Wake County

Murder, money and gentrification: A Raleigh pioneer’s legacy fades from view

The news that an affordable housing complex in Southeast Raleigh had been sold last month elicited familiar frustrations about gentrification and redevelopment.

But the story behind the sale of Wintershaven Apartments is a complex one. It closes another chapter in the celebrated and sometimes-tragic history of the Winters family, one of Raleigh’s oldest and most prominent African-American families.

John W. Winters Sr., Wintershaven’s developer, spent much of his life working to provide housing options in Southeast Raleigh, a predominantly black part of the city. The troubling death of Winters’ daughter – and quarrels over money and property – have recently clouded that proud legacy.

The sale of Wintershaven and nearby Winters Square were the result of the Winters family’s deteriorating financial situation and a legal dispute over the Winters’ trusts.

Wintershaven, a federally subsidized, 60-unit complex at the corner of East and Hargett streets for low-income senior citizens and disabled residents, was built in the early 1980s and sold last month to a developer who wants to renovate the building. Winters Square, at the corner of Martin and East streets, was purchased the same day by the same buyer.

As a successful businessman, Winters helped black residents secure mortgage loans in the 1950s and ’60s, when many banks refused to lend money to African-Americans. He was elected the city’s first black city councilman in 1961 and remained active as a developer and community leader in Raleigh for decades thereafter.

“He built Wintershaven because he saw that older folks in his community needed a place to stay,” said Charles Meeker, who was mayor of Raleigh from 2001 to 2011. “John, on the one hand, was a very gracious and kind person. At the same time, he could stand up for himself and the people he thought were being treated unfairly.”

Winters, who also served as a North Carolina senator, died in 2004 at age 84. But his namesake properties have kept his legacy visible, even as Southeast Raleigh has grown and become more attractive to young professionals who want to live near downtown.

‘Warring family interests’

Attorney Bob Monroe was appointed trustee of the Winters trusts in 2012, replacing two of Winters’ daughters after “certain family members became unhappy with how the trusts were being administered,” he said.

In court documents, Monroe said the trusts were “deep in debt” when he took them over. Properties associated with the family’s trusts had been in pre-foreclosure. Meanwhile, the trusts owed $183,453 in unpaid taxes, and contractors were suing for unpaid bills.

Monroe sued Winters’ daughters, former co-trustees Frances Carter and Donna LaRoche, alleging they had mismanaged the trusts and had not filed tax returns between 2004 and 2011.

Carter denied any wrongdoing, according to court documents. So did LaRoche, whose attorney said Carter had basically managed the trusts’ affairs on her own.

“In her defense, she’s not a professional trustee,” said Bobby Khot, Carter’s attorney. “She was given this task, and there were warring family interests that were associated with it. She did the best she could with her background. A lot of times, people step into these situations they’re not prepared for because they might feel they’ve disappointed their parents if they don’t take it on.”

Carter’s daughter, Courtney Gunter, called it “a tragic situation that could have been handled among siblings rather than involving attorneys and putting this in the public domain.”

“My grandfather would be saddened that this is his legacy, and that all of this was brought to fruition by his own family – especially after all that he tried to do for the black community,” Gunter said.

As trustee, Monroe was responsible for liquidating the assets of the Winters’ trusts, including Winters’ 25 percent share in Wintershaven Limited Partnership. None of the partners were willing to buy Winters’ share, so a judge approved a deal in 2015 for the sale of Wintershaven, which was purchased in June.

Given the state of the family’s affairs, Monroe said, the sale was a matter of financial necessity rather than opportunism.

“The family members, they’re not wealthy individuals,” he said. “They need the money.”

‘Tough to swallow’

After serving on the Raleigh City Council, John W. Winters Sr. was elected in 1974 to the state Senate, becoming one of the first black senators in North Carolina. Former Gov. James Hunt appointed Winters to the state utilities commission in 1977.

While he ran a construction company, worked as a developer and served as a politician, Winters and his wife, Marie Montague Winters, had eight children between 1941 and 1958. They raised their family in their home on East Hargett Street.

John Winters Jr., the eldest son, followed in his father’s footsteps as a developer. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1984, and then stayed out of the spotlight for decades.

In 2013, nine years after his father’s death, Winters Jr. was accused of stabbing his youngest sister to death in a Knightdale apartment.

Seanne Winters Barnette, 55, a special-needs teacher, had apparently let Winters Jr., then 70, stay with her after she found out he had been living on the streets.

State troopers found a disoriented Winters Jr. in Barnette’s car on the side of an interstate in Virginia, days before Barnette’s body was found. He was later charged with her murder. His case file includes two records of commitment to a state psychiatric hospital – one from April 2016, and another from March 2017 – although he is currently listed on the Wake County Jail’s inmate roster. His lawyer declined to say where he is being held.

Whether Winters Jr. is competent to stand trial has been at issue since his arrest. A state psychiatrist reported in February 2015 that he was “incapable to proceed.”

In the 2015 report, the psychiatrist wrote that Winters Jr. had “paranoid” and “grandiose” delusions, mostly about his family. The report also said Winters Jr., now 74, had been angry because he was excluded from his father’s trusts. He sued his father in 2000 over his disinheritance.

“I saw Winters Square was being sold, but I was hoping he wouldn’t see that,” said Deonte Thomas, attorney for Winters Jr. “It’s his name on there, and having it be sold but you’re still in a position where you can’t do anything – that will be tough for him to swallow.”

Thomas said his client’s mental health is being continually re-evaluated and his case is pending.

A proud history

At Winters Square, a plaque half-obscured by overgrown grass honors Winters Sr.’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather. The property at the corner of East and Martin streets was the site of his childhood home.

Winters laid the plaque years before his death, mindful of his own legacy and that of the three generations of Winters men who had owned the land before him.

“A lot of people don’t really memorialize themselves while they’re living,” said Daniel Coleman, Winters’ godson. “They wait for society to do that once they’ve come and gone. But John wanted to show how he had been able to hold the family property. He was proud of that.”

An investment group in Austin, Texas, bought Winters Square and Wintershaven for about $7.7 million on June 6. The buyers plan to make improvements to the property and convert the one-bedroom units into traditional apartments that won’t be subsidized.

That means the residents of Wintershaven must find new homes by next August.

Winters Square won’t be immediately torn down either, although Coleman said he suspects the buyers are “waiting for the economy to cycle” before embarking on a more ambitious redevelopment plan.

Some of Winters’ work, including Biltmore Hills on Garner Road and the Madonna Acres Historic District near St. Augustine’s University, remains in Southeast Raleigh as a reminder of how he shaped the city.

Coleman, who grew up in and around the Winters household and eventually went to work for his godfather, said he hopes to work with the developers to keep the plaque on the property – and keep Winters’ legacy alive.

“We used to walk this block every morning, and I know he had it in his mind that he would set up an operation that after his death would support this community,” Coleman said. “That didn’t happen, now, and there’s no need on dwelling on what didn’t happen. But as someone in this community, I want to make sure we finish up what he started.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan