Community organizing mattered around Mebane, N.C.—but the struggle isn't over

Brenda and Omega Wilson. Image by Torkwase Dyson.

Brenda Wilson, now a long-time resident of North Carolina, remembers summer Saturday block parties growing up in her North Philadelphia neighborhood, 26th St. between Columbia and Oxford. There was good food, music, and dancing. But before that, there was community street maintenance.

"The city took care of the main streets, Columbia and Oxford, because you had a lot of traffic and public transportation would go on those streets, she said.” But then you had the little off streets, which would be the various blocks...I don't think they bothered with them."
The Black block neighborhoods were firmly within the city limits and residents paid municipal taxes, but did not receive the same services as those living on the wide avenues.

Brenda's grandfather, a block captain for 26th St., recruited the neighbors to apply for city grants and raise money for supplies to wash the streets and repaint the curbs and parking lines every year.

"On one particular Saturday...probably June or July, the police would come and they would block off 26th St. between Columbia and Oxford," she recalled. "They would turn on the fire hydrant, and we would get down and take the brooms and brush down the street and clean it down real good, and we had to let it dry. And then we would paint. And I enjoyed that. I remember that so well."

Thirty years later, after they’d moved to North Carolina, her husband Omega Wilson decided to split his time between running his insurance business, raising their sons, and fighting the pending destruction of his hometown. She didn't flinch.

"Living with my grandparents, Mamie and Luther Borroughs, seeing how they cared about the community...we all understood what it was like to care for something...to be a part of something," she said. "So when Omega started WERA (West End Revitalization Association), it wasn't strange for me to see what he was doing...I wanted to be a part of it."

Omega Wilson, along with his cousin Marilyn Holt Snipes, and residents of the unincorporated communities of Buckhorn, Perry Hill, and White Level, founded WERA in the early 90s to fight against the City of Mebane's systemic neglect of their mostly Black and indigenous communities, which lay just outside the city limits in Mebane's extraterritorial jurisdiction. The city's 1993 proposal to route a state highway bypass (NC-119) directly through West End and White Level, razing dozens of homes, all without community consultation, was just the biggest of a very long list of challenges.

Even though Omega grew up in these neighborhoods, his perspective on their viability changed dramatically when he moved back to West End. "My wife and I had been away from here so long...we lived in a more urban environment. So when we came back here 20-some years later Mebane didn't look like what we imagined it'd look. A lot of the houses our neighbors lived in were abandoned...We noticed that some of the toilets...were still in people's backyards. We noticed people still walking across planks, across ditches where water was to get to the mailbox. Or to get to dusty, muddy streets. We noticed that children were still walking on muddy roads to get to the school bus. And this was in the city and parts of these communities that were right outside the city. But when you got to other areas and other communities, the streets were paved, there were sidewalks, it was curb and guttering and all this kind of stuff.

“[The problems had been] there all the time, in much worse fashion, but we just took it as a way of life."

The bypass project mobilized the communities en masse, but their early
efforts were ignored or ridiculed.

"Our elected officials didn't want to meet with us. We took busloads of people and most wouldn't let us in their office. Some of the White residents would come to the city council meetings when we were there for entertainment, because they said it was better than watching TV to listen to us complain and be made fun of and criticized by the White city council members in public. A lot of these stories ended up in the newspapers, and we used these newspapers as documentation when we filed the civil rights complaint."

Rather than file a lawsuit, WERA filed an administrative complaint with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funds from race, class, and sex discrimination. The investigation found that the state Department of Transportation, along with the City of Mebane, failed to comply with laws mandating community notification, appraisal of house values, and environmental impacts assessment of the NC-119 bypass. WERA’s own EPA-funded study—conducted by scholars at UNC Chapel Hill and trained citizen scientists from the community—further demonstrated the environmental health impacts of the lack of infrastructure, which would be exacerbated by the bypass.

Finally, a senior DOJ official reached out to Omega unofficially to advise him of how to use the bypass challenge to leverage better living conditions for the communities. "The Justice Department said, 'you're being denied your right to basic amenities due to a historic pattern of discrimination,'” Omega said.

The denial of these rights, combined with the city and state's administrative failures on citing the bypass, led to a moratorium on the bypass construction, and withholding $22 million in federal funds, pending modification of the highway route and the installation of basic amenities in the communities—water and sewer infrastructure, paved roads, sidewalks, new power lines.

"[Mebane] City Council went nuts," Omega said. "I got calls, death threats, one of our sons was stopped by police while he was going to school. Just all kinds of harassments—kickbacks from our filing the civil rights complaint."

Seventeen years later, the highway has still not been built, the construction costs have skyrocketed, and WERA has seen significant, but incomplete improvements to the landscape of its communities. Mebane and Alamance County applied for some grants to assist with some of the water and sewer infrastructure, which upgraded 104 homes, but not without constant pressure from WERA. Further, Mebane rejected a $5 million grant from the state for more infrastructure in the area.

Last October, Marilyn Holt Snipes died of cancer one day before her 70th birthday, having served with WERA for 20 years, several of them as the board chair. She lived her entire life in West End, her land between Mebane's 95-year-old sewer treatment plant—she didn't receive sewer services until 2000—and an unregulated garbage dump dating far before the days of lined landfills and waste separation. It sits now on the Black end of Lee St., an innocuous-looking grass covered hill.

Snipes is buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Mebane First Presbyterian Church, only a few feet away from some of her relatives, and just yards away from an unknown number of emancipated Blacks who built the community.
Her death seems to make Omega more resolved than ever to progress the work that WERA started. Now in his late 60s, he is as recognizable by federal EPA officials as he is in his own neighborhood. He and Brenda, who retired from 35 years teaching students with disabilities across the South, travel around the country consulting with communities facing similar challenges.

WERA's model of community-based citizen science has engaged numerous university scholars, won many awards, and Omega is eager to expand the reach and scope of the model. Specifically, he wants to establish a holistic approach to providing basic amenities for entire communities at once, instead of piecemeal.

"We don't want people picking at [the problems], as my grandmother would say, like chickens picking at corn,” Omega says. They'll take all day, and dark will come and half the corn will still be on the ground. We're a community, we pay taxes, we vote, we have addresses, you know where we are, we want to do it as a community, not one street."

Lisa Perez Jackson, the former US EPA administrator, once told Omega that his goals were "not only complex, but complicated." Brenda Wilson believes they still have enough in them to pull it off. Now a grandmother herself, she channels her grandparents' constant fight for basic rights in Philadelphia, and Omega's ceaseless drive.

"My husband, when we were at Shaw University, and he was in his militant stage during the ‘70s with the large Afro and everything--he spoke his mind,” she said. “And he still does. He was kinda rough, but he's kinda smooth around the edges now. But he's still got that fire, you know? And being with him for almost 42 years, I've caught on to that fire, too."