DURHAM — Cutting grass for his neighbor as a teen in rural Yanceyville, Jerry Totten had no idea the property would one day be his.
Now the 50-year-old Durham resident hopes to renovate the buildings at 259 W. Church St. for veterans wanting to get away from urban areas like the Triangle – before they are demolished.
The two-acre lot houses two turn-of-the-century structures that once belonged to Katie M. Bowe, who ran them as boarding homes for black teachers at the Caswell County Training School, between the early 1930s and the late 1960s.
Teachers at the segregated high school were not allowed to rent rooms in hotels in and around town. Because most of the teachers came from outside Caswell County, Bowe, a local restaurateur and secretary at Yanceyville Missionary Baptist Church, opened her home.
The larger, two-story home on the property has four bedrooms, 1 ½ baths, a kitchen, living room and dining area while the smaller single-story home has a bedroom, bath, kitchen and living room.
Totten received the property a decade ago, a few years after Bowe died around age 100. Knowing its history, he said his first thought was to begin working on upgrades for his “vision,” but the recession forced him to stop.
The structures need at least $100,000 in repairs, Totten said.
“It’s not a condemned state, but they need roofs, windows and floors,” he said.
A local UPS driver, Totten and his teenage son, Brandon, currently work keeping the grass cut and trash out of the yards. Totten said he is not out for a profit or to form a nonprofit, and that he’s just a “ private citizen” wanting to help the community.
He believes the homes could serve better purposes than being torn down.
Racing against time
Totten has contacted nonprofits, the Department of Veterans Affairs and media to find out what exactly he needs to do, but feedback, he said, has been slow.
“I’ve seen articles about vets being homeless and every little part someone can play helps,” he said.
Darryl Hicklen is CAARE Inc.’s veteran transitional housing director and the Bull City Stand Down chair. BCSD is an annual Durham event that focuses on helping veterans.
In addition to running CAARE’s veteran housing, Hicklen also runs two other houses for homeless vets.
He knows of “housing first” models like Totten is interested in and said it takes a certain empathy to teach vets in transition how “to fish again” and do for themselves.
He thinks many veterans would like to get away from larger urban areas like Durham but said there are procedures to follow such as providing transportation to VA appointments and knowing what to do in emergencies.
“You’re taking a chance on someone’s life so you have to build trust, and that takes time,” Hicklen said.
In an email, Town Manager Haynes Brigman said he is aware of Totten’s property but unfamiliar with its history. The town would support any renovation or reuse of the structures that met zoning ordinance guidelines.
“If it is Mr. Totten’s intent to create a niche for veterans, I think that that type of project would be a valuable and unique service for this community that we currently do not have,” Brigman wrote.
Hicklen added that donating the houses to the VA could also be a possibility for Totten.
Alice Glaze-Robinson, 73, runs the Outreach Ministry across the street from Totten’s property and knew Bowe for decades.
Also a teacher, but not one who resided at the boarding home, she said the property and homes were once called “the Teachery.”
Galze-Robinson said Bowe pushed residents to be “citizens of the community” and that demolishing the buildings would erase history.
“Ms. Bowe would have loved the idea of turning the property into a quiet place for vets,” she said. “It was in her nature.”
Denise Pierce, another Yanceyville resident, lived with Bowe during the 1960s and ’70s, after she became a widow. She looked upon Bowe as a grandmother and also grew up with Totten.
She agrees that turning the property around for veterans is a worthy cause, especially since Bowe’s son was a veteran.
During cleaning, Totten has found chests in the house that hold letters and other memorabilia, including love letters to teachers from soldiers during World War II, school commencement programs, obituaries and checks, some dating back to the 1930s and early 1940s.
N.C. Central University’s archives department is currently looking into the material for possible historical value. The university archivist, Andre Vann, is working with two graduate students to process the records. He believes it will yield a “great richness” regarding the African-American history of Yanceyville and that the information would be a great contribution to the town’s preservation efforts.
Totten believes the combination of the property’s history, Bowe’s community connection and possible veteran transition housing could be “history in the making.”
While currently in a tight spot, he’s hopeful things will work out.
“It’s a quiet zone where vet families wouldn’t have to worry,” he said. “It would be good to let Caswell County know we have this.”
To find out more about Totten’s efforts, call him at 919-949-1716.