SILER CITY — Birch Avenue holds a special meaning to the Black community in Siler City. During the days of racial segregation, the street was a hub for Black-owned businesses — which in those days included a cafe, barber shop, beauty salon, jewelry store and more.
They were among the only establishments in Siler City dedicated to serve people of color.
Back in 2020, more than a half century after integration, the Siler City Citizens in Action organization commissioned a mural to honor the hidden history and the trailblazing entrepreneurs behind the Black business district on Birch Avenue.
That mural, entitled “The Founders of Birch Avenue” — painted by noted mural artist Darlene J. McClinton and her students at NC A&T University — is finished and is set to be formally unveiled at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26, next to Winland Group Realty on Birch.
The painting features six Black entrepreneurs from Siler City’s history — Tod Edwards, Robert Lee Womble, Louise Smith, Henrrietta Paterson, Donald Strickland and Major Farrar — who served as trailblazers of their time, according to Siler City pastor and resident Rev. Donald Matthews.
“Every one of us has had relationships with this building,” he said. “We all knew that this was the only way to preserve our downtown restaurants and businesses.”
Matthews is one of the founding members of Citizens in Action, an organization formed with the mission to recognize and honor Black history in Siler City. He said the group was looking for a way to honor that history in a positive way.
Matthews decided to look for records of the establishments along Birch Avenue, but he was surprised there wasn’t documentation for any of the businesses he remembered from his youth.
“Over 90% of the town is on the Historical Society for the state (the N.C. State Historic Preservation office), but they left these buildings on Birch Avenue out,” he said. “These people were pioneers, and we knew we had to honor them.”
Many businesses downtown separated their patrons on the basis of race until North Carolina state courts ruled in favor of integration in 1971, seven years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
Black customers entered establishments through separate doors, often marked with a “Colored” or “Colored only” sign. Most businesses also had either a separate seating area for Black patrons or didn’t allow Black customers to walk through the door in the first place.
“I remember that right around the corner, we had to stand at the back of a building and go into a dark alleyway,” Mary Harris, a Siler City resident and Citizens in Action member, said. “You had to step down into a doorway that said ‘For Blacks Only.’”
The buildings along South Birch Avenue served as the Black business district in the days of segregation and were home to the first businesses in Siler City owned by Black residents, according to Matthews and the other members of the Citizens in Action organization. The area served as a safe space by providing several businesses where Black residents could simply exist without having to endure discrimination.
The businesses along Birch Avenue included Birch Avenue Cafe, Birch Avenue Barber Shop, Birch Avenue Beauty Shop, Birch Avenue T.V. and Repair and the Poolroom.
“Even though things were integrated, there were still places that wouldn’t serve you,” Matthews said.
A block up from the main building on Birch Avenue was the first and only jewelry store in Siler City, owned by Tod Edwards, a Black man, from 1905 to 1965. Edwards was the first Black entrepreneur in Siler City, and while he wasn’t located in the business district, Donald said he had a diverse clientele.
“He had white and Black customers,” Donald said. “That’s history in itself, but each and every business owner here contributed to the community.”
Citizens in Action member Gail Matthews also grew up in Siler City during the days of segregation. She said she and many of her friends have memories of going down Birch Avenue on a Saturday afternoon.
“From what I remember as a little girl … we had a really good time down here,” she said. “I think it really served its purpose because we (Black residents) didn’t have many places we could go, so just to come downtown to where we were welcome was the best thing.”
Other members of the Citizens in Action organization also remember going to the business district as children or young adults.
“The reason I got on board with this is something that I remember: coming into the barber shop with Miss Henrrietta,” Mona Scotton said.
Vincent Jordan, another Citizens in Action member, also said he remembers Miss Henrrietta. She was a force to be reckoned with in the barber shop, he said.
“Whatever your mom or dad told her they wanted, that’s exactly what she would do,” Jordan said with a laugh. “There were no deviations from that.”
Donald Strickland worked in the barbershop on Birch Avenue for more than 25 years and is one of the faces portrayed on the mural. He started there in 1961 and worked until it closed in 1985. One of the reasons he wanted to be a part of this project was the preservation of a part of his life he said not even his own grandchildren know about.
“A lot of people under 50 don’t know about Birch Avenue like they used to,” Strickland said. “There used to be booming businesses down here, and no one remembers it like we do.”
Gary Jenkins, another Citizens in Action member, used to frequent the businesses on Birch Avenue. He believes the history of Birch Avenue deserved to be honored.
“I feel like this is a part of history that was lost — a hidden history,” Jenkins said. “The young folks don’t know anything about it, and I was a part of that era. I was young, but I saw that part of history in the ‘60s with the ‘White Only’ signs, the ‘you can’t go in this door’ times.”
Citizens in Action members wanted to find a way to showcase and honor those Black business owners who paved the way for Black entrepreneurship in Siler City. Donald Matthews said that’s when the idea for the mural came into discussion.
Citizens in Action originally had a mural commissioned by a different artist over a year ago, but Matthews said the organization was disappointed in the outcome.
That’s when Matthews met McClinton, a noted muralist and art professor at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro. McClinton said when she came to see the canvass for the mural after hearing the story of Birch Avenue, she was moved to tackle the project.
“Each person we wanted to feature had their own business here, and it was like its own Harlem Renaissance,” McClinton said. “They [Citizens in Action] really have a lot of pride for their city, so it really just warms my heart to be able to bring this vision to life with them.”
McClinton and members of Citizens in Action worked together to come up with an idea for the mural. Both parties knew they wanted to incorporate the faces of the various business owners from Birch Avenue, and important buildings to the Siler City Black community such as the Chatham Training School and Greaves Church.
McClinton then took the idea back to her students, where N.C. A&T senior Jazmine Boykins spearheaded the design process with her peers to sketch out ideas for the mural.
Boykins said as a Black woman and an artist, she wanted to ensure the stories of Birch Avenue were not only told, but uplifted.
“It’s really beautiful because so many Black stories do get untold, so to bring it to light in a artistic way, in a way it is so visually stimulating and bring so much joy, it helps bring the story forward,” she said.
Boykins said the mural went through 50 to 60 different iterations before the class finalized a design. From there, the class and McClinton worked to lay out how large the mural would be, how long it would take to paint, figuring out what colors to use and more.
Brookelaine Burwell, a junior at N.C. A&T, and the Siler City Black business mural was the first mural she’s worked on as an artist. As a student of McClinton’s, she originally joined as a part of her academic commitments. However, she said this mural has done more than help her grow as an artist.
“We leave a gap for other people to define our story or tell us what the story is, but this time, we’re actually getting to tell the story how it’s supposed to be told,” Burwell said. “To be able to document it shows we’re acknowledging the past, we’re acknowledging that these businesses were here.”
Another artist and N.C. A&T alumnus from the Class of 2020, Felix Davila, has worked with McClinton on several murals throughout his artistic career. This one, however, has a different meaning to him not only as an artist, but as a Afro-Puerto Rican man.
“It’s a very uplifting experience ... what we’re actually being able to do here,” Davila said. “The idea that this had been glossed over for this long, and it was such an upstanding part of the story of the city, I thought this is a necessity. This is something that needs to be be told, and I’m glad to be a part of the process of making this.”
The members of Citizens in Action have a goal to preserve the history of their community, including the good, the bad and the ugly. What they believe, however, is the younger generation can learn from the scars racial discrimination has caused.
“We want to preserve our history because our young people who come after us, our children, their children, their children’s children will never know about something like this unless we do something to preserve it,” Harris said.
Not much documentation exists for businesses which existed on Birch Avenue. The only proof of the Black business district’s existence is through family photos, oral retellings and now, the mural on the side of the Winland Group building.
Matthews said it’s important to remember history for what it was, whether good, bad or ugly, and learn from it.
“You got people … wanting to whitewash history,” he said. “In history, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. In order to understand the good, you need to know what was bad, because if you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know how far you came.”
The Founders of Birch Avenue will be officially unveiled at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26, outside of Winland Group Realty.
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.