Over the past two weeks, Torkwase Dyson and I have interviewed 16 Black-identified people, all of whom say they’re from a city called Mebane in Alamance County, North Carolina.
Most of the evidence supports their claims.
Their addresses are in Mebane. Their local grocer, public library, and post office are in Mebane. Their community center is in Mebane.
But they don’t live in Mebane.
The city’s boundaries stretch around their homes and even bisect their streets, but never in the over 100 years since emancipated Blacks settled on these lands has the City of Mebane incorporated them into its polity.
They can neither vote in municipal elections nor run for public office. And yet, Mebane controls their land for up to three miles outside the city limits.
The city calls it extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). Omega Wilson calls it feudalism.
I met Omega and Brenda Wilson three years ago at the North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit, where I learned that their community’s organization, West End Revitalization Association (WERA), achieved the longest ever moratorium on a major highway construction—17 years and counting.
Most of West End is located in the ETJ of Mebane, and Omega’s roots there stretch back to the post-Bellum Era. After a stint in Tougaloo, MS as a professor of Broadcasting, Omega and his family moved back to West End, where he opened an independent insurance agency. Newly retired, he recalls office visits that were about everything but buying insurance—though people would eventually do that, too.
His community wanted him to do something about the abandoned houses, the substandard housing, the lack of water and sewer infrastructure, the lack of sidewalks and paved roads.
The dead end streets.
Mebane controlled the land, but refused to provide basic services to the residents, whose septic systems were failing and whose drinking water was contaminated. The Wilsons haven’t drunk their water in years. The city would condemn properties for failing building code standards, but reject requests for public funds to support renovations for compliance.
And in 1993, unbeknownst to the community, Mebane worked with the state Department of Transportation to plan the construction of the NC 119 bypass directly through West End, destroying dozens of Black-owned homes for $25,000/house, less than the price of a vacant lot inside the city limits.
Through tremendous opposition, intimidation, and death threats, WERA defeated the bypass and secured public infrastructure for over 100 homes in the community. But as you’ll soon see, WERA’s fight is far from over.
Torkwase and I are here, not only because WERA’s story is remarkable, but also because the challenges it faced are neither new nor dwindling. Five hundred and sixty-six miles away in a Black municipality called White Hall, Alabama, the issues are nearly identical, despite the jurisdictional differences.
Black places, as we’re learning, are under nearly persistent threat of erasure. Even beyond their physical presence, their tremendous histories, cultural traditions, and institutions, are seldom preserved beyond the memories and artifacts collected by those who lived there. The NC Historic Preservation Commission, for example, deemed the historic sites of West End and other outlying Black and indigenous communities as unworthy of preservation investments, even cemeteries dating back to slavery.
However, for the people we’ve interviewed thus far, whose families built the City of Mebane and kept its economy alive in its textile factories and tobacco fields—their land, their citizenship, their traditions, their contributions are never to be discounted or disappeared.
In Conditions of Fresh Water will chronicle the histories, power struggles and victories of these historic Black places, starting with the communities on the outskirts of Mebane, North Carolina (Alamance County) and the incorporated town of White Hall, Alabama (Lowndes County). We will make all of this happen in Studio South Zero, a 6’x8’x12’ mobile solar powered artist workspace, built by Torkwase with recycled materials.
We will offer regular updates on the project as we move from NC to AL to the production of our final show, which will be at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies in March 2017.
We hope you will join us on this journey.