Thursday, October 04, 2018

"Southern Change" -- Yanceyville, North Carolina (1984)

Struck, Doug. "Southern Change: It Sometimes Gallops, Often Crawls: Racial Views Have Evolved in N.C. Town," The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 22 November 1984.

Yanceyville's past is a curious mixture of racial tensions and harmony; now, blacks and whites are working together to keep their impoverished town from crumbling.

Yanceyville, N.C. -- They grabbed "Chicken" Stephens in the courthouse, the Klan did. Throttled him with a noose and stabbed him a few times in the heart for good measure. Left his body on a woodpile, a warning to others who took up the "negro cause."

It seems like only yesterday, in Yanceyville. The Ku Klux Klan murdered state Sen. John "Chicken" Stephens, white reconstructionist and agitator among the blacks, in 1870, though it wasn't solved until Capt. John Lea, confederate and Klansman, died 65 years later and the historical society unsealed his confession.

But in this small town, hwere the drawl of the 2,900 folks here is as flat and broad as the "bacca" leaves they grow, time moves at a different pace. It is Southern time, a curious clock that races with one hand at modern speed while the other trudges behind in remembrance of the past.

"I'll tell you one thing. I never thought I'd see the day that I'd watch black children and white children walkin' up the street here to the school arm-in-arm." reflects Thomas A. Little, indulging a reporter in his homey Gulf gas station with tales of the town.
Little could tell them. The coveralls and clunky country manner deceive: at 60, he has been a sharp businessman, an important community figure and a key player in the dramas of the town.

There was a cost for that: When he put up the bail for a black farmer jailed after enrolling his children in a white school, Little, a black, lost all the white customers of his dry-cleaning business -- the bulk of his trade. When the tensions of the 1960s caught up with the town in 1970, his store was firebombed and burned.

But talk of today: "it's like heaven here today, like coming out of the hell of 30 years ago. Today we've got a wonderful relationship. Most people -- not everybody -- but the majority of blacks and whites believe in fair play." says Little.

Fairness was all blacks asked. Yanceyville and much of the poor, rural South always had been more integrated that outsiders would admit. "Blacks and whites, we always lived in the same areas, worked together in the tobacco fields, loaned each other farm equipment and everything," Little said. In a land that takes hard work just to make a living, it is easiest to work together.

Down at the town square, small knots of men in friendly conversation drift in casual combinations of whites and blacks.

This fall, the private school that opened when the public schools were integrated finally succumbed to its long-dwindling enrollment, and closed its doors.

Yanceyville missed its chance. It could have been prosperous. It once was -- and important too. The seat of Caswell County, the town and its surrounding plantations produced important politicians and rich tobacco. An accidental fire in a curing shed in 1839 produced beautiful golden leaves, and the area is still known for "bright leaf" tobacco cured by fire.

It was a comfortable way of living. So comfortable, when the railriad men came through in 1846, Caswell County told them to lay the tracks somewhere elese. When the textile mills later looked for a spot to build, Yanceyville sent them 15 miles north to Virginia.

So progress overtook other rural towns, transformed some into modern cities -- while Yanceyville and Caswell County stayed the same.

Today, the tobacco trade is slowly dying, and there is no industry to speak of in this county of 20,700. Caswell is among the poorer counties in the state, with one of the larger proportions of people on food stamps and welfare.

Seventy percent of those who work drive out of the county to do so -- 15 miles north to the Corning works in Danville, or 30 miles south to the cloth millin Burlington, or 45 miles to the tobacco plant in Greensboro. Young people move away for jobs.

S. Ryland Farmer moved away -- to Hagerstown, d., to work for 20 years at the Fairchild plant there. When he came back to his home in 1971, he promised to help change the bleak future of Caswell county.

Thirteen years later, he and other town leaders have coaxed and cajoled state and federal governments to build an impressive new civic center, a sparkling new courthouse, a new jail and a high school gym in Yanceyville. The county has enacted sediment controls, is mulling over zoning regulations, and soon will dedicate -- in Farmer's name -- his crowning achievement: a 400-acre lake, scooped out with $4 million in federal funds, to assure future industry a water supply.

"This is a beautiful area," he said. "But the only way my son, and his three sons, will keep living here is if the county grows. Agriculture won't stay like it was 20 years ago. Growth may change the way of living some in Yanceyville, but it's necessary."

Stuart N. Watlington agrees. The son of a prominent family, he went to law school and spent three years practicing in Greensboro before he moved his family back to Yanceyville. He runs a busy general practice in the center of town, and now, at age 30, he is the chief cheerleader and enthusiastic president of the Chamber of Commerce.

"I think we are in a great position for industry here, and I'm excited to be a part of this," he says. "You won't hear me say anything bad about this town. It's got peaceful serenity, a beautiful setting, and we get to know each other better than you would in the hustle-bustle of a city."

He adds: "I didn't know what a country boy I was at heart until I came back here."

Japer Brown took his four children to school in Yanceyville on January 22, 1963. He is black, but he took Nathan, Jocylin, Sheila and Lunsford to the white elementary and secondary school. The Supreme Court had said he could, and the U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, had said he should.

It was 8:30 a.m. A crowd had gathered. An out-of-town newspaper photographer snapped the picture: Mr. Brown, wearing a topcoat and broad-brimmed hat, hurrying his children into the school.

At 9:30 a.m., a flustered Mr. Brown found the town sheriff and asked for protection from a group of white youths he said was trailing him. The sheriff refused -- said he could not act until something happened.

Mr. Brown burst into Thomas Little's dry-cleaning store. "He said, 'Thomas, I'm not going to let them kill me,'" Mr. Little recalls. The businessman called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for advice and finally sent Mr. Brown home with an escort.

It did not help.

At 1:30 p.m. two white youths in a 1956 Mercury forced the car carrying Mr. Brown and his escorts to a halt on a dirt road near his home. According to the accounts at the time, Mr. Brown "came out shooting." A bullet grazed the skull of young N. L. Oliver, Jr. His companion, James Nixon, was shot in the shoulder.

Jasper Brown was charged, tried and found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. He served 90 days in jail, then returned to his farm. But according to Mr. Little, "they froze him out. Whites wouldn't sell him anything -- fuel oil, supplies for his farm, anything." Mr. Brown finally gave up and moved out of town.

Dorsey Wiley observed all of this from the farm he had bought five miles out of town [Yanceyville]. Blacks usually could not buy such land -- especially a nice farm on the main truck route -- but this property had been mostly in black hands since it was given to the mistress slave of a white plantation owner.

Wiley worked hard for it -- very hard. He was the chauffeur to a powerful white family and learned his way around the kitchen so well he later worked at the Holiday Inn and began a catering business.

He well recalls the insults -- the times he drove his employer to an out-of-town hotel and had to ask the doorman where blacks could stay; the time he listened to a lawyer in the Yanceyville court refer to a client as "Darkie Smith" and "Nigger Smith;" the separate drinking fountains and schools; the charge of "reckless eyeballing" against a black man for looking at a white woman.

But he also recalls the help from whites as he struggled to buy his property -- banking on profits from timber on the land and a personal industry that drove him to work days and nights and bank part of every paycheck.

"It was tough times," said Wiley, as he offered a visitor a breakfast of biscuits, bacon and eggs in the dining room of the home he bought in 1952." But I will say one thing about Caswell County: They will respect a black person who is trying to get ahead. They will help you.

"To get anywhere in the South, you have to work awfully hard. I believed that every day, I should do my job just a little better than the day before, and people saw that. If people here know you are smart and honest and work hard, they will respect you."

Chicken Stephens, the white reconstuctionist, lay for nearly a century unmourned and unmarked in a simple grave, as the times and emotions changed in the town.

About 15 years ago, some long-lost relations in Greensboro collected $75 to have a marker put on his grave. They sent it to John O. Gunn, a respected and fair man, a former state representative, a man who has donated scholarships and land for the library for the benefit of black and white children.

But there still turns in Yanceyville one hand of the clock tied firmly to the past. Mr. Gunn read the inscription they wanted on the tombstone of this hated reconstructionist and instigator: "Patriot," it said. Admits Mr. Gunn of his task: "I had a lot of mixed feelings about doing it."

The above article was reprinted in The Tampa Tribune, Wednesday, February 6, 1985: Time Trudges on in Yanceyville, N.C. by Doug Struck (Baltimore Sun).

The author of the article used to be on a television program I produced. Doug Struck is now a professor at Emerson College and still writes. Source: Elliott Anderson Wiley 26 September 2018 Post to Caswell County Historical Association Facebook Page.

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