From Nina Simone and Julius Chambers to Ella Baker and the Greensboro Four, North Carolina voices have swelled in the national struggle for equality. With the launch of the N.C. Civil Rights Trail, the epic journey will be preserved and amplified from places where leaders and followers lived, learned and took a stand for social justice.
The N.C. African American Heritage Commission is leading the initiative with funding from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, and with support from the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Visit North Carolina, and the North Carolina Office of Archives & History. The commission will work with communities across the state to designate up to 50 sites where trail markers will be placed, starting in early 2021. An interactive web portal will highlight these places and others to guide people through history and experiences from the past.
“The national reckoning over systemic injustice heightens the relevance of our effort to develop the N.C. Civil Rights Trail,” said Angela Thorpe, director of the African American Heritage Commission, which is part of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Understanding what has come before will inspire and fuel the work ahead. We need to hear the voices and proclaim the victories that have brought us this far.”
With a target completion date of January 2023, the state’s trail follows the 2018 rollout of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail by Travel South USA, a tourism marketing organization with 15 member states. The national trail includes five North Carolina sites, including the F.W. Woolworth’s building in Greensboro, where four N.C. A&T University freshmen powered up the sit-in movement, and Estey Hall on the Shaw University campus in Raleigh, where alumna Ella Baker started the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“Those sites underscore North Carolina’s role in channeling student energy into the movement,” said Visit NC Director Wit Tuttell. “Given the interest generated by the national trail, we’re excited about providing a more comprehensive look at what has unfolded across the state and giving residents and visitors an opportunity to share the experience.”
Deryn Pomeroy, William G. Pomeroy Foundation’s director of strategic initiatives, is particularly excited about the program. “It is a wonderful way for communities to become engaged in their own history and share the stories that need to be highlighted.”
The program invites communities from around the state to apply for markers which will then be reviewed by a selection committee of North Carolina historians. Selections will be based on a series of criteria, including sites’ significance to the national Civil Rights Movement and civil rights efforts in North Carolina.
Thorpe expects the trail to include a wide array of locations including established historic sites as well those that may only be known more locally. One example is the YMI Cultural Center in Asheville, which was commissioned in 1892 for Black construction workers employed to build and furnish the Biltmore estate. Funded by the Vanderbilts, the Young Men’s Institute became a center of civil, cultural and business life in the neighborhood known as The Block. Featuring a gym, bathing facilities and a library, the building was used by churches, schools and civic organizations for classes, gatherings and office space. After urban renewal led to the neighborhood’s mid-century decline, the YMI Cultural Center reclaimed its place in the 1980s and is poised as a neighborhood focal point amid new energy in preservation, restoration and advancement throughout The Block.
Other candidates include the Montford Point Marines Museum, which tells the story of the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps (1942-49), and the Montford Point Marines Memorial in Jacksonville; the Pauli Murray Center in Durham, where the influential lawyer, Episcopal priest, and activist for civil and women’s rights grew up; and the Historic Magnolia House in Greensboro, a Green Book site that hosted Black entertainers, icons, and civil rights leaders.
On the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and nearby February One monument at N.C. A&T University invoke a towering victory, and the whites-only Woolworth’s counter where the four students sat prevails as a powerful symbol.
“We celebrate the place where the sit-in movement took hold,” said John Swaine, director of the museum, which is housed in the former Woolworth’s building. “But it’s important to understand the full story, that the struggle began centuries before the sit-in on Feb. 1, 1960, and that it has endured over the decades since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The N.C. Civil Rights Trail will lead people to a deeper comprehension of what has been achieved and the effort that lies ahead.”
This news release is adapted from an announcement from the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.