shadows, and black men, for the most part, still hawk the local newspaper that these days touts the coming of the U.S. Golf Opens this spring.
What effectively killed the prospects for black-owned businesses was zoning the area as residential in the 1970s. Further back, in 1931, the township’s charter was revoked, and Southern Pines annexed it. I understand water supply was one reason, but there were racist reasons. The township’s government was charged with protecting Negro criminals and of not being capable of governing and also with the danger of an epidemic that would rob the resort town of its Negro servants, reminiscent of the novel, “The Help.”
These days, the only businesses are some day cares, a barber shop, hair salon, funeral homes, one convenience store, Fat Bellies take-out and an auto repair shop that stands with two disarrayed, unused bays and one that the proprietor uses for oil changes, inspections and some larger repairs he fits in piecemeal.
I’ve gotten to know the garage owner, also the neighborhood’s perennial town council representative, over the years. And I’ve seen him vote “yes” for new development, believing that it will give people jobs, although I argue that the jobs for locals will be generally low-, even minimum wage. And my impression is that the African-Americans who’ve prospered over the years are the ones who moved away.
The owner has help sometimes, local young men learning the trade maybe until they move on, working without air-conditioning in the summer and central heat in the winter. When it rains, it showers through the places in the flat roof he has repaired repeatedly. I converse with him, we’re friendly, we’re Facebook friends, and he has experienced my opposition to growth at town council meetings. Regardless of social status, class or income level, I can’t imagine anyone, even the folks on the west side, who wouldn’t benefit from the imposition of a slow-growth agenda before we ruin what’s left of the ambiance, aesthetic and quaintness of what’s already here.
Yet most of the talk of new members on the Southern Pines Town Council is of promoting and marketing new development with no mention of the lack of development that has existed and will continue to exist on the west side while the people themselves are powerless to do anything of any magnitude.
Surrounded by abundance, there are fallow fields of the powerless all over America with a political climate that does everything it can to discourage government from helping those who need it the most.
Bob Katrin of Southern Pines is a retired instructor at Sandhills Community College.