CH@T: New project showcases history of Chatham’s Black community through walking tour

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Despite long periods of segregation and discrimination, Pittsboro has been home to generation after generation of African-American families. That history dates back 250 years, but much of it was preserved and recorded only by Black families and churches, with many of the contributions remaining unknown and unappreciated.

A new project of the Community Remembrance Coalition of Chatham County brings new focus to the richness of this culture and history and the contributions (as well as the struggles) of the Black citizens of Chatham County in the form of a guided walking tour of Pittsboro. This week, we speak with Mary Nettles and Jo Corro about the project, created by the CRC-C.

Nettles is the president of the CRC-C and the Chatham Community NAACP Branch #5377 and grew up in Pittsboro. Corro, a retired education administrator, is a volunteer with the CRC-C and is chairperson of its grants committee. She moved to North Carolina from Massachusetts seven years ago.

More information on the tour can be found from the links below.

How long has the idea for a walking tour focusing on the Black history of Pittsboro been in development, and what was the genesis for the idea?

JO CORRO: The CRC-C Grant committee began meeting in January of 2021. Through the spring of 2021 we developed programs and events that would tell the “yet to be told” story of the African-American in Chatham County. In addition to holding monthly events to showcase Black artists and hold book discussions, we wanted to provide a way to engage the community in this effort. An African- American History Walk was a way to do just that. We are also engaged in developing a mural and plaques to continue telling the story.

MARY NETTLES: For me and the local Chatham (Rabbits) Pittsboro residents the walk will acknowledge the past and lead to building a better future for all of Chatham County.

We’re generally not always very good at remembering and recognizing history. Chatham County has a lot of it — 250 years and more. What role did segregation and discrimination play in obscuring the history and story of Pittsboro’s Black residents?

NETTLES: African-Americans in the Pittsboro community have survived despite segregation and discrimination throughout the history of enslavement as they did in other parts of the country. The achievements of Black people were often “undervalued, underestimated, marginalized” or just plain written out of history. Our history was not acknowledged because it would have shown how independent and self-sustaining we are. Black families and churches have preserved that history that began from the moment that African American entered this county as slaves over 250 years ago.

How was the walking tour developed, and how were the historical sites, locations, etc., on the tour researched?

NETTLES: Some information in the walk was readily available and other facts came through research. Much of the history was recorded in the book “Chatham County 1771-1971.” History before 1971 came from Bishop Leach’s chapter in the book “The Negro.” Mr. Leach, an assistant principal at Northwood High School, was a contributing writer for the book. Research after 1971 was compiled by work I did, interviewing numerous Black Pittsboro residents who remembered taxi services, beauty and barber shops, dry cleaners, auto repair shops and a bicycle shop, funeral homes and restaurants. They recalled who delivered the mail, who was the bondsman, the location of their homes, churches and cemeteries and the land family members and friends once owned.

What are some of the key highlights of the tour? What might people find, see and learn on the tour which might surprise them?

NETTLES: Many African-Americans in downtown Pittsboro, who were brought here as slaves, became landowners. Thomas and Rachel Taylor were the first former slaves to purchase land near Chatham Forest. The land was in their family for 155 years. Tony and Eliza Knight, Black farmers born before the Civil War, acquired and developed more than 100 acres. This land was sold to the Chatham Park development, the Knight Farm Community Park is named for them.

The current property where the Circle K is located was a restaurant and across the road was a baseball field for Blacks. B&T HVAC was once C.E. Willie’s Funeral Home.

CORRO: The Pittsboro of today does not reflect the journey that African-Americans took from being property to owning property and becoming business owners and community leaders. This walk is unique in that it asks us to use our imagination to see what used to be. It gives us a glimpse into the past and highlights members of the community who were the first Blacks in their professions.

The tour focuses not just on places, but on people. Who are some of the key historical figures those who take the tour will learn about?

NETTLES: One historic figure was George Moses Horton, a former slave who became the historic Poet Laureate of Chatham County. Many Black residents on the east part of the county attended high school in the same building where the George Moses Horton Middle School is today.

Another is Rev. Rufus V. Horton, one of the local ministers, was also a water witch (dowser) and published “Can These Bones Live.”

CORRO: The Lewis Freeman Park is also on the tour. Lewis Freeman was the first recorded and most prosperous free black settler in Pittsboro in the 1800s. He lived in one of four surviving homes from the original settlement, and owned 16 parcels within the town, including most of the entire block containing the park. He owned about 20 additional acres throughout Chatham County.

This walk will also introduce you to the everyday people who, through their own will power, talents, entrepreneurship, and persistence, provided for their families and built this community.

Why should people get the tour guide and embark upon it? What’s the benefit to doing so?

NETTLES: Citizens of Pittsboro and visitors will gain “knowledge of community within a community.” They will see from the location of many businesses that Black people were working in the same area as white people.

CORRO: They will gain an appreciation of the many contributions that African-Americans have made to the growth and prosperity of Pittsboro. Pittsboro and Chatham County are changing rapidly. Knowing the history and getting a better understanding of how we got here will inform what we want to preserve and how we want to grow.

How can people find out more?

CORRO: Download the African-American Walking Tour at the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham website.

You can also go to the Chatham County Historical Association website.

Physical copies of the walk are also available at the Pittsboro Welcome Center.

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