Finding Black independence in Mebane

Eleanor Graves. Photo courtesy Torkwase Dyson.

Newly emancipated Blacks laid the cornerstone of the Mebane First Presbyterian Church in 1868, in the community that became West End. The act itself was an explicit rejection of most White churches, where they were forced to sit in segregated pews, subjected to a vision of God who ordained White supremacy and encouraged Black enslavement. It was also an act of independence—Black religious organizations were the center of social and political life and identity formation. The brick and mortar building gave visibility and permanence to Black tradition, to Black placemaking.

To Black power.

Mebane First Presbyterian Church was a starting point for a flourish of post-Bellum Black residential and institution building in the unincorporated communities of West End, East End, White Level, Buckhorn, Cheeks' Crossing, Hawfields, Pleasant Grove, and later Perry Hill. The town of Mebanesville—now known as Mebane—was incorporated by Whites in 1881, who drew the town's boundaries to exclude the burgeoning Black communities, even as they incentivized Blacks to remain in the area to work as sharecroppers in fields, and to labor in textile mills and furniture factories.

The lands on which Black folk settled were acquired by purchase from former slaveholders, by family inheritance, by possession. Without a municipal government, the power structure of the communities was decentralized. Churches, business owners, and community members played various leadership roles to provide public services—digging community wells, providing housing and food, creating education and recreation opportunities for children.

In each of our interviews, despite long discussions of social and political struggles against anti-Blackness from White residents and authorities of Mebane, we were constantly reminded that Black autonomy and community building—the objectives of our participants' ancestors—were just as, if not more important than access to White-controlled resources. That these two objectives were often in conflict meant that communities came together to "make a way out of no way," and thrived in the process.

Eleanor Graves recalls her favorite childhood memories in the Mebane First Presbyterian Church, particularly the softball league. Though she and two of her family members—Harlece Graves Jeffries and Rémi Graves—now live up to 45 minutes away from West End, they all still commute every Sunday to service at the church.

"For most of the things in downtown Mebane, the recreation and things, parks and facilities, we could not use back in the 60s and all. Here [West End] we played a lot of softball...the softball field was where [Mebane First Presbyterian Church] building sits right now, and...[there were] several other black churches that had teams, and we would actually have tournaments and everything else."

The church also established the first school for Black children in the area—Yadkin Academy—which served the community until the first segregated public school was established in the mid-20th Century, West End Elementary.

Graves noted that the old church building, which was replaced in the 70s, had no indoor toilets or running water, like most of the houses in the community.

"We had outside toilets, depended on well water, one time more of a community spigot...in the yard right in the middle of three or four neighbors. When Alamance County first came through with running water, my brothers had to dig for the pipe for, I'd say probably about 1000 feet, in order to get running water to my parents' house."

Her father, a brick mason, had enough expertise and enlisted other friends in the construction trades to build a septic system and install a toilet in their home—one of the first families to do so. When her family also became the first in the neighborhood to get a television, they opened their home so that the whole neighborhood had access.

Eleanor Graves with her family members, Harlece and Rémi. Photo courtesy Torkwase Dyson.

About six miles away from West End, in a community called Cheeks' Crossing, Carolyn Poteat grew up under similar conditions, and remembers how residents came together to provide necessities for the community, from neighborhood managed wells to backyard food gardens.

"Every family was close...reason why was everyone was basically on the same level. When you're on the same level, you're reaching for the same things. If a child needed something to wear, or if they needed some food, that wasn't a worry back then because if you went to a house and they were eating, you ate. No question about it."

The community cohesion and care extended to Black-owned businesses in the community, like the convenience stores where residents could pick up necessities, on credit if necessary, as there was often no money for and no transportation to the nearest grocery store. Wealthier residents like Clyde Liggins of West End, owned restaurants and nightclubs like The Twilight Inn and Orange Bowl Supper Club, the only places in the area where Blacks could come and go as they pleased, eating, dancing, singing, playing, without fear.

When acts like Mary Wells, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and Percy Sledge came through to perform on the Chitlin Circuit, residents opened their homes when there were no Black-friendly hotels in the area.

Fighting and thriving. The Black communities around Mebane structured themselves to excel at both simultaneously, though much of the focus on their communities has focused on the former at the expense of the latter.

Our goal in this series to focus on both. Next week, we'll cover the founding of the West End Revitalization Association, and its subsequent (and ongoing) fighting and thriving.