The Rev. William Richardson remembers when nine African-American Orange High School students lobbied to include certain black history readings into the newly integrated Orange County Schools curriculum – and were suspended by the Board of Education.
Then a pastor at Mount Bright Baptist Church in Hillsborough, Richardson watched “grown men cry,” as local church and community members rallied to defend the students, to deaf ears. Some of the suspended students lost their faith in the educational system and never went back to school, he said.
But Richardson, now a pastor at First Community Missionary Baptist Church in Hillsborough, also remembers triumphs: local churches uniting during the civil rights movement to get out the vote, integrate businesses and schools, and create recreational activities for black youth.
Richardson shared his memories during “The Black Church, Freedom, and Civil Rights,” a program hosted by Free Spirit Freedom on Jan. 10, featuring photographs of Hillsborough’s historic black churches by local photographer Jacquelin Liggins and stories from church members who lived through the civil rights era.
“From the days of slavery to the 21st century, black churches historically assumed a central role in the struggle for freedom,” said Renee Price, co-founder of Free Spirit Freedom and and Orange County commissioner.
“At times (the church) was a safe haven, a refuge, a wellspring of hope … a place of unity, where people also shared a sense of community.”
Free Spirit Freedom, a community-based cultural arts initiative, draws on history and the arts to bear witness to struggles for civil rights and social economic equality. Begun in 2010 by Price and Thomas Watson, and currently under the Hillsborough Arts Council’s fiscal umbrella, the group aims to highlight the role of people of color in Orange County’s history and build cross-cultural understanding.
“With stories, you begin to open up,” Price said. “So many stories now are hidden. You bring out some old photographs, and people start remembering – and stories start coming out.”
About 100 people gathered Jan. 10 to hear the stories and see photographs of Dickerson Chapel AME Church, Mount Bright Baptist Church, and Mebane’s Chapel United Holy Church. The black-and-white photos introduced participants to the physical world of those “safe havens” – including the hard-carved bench that original Mount Bright members carried when they left First Baptist Church of Hillsborough to form a black church in 1866.
Settled into rocking chairs, the panelists – “storytellers” – recounted growing up in the church, in a segregated world. Myrtle Mayo, of Dickerson Chapel, recalled the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and how her distraught daughter, who was attending a mostly white school, called for Mayo to pick her up.
“The students around her were jumping and praising that Martin Luther King had been assassinated,” Mayo said.
Keeping it together
George Whitted, of Mount Bright, emphasized the stability and peace that the churches offered.
“The churches at that time worked together, and it was just up to them to come together and keep the community together,” Whitted said. “They would come together and come up with strategies to keep everyone united and on the same page, where things could move peacefully.”
The churches recognized that black youth, barred from white recreation, needed healthy outlets to play, Richardson remembered. When the town of Hillsborough refused to sponsor black teams, the churches created their own evening softball league, with hand-me-down equipment, on the grounds where the Whitted Building now stands.
But about a week after the league began, the town removed the field’s lights, claiming the games were a town liability, Richardson recalled. When the churches offered to cover insurance costs, the town explained it would be too difficult to re-install the lights.
“I guess the good (town) fathers saw too much togetherness, coming together in the black community,” Richardson said.
“Any time you get a group of black folks together, there’s a cohesion – and (the fear from officials) that we become politically astute.”
The league folded, although the churches’ efforts paved the way for integrated recreation.
‘A time for change’
The storytelling and photos triggered an outpouring of memories from both panelists and attendees – many of whom, black and white, shared their own experiences of racism and activism.
Hillsborough resident Fay Bryant Mayo, a student at North Carolina Central from 1959-1963, recounted days from the heart of the desegregation struggle. As a member of the NAACP College Chapter, she joined other students in Durham protests at Woolworth’s, the Carolina Theatre, and the Howard Johnson’s ice cream parlor.
“We walked and walked around the theater, trying to purchase tickets so we could go into the theater and not have to sit in the balcony,” Mayo said.
“We wanted to go inside (Howard Johnson’s) and purchase ice cream, and as a result we were taken to jail.”
“It was a time for change, it was a time for justice, it was a time for peace. It was time for the community to come together.”
Glancing around the room, Mayo said the attendees’ faces, spanning the spectrum of ages and races, gave her hope that the community might still want to come together.
“I was surprised to see this large group, I really was,” she said. “ So I can see there’s really some togetherness here.”
Richardson called on local churches to unite again to support early childhood education, healthy opportunities for young people and political involvement.
“I think that the church should be involved in giving instruction on how to participate politically, to alleviate some of the stresses in the community and bring awareness of what can be done through good political organizing,” he said.
“(The church) should be a voice in helping to relieve the community of racism and to be about equality for everyone.”