On two Wednesday nights last month about 100 citizens, including me, sat through long hearings about an application to put a Family Dollar store on a small lot at the corner of Alabama Avenue and Jones Ferry Road.
Family Dollar proposed to strip the old woods on the lot, and then pave over a beautiful natural stream with a parking lot. The woods and its natural stream had served for a long time as the gateway to the historic African American neighborhood of Alabama Avenue, Neville Lane, and Davie Road in Carrboro.
The nine-(volunteer) member Board of Adjustment of Carrboro conducted the hearing. Town Attorney Mike Brough had granted Family Dollars request that the board members receive nor read no written materials from any opponents. This decision, ironically, brought out a much bigger show of opposition to the hearings.
On the first Wednesday night we waited for almost four hours to present our position. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird sat patiently with the letter she had sent the board, and at almost 11 p.m., was the only opponent allowed to speak. She brought an invaluable perspective. When she was mayor, she helped write and pass many of the towns present ordinances, which protect and preserve its small streams, its natural beauty, and the character of its many neighborhoods.
The second Wednesday, only about half the people who came the week before returned. The board still ran past 11 p.m. It then set another Hearing, on June 6, declaring that no more testimony and presentations would be made, unless it had questions of someone who had already presented. Only Family Dollars closing argument and the boards deliberation would be on the agenda on June 6.
As a constitutional lawyer, I greatly respect the constitutional right to a fair hearing when property and liberty rights are at stake. I spent seven hours at the two hearings, first listening to the Family Dollar advocates, and then at the second hearing, listening to creative, thoughtful presentations by their opponents.
About 25 people spoke at the second hearing. Every time the stream of water, running through the woods that Family Dollar wants to cover with cement, an old photo of the Neville family keeping cows on a pasture nearby in the 1930s and 1940s kept flashing through my mind.
The Farrars, Atwaters, Councils, and many other families that can trace their roots to northern Chatham and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area back to the 19th century were represented in the room. Long before the Carrboro Farmers Market was organized, families in this neighborhood grew their own vegetables and fruit, feeding their own families and people who were in need. They held low-paying jobs at the university or hospital: laundresses, housekeepers, cooks, groundskeepers and janitors.
Many of the present families have owned and lived in their homes since the 1950s and the 1960s. Their parents and grandparents, some of whom who could be traced back to slavery and certainly to the days of open KKK acts of terror in Carrboro had worked hard to develop the peaceful, neighborly character of the area.
Bernice Reagons song, Breaths, began playing in my head, as speaker after speaker mentioned the woods and its natural stream. I could not remember the songs beautiful words. When I finally was called to speak, I just referred to it in my short presentation.
On Memorial Day, the date my wife, Ashley Osment, died two years ago, I found the words and the music on Sweet Honey in the Rocks website. As I played it, and read the words, I cried. Now I knew why I had hummed it incessantly that Wednesday night. Now I knew why I suggested to the hearing officers we should listen to the ancestors spirits in the room.
Reading and listening to the song straightened out what I had tried to say, and gave my old heart a boost on a sad day. It was the voices of the waters the old stream that flowed through the ancestors farmlands that we heard in the board room. Listen more often to things than to beings Tis the Ancestors words, when the fires voice is heard, Tis the Ancestors words, through the voices of the water. Those who have died, have never never left, The dead are not under the earth, They are in the rustling trees. They are in the groaning woods, They are in the crying grass, They are in the moaning rocks. Those who have died, have never never left, The dead have a pact with the living. They are in the womans birth, They are in the waiting child, They are with us in the home, They are with us in the crowd.
Due process of law must provide Family Dollar the chance to present its case before unbiased decision-makers. But it also must provide the opponents from a historical African American neighborhood the opportunity to be heard. We must listen to the ancestors words through the voices of the water, and the rustling trees.
If Carrboro and Chapel Hill are to repair the gaping breaches in our communities and its institutions left by slavery, Jim Crow, and the present feel good era that many seem to feel comfortable with, we would do well to listen to the black residents who trace their arrival in this area to the early 1800s. Their ancestors speak to us through the groaning woods, and the moaning rocks.
After listening to Sweet Honey in the Rocks rendition of Breaths, I recommend reading the history of the area by Dr. John K. Chapman, written in 2006: Black Freedom and the University of North Carolina, 17931960. I requested it be placed in the record, and I checked and it too is easily available on the web.
Al McSurely is the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP legal redress chair.