View looking west down First Street with Sycamore Hill Baptist Church in the background
By Wesley Brown
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Ellis Brown closed her eyes inside her west Greenville home last week and, for a split second, flashed back 70 years.
She stood frozen in time at the corner of Second and Reade streets in the heart of the Tenderloin District, a neighborhood of homes along the Tar River where the 84-year-old Greenville native was born and raised.
Nearly all the gritty history of Greenville’s African American community — its jobs, its boom, its money, its heartbreak — can be traced to the row of small, one-story houses on what is now known as the Town Common.
In her memories, Brown, a teenager, walks two blocks to J.H. Rose High School, then housed on Fourth Street, and on her way to class watches as farmers and workers rush to market to collect on the area’s thriving river-based tobacco trade.
Much of the industry’s profits went directly toward the churches, homes, businesses and schools of the downtown community, which was self-built by a close-knit group of African American families.
Brown is among the last of the district’s surviving generation and said that while she is “not crazy” about the idea of developing the Town Common, she wants it done in a way that preserves the rich history of the downtown community it once comprised, described by some as the “Harlem of Greenville.”
“That was the spot in the world God gave me,” Brown said of the land cleared in 1965 for park redevelopment. “The fun, the people, everything about that area speaks to the city’s heritage. It is part of who we are and we should be proud of that.”
“If not,” she said, “we might one day forget the past.”
Armed with a laser pointer, Greenville City Manager Barbara Lipscomb drew a large red circle around two blocks downtown bound by First, Second and Reade streets last week during the Redevelopment Commission’s annual planning session.
On the southern edge of the parcels was where Brown used to live, a highly targeted piece of waterfront property the city and East Carolina University have identified as one of four spots downtown it is considering for a hotel.
“I am guilty,” Lipscomb told the commission. “I started the Town Common firestorm.”
Lipscomb said local officials have tried to sell the site to multiple investors, some of whom were involved in the revitalization of Baltimore, Md.’s Inner Harbor, but each said that although the land overlooked the Tar River, it had “no draw.”
Lipscomb said she soon assembled a team of planners to be creative with the Town Common’s $13 million to $15 million master plan, passed in 2010 by the City Council. The end product was a conceptual drawing showing mixed-use housing and retail around the edges of the park, with gardens, gateways and a museum, gift shop, mobile amphitheater and children’s discovery zone situated along a flat strip of land, 30 feet wide, in middle of the commons.
“Don’t be alarmed,” Lipscomb told the commission, showing them the sketch. “We were just playing around with some ideas to try and start the conversation in the community and see what opportunities we may have to better utilize the park. No proposals have been made.”
The Greenville Town Common is the most valuable piece of land in Pitt County. At $900,000 an acre, the park stretches 21 acres along the southern boundaries of the city’s floodplain, where a 20-foot-tall bulkhead separates downtown Greenville from the Tar River.
Of the institutions built in the area, Sycamore Hill Baptist Church is perhaps the must significant and enduring, said Kofi Boone, an associate professor of landscape architecture at N.C. State University. Boone compiled an oral history of the Town Common as a part of the park’s master plan.
Lipscomb said among the concerns publicly voiced since her staff started discussing Town Common development is erecting a historical “placeholder” for the church founded by 22 women at a prayer meeting downtown and later constructed at the intersection of Greene and First streets.
The manager said a memorial would be erected in honor of the chapel’s bell tower, which Boone said was known for its beautiful and distinct tones.
Along the floodplain, artist renderings show three retention ponds would wade near where Boone said Sycamore Hill’s congregation would gather to use the Tar River for baptisms.
The commission commended Lipscomb for trying to celebrate and bring new life to the Town Common, which some officials have labeled as an “unprogrammed park.”
“I think people are foolish to say we cannot touch the commons,” said Redevelopment Commissioner Judy Siguaw. “Now, when I drive by the park, no one is in it. It is greatly underutilized. All cities that are built around water find ways to use it to attract private development. We need to remain open minded.”
Brown attended Sycamore Hill Baptist Church — not only on Sundays, but throughout the week.
The Greenville native described the place of worship as an important political, economic and social anchor to the community.
“We were a close-knit community,” Brown said of the parish and its neighbors. “Everyone knew one another and was involved in each other’s lives.”
In compiling an oral history of the Town Common, Boone said former residents described very real boundaries on their community imposed through legal segregation, discussing acceptable routes for walking, recreation, shopping and gathering within what was then “white” Greenville.
Boone said locals often talked about white Greenville residents they befriended in warehouses after tobacco emerged as a major regional cash crop and people began to flock to Greenville for agricultural and industrial work.
“They shared stories of challenges associated with segregation and the determination required to overcome those barriers,” Boone said. “The complex and rich living environment fostered by African American social networks balanced this determination. They all described a high quality of life and enjoyment living downtown.”
On market days, Boone said black men would process down Evans Street, eventually gathering at the close of the day at the river’s edge, greeting people as they walked by who were sitting on their porches.
The exchanges led to people establishing formal and informal networks to strengthen families, build businesses and develop the Tenderloin District on the fringes of the center city.
Such was the case with Brown, who in the mid 1940s was recruited by Walter E. Flanagan to work at his funeral home downtown, the only African American mortuary in Greenville at the time.
The W.E. Flanagan Memorial Funeral Home sat next door to Brown’s house, moving to the location almost a decade earlier, about 10 years after it opened. The business, which will observe it’s 90th anniversary this year, is a prime example of the bonds formed in the community.
Early on, the funeral home would barter services for chickens, goats, hams and produce. In 1938, it founded the Greenville Mutual Burial Association, allowing families to pay a premium of between $2 and $9 a year for $200 toward a funeral service. Today, the program remains intact, said Esther Hammond, the president of W.E. Flanagan Memorial Funeral Home.
“The whole area was totally different then,” said Hammond, whose father, Pitt County Commissioner David Hammond, became Flanagan’s business partner at age 15. “It was like the Harlem of Greenville.”
Flanagan Funeral Home was among the last of the Town Common’s residents to be displaced in June 1965, moving to its current location on West Fifth Street once the city issued the Shore Drive Redevelopment Plan, Brown said.
The plan covered all of the northern edge of downtown Greenville and depicted the former neighborhood as a combination of a riverfront park — the Town Common — surface parking, and various civic uses.
It is unclear whether the public was involved in the formation of the plan. However, some Greenville residents not living in the area were noted for describing the neighborhood as “an eyesore to Greenville.” The comments led to the belief that the Shore Drive plan was politically motivated and designed to remove the African American community from downtown expansion.
The downtown neighborhood was eventually cleared — much of the debris landfilled on site — and the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church burned in what residents believed to be arson.
With talks of development resurfacing, Hammond urged the city to take out the politics and include input from all the public. She asked residents to remain open to ideas, as long as they incorporate the area’s history.
“Unless you tell the story, you do not know the history,” Hammond said. “If we celebrate the past, it can only bring new interest to the area.
“Because,” she said, “It really is a beautiful place with a vibrant past.”
Contact Wesley Brown at 252-329-9579 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CityWatchdog.
via The Daily Reflector.