PITTSBORO — When guests enter The Plant east of downtown Pittsboro, they’ll now be greeted by a towering new portrait of Chatham County pioneer Roxie Small, located at the front of Chatham Cider Works at 192 Lorax Lane.
Owners Jim Crawford, Maureen Ahmad and their daughter, Elise Crawford, commissioned a local artist to paint a mural for the business. That turned into a piece dedicated to Roxie Small, the first Black Chatham woman to run for the Chatham County Board of Education and one of the founders of the Chatham Community NAACP branch in Pittsboro.
The mural — titled “What We Have” — was unveiled Sunday afternoon to the community and Small’s family and descendants.
Elise and her mother, Maureen, said they knew the artist — Claire Alexandre — as a family friend before asking her to commission the mural.
“We grew up together, and especially as we have gotten older, we have kept up with her and watched her work develop as she has come up as an artist,” Elise said. “She’s an incredible artist, and I am really glad we had the opportunity to have a front-facing facade and create something that has some meaning.”
Alexandre talked with the Crawford family for months regarding the topic of the mural. She knew she wanted to highlight local leaders in Chatham County, but she wanted to make sure to highlight the stories of Black leaders from around the county.
“The Plant is a pretty white space, and so, I wanted to celebrate and shout out the Black leaders that are here or were here,” Alexandre said. “Throughout my research, I wanted to primarily highlight the legacies and honor Black women, and relate that to land and nature because I feel like I don’t see enough of those narratives.”
While researching for a portrait topic, Alexandre came across the story of Small, an active leader in the Chatham community during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement.
“As I continued with my research, she just became more interesting to me and I really wanted to do a piece about her,” Alexandre said. “I remember seeing a grainy black and white picture of her (Roxie) and thinking, ‘That’s such a strong gaze, and I would love to capture that.’”
Small was born in Pittsboro in 1899 and spent the majority of her life there. According to a biography written by Small’s granddaughter, Joanne Small James, Small had a passion for education, especially for her family members.
She was the first PTA president at Horton High School and served in that capacity for almost 25 years. She even ran for the Chatham County Board of Education in 1962, making her the first Black candidate on the ballot — according to Joanne’s writing. She lost that race; according to stories told by her family, the margin was just a single vote.
Small also was a co-founder of the Chatham Community NAACP branch, served as the chapter’s first president, received the “Mother of the Year” award from the NAACP in 1956, was a minister at Russell Chapel and Mitchell Chapter churches and marched and protested on behalf of the Civil Rights movement.
Alexandre said she was touched by Small’s accomplishments, as well as the personal stories from Small’s family members.
“The fact I was able to find a personal narrative made me able to get a more vivid picture of Roxie, and I really just wanted to use that in this commission,” Alexandre said.
The mural features Small holding a “basket of abundance,” filled with various fruits and vegetables grown in Chatham County, as well as a bottle of cider to symbolize Chatham Cider Works. The painting also featured details related to Small’s life, including downtown Pittsboro, hands working behind her head and even peach tree branches to symbolize the fruit tree Small had in her yard.
“The piece could work without the portrait, but it is so important that we include narratives of how people and the land work together,” Alexandre said.
Small’s daughter-in-law, Ella Mae Small, was present at the mural unveiling along with other Small family members. Ella Mae spoke about her mother-in-law to the community, talking about how Small was as a person, outside of her accomplishments.
“She was a very dedicated lady who loved her family,” she said. “She had a loving heart. She was kind, she was unselfish — whenever there was somebody who needed help, she was always there.”
Ella Mae told a personal story from her relationship with her mother-in-law involving her husband, Allen Small.
The two were looking to buy their first house together, but didn’t have the funds. Allen called his mother for advice; by the next morning, she had agreed to give the couple the money needed to purchase their home.
“I told him (Allen) we had to pay her (Small) back, so I set up a monthly schedule to make sure she got her money back, plus more,” Ella Mae said.
Ella Mae says she thought the world of her mother-in-law, referring to her as “Mama Small.”
“She was a lady that I used as a role model,” Ella Mae said. “When we lost her, we lost the matron of our family, and it was hard on all of us. But we realized she had led a life that would always be remembered.”
Chatham Cider Works’ Ahmad said Alexandre’s mural serves as an example of the hard work people from the past put in to create the Chatham County of today.
“The piece could not be more fitting for everyone in Chatham County,” she said. “I think all of us have learned lessons from what we have, and it was due to the hard work of the people before us that we have what we have today.”
For Alexandre, the location of the mural — very visible as you enter into the main area of The Plant — could help provide a “striking” impression among its patrons.
“I could have done something that was devoid of meaning, and I thought this is a great opportunity for people to educate themselves on who the leaders are, who the Black leaders are and who the Black women leaders are,” Alexandre said. “I want people to realize the work that Roxie has done, and I, in particular, would like folks to see the community elements of the piece as well.”
For Ella Mae, she says she’s happy and excited to see one of her role models memorialized in the community Small gave so much to.
“She was just all out there in everything that was happening in the community,” she said. “Whatever it was, she was involved. She always tried to do her best, and whatever it took, she would do that. This could not have happened to a more deserving lady.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at email@example.com.