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The roads to history – all history

Churches once abandoned by Jim Crow are being rediscovered

Harold Russell contacted local historian, Tom Magnuson, to help him locate the former site of his church, Harvey's Chapel AME Church in Hillsborough, which was abandoned during Jim Crow segregation because the road became impossible to travel when
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Harold Russell contacted local historian, Tom Magnuson, to help him locate the former site of his church, Harvey's Chapel AME Church in Hillsborough, which was abandoned during Jim Crow segregation because the road became impossible to travel when

There were a multitude of cruelties and injustices during the Jim Crow era in the South, that period beginning in the 1890s when Southern governments formalized their grudge against the United States government after reconstruction.

Millions of Americans alive today can well remember the segregated bathrooms and school classrooms and all sorts of public facilities that insulted the dignity and stole the rightful equality of African-Americans. In many ways, the South still is recuperating from this disgraceful period. And now and then, yet another aspect of Jim Crow is unearthed.

In the case of some forgotten African-American churches in North Carolina, that’s the literal truth. And now, with the assistance of students and professors working through the Center for Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and their Back Ways Project (within the Southern Oral History Program), a new sort of civil rights movement is under way. It began with people such as Harold Russell, who attends Harvey’s Chapel church in Hillsborough and wants to call attention to the church’s old site, the one that was lost when Jim Crow laws forced the church to move.

What happened, apparently was that some African-American churches had to move when the counties they were in no longer would maintain or fix their access roads, which had been built for wagons but could not take low-slung automobiles.

Russell, whose great-grandfather helped found the church, then got up with Tom Magnuson, a local historian who had founded a group to map old trade routes. He has found four churches around Hillsborough that were relocated as Harvey’s Chapel was. Magnuson helped Russell and then he got in touch with UNC-Chapel Hill.

Now, university students and teachers are working toward a goal of preserving old church sites. And here’s how Rachel Cotterman, a Ph.D. student working on the project, put it: “It feels important to understand how the legally enforced racial segregation of that era was actually paved into the landscape of our state.”

Wow. She couldn’t have articulated the significance of this effort any better with 10 doctorates.

This effort truly is a blending of some of the best North Carolina has to offer. An energetic descendant, Russell, with a penchant for seeking parts of history that help tell a story of a region and his own family. A historian, Magnuson, who was determined not to be denied when it came to the literal unearthing of a period of history, the Jim Crow period, that must never be forgotten, and knew where to go to get help. And UNC-Chapel Hill’s applicable programs, where help was delivered by professional researchers who understood (see: Cotterman) how important this kind of project was.

All are due credit for something that will amplify a period of this state’s history that is as significant as it is an example of injustice, and a period of time that has been lost to so many families. It’s amazing, when considered, and the search is itself exciting. If an academic endeavor could draw applause the way athletic contests do, this one would deserve a standing ovation.

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