Don’t Sleep At All

Gentrification is a mournful phenomenon. It is the ripping a part of community, the burial of history, and the erasure of stories. Reporter Josh Shaffer shares about a reunion of residents of one of Raleigh’s most prestigious Black neighborhoods, an occasion that quickly became a memorial for those neighbors lost in body but never in remembrance.

A reunion shows former Triangle neighbors a past replaced by gentrification
By Josh Shaffer

Residents, including, from left, Willie Stokes, Mary Johnson, Bill H. Lewis, Octavia Rainey and Annette Murphy sing during a candlelight vigil at Tarboro Road Community Park on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. The vigil was for residents of College Park who have passed on. ETHAN HYMAN EHYMAN@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

On its 111th birthday, friends from College Park reunited around a childhood neighborhood they scarcely recognized — its corner stores and bungalows mostly taken by bulldozers.
The hospital where the elders were born — proud St. Agnes, long Raleigh’s only option for Black people — stands as a stone skeleton on Oakwood Avenue.

The blocks they knew on East Lane and East Jones Street surprised them with tall, modern newcomers that remind many of beach houses. For the neighborhood’s first reunion earlier this month, the roughly 30 people gathered heard from the Rev. James Davis, a relative newcomer at Grace AME Zion Church, but who still mourns the changes.

“Pastel-colored doors,” he said. “New houses being built that hover over the whole community. Streets torn up. They said they need infrastructure to support the new housing.” 

At a College Park exhibit hosted by Raleigh City Museum, guests lamented the streets visible only in black-and-white photographs. Rep. David Price, Democratic congressman for much of Raleigh, praised College Park by letter as one the city’s first to promote Black homeownership.

The neighborhood’s memories have faded so considerably that reunion organizers mistakenly printed T-shirts for College Park’s 101st anniversary. As the reunion date drew nearer, Museum Director Ernest Dollar traced the date to between 1909 and 1912, when David J. Fort Jr. bought the first tracts to meet demand from the rising Black middle class.

In the early years, College Park stood outside Raleigh’s tiny city limits. Streets were dirt. Old-timers recalled a church on every corner, and enough stores that residents didn’t need to leave much.

Reunion organizers drew a map of the streets and asked old residents to place a pin on any spot that conjured memories. Robert and Polly Rogers picked 1st Church of God on Boyer Street, writing, “I have attended this church for nearly 70 years.”

They recalled pioneers seldom celebrated in Raleigh:

Sister Mabel Gary Philpot was Raleigh’s first Black broadcaster with a regular gospel show on WRAL-AM. Raleigh City Museum

▪ Sister Mary Gary Philpot, or simply “Sister Gary,” who hosted a gospel show on WRAL-AM, the city’s first Black broadcaster with a regular program.

Mollie Huston Lee was Wake County’s first Black librarian and founded the Richard B. Harrison branch on New Bern avenue. Raleigh City Museum

▪ Mollie Huston Lee, the first Black librarian in Wake County, who founded the Richard B. Harrison branch that still stands on New Bern Avenue.

Olivette “The Fox” Massenburg McGill was known for giving free piano lessons around Raleigh’s College Park neighborhood. Raleigh City Museum

▪ Olivette “The Fox” Massenburg McGill, who gave piano lessons for free.

Their names drew nods of recognition from some of the whiter-haired heads in the audience. And their memory sparked this warning from reunion organizer and Southeast Raleigh activist, Octavia Rainey.

“Don’t sleep at all,” she said. “There’s not much left, and I just believe we’ve got to protect what we have.”

This article was originally published in the Raleigh News and Observer.

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