Original publication date July 2008
Universe: “All matter and energy, including the earth, the galaxies, and the contents of intergalactic space, regarded as a whole.” Whole: “entire, unhurt, healthy.” Healthy: “to heal; sacred, holy.” Holy (earliest use): “that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated.”
Being interested in the origins of words, I’m thinking that a town, like a universe, must be regarded as a whole, viewed relative to its health and, if you’ll permit, its holiness. While Wake Forest has had its struggles (the most impactful being the college’s removal to Winston-Salem in 1956), our town is thriving and is, most would say, a good place to live. It has always exhibited certain amounts of holiness; and, there is room for more.
Like other southern towns, racial segregation played a part in our town’s growing-up years. It’s fair to say that race relations here have been amicable, with whites and blacks peacefully coexisting. It is also true that the area of town lived in by most African Americans (now called the East End, but familiarly referred to as the DuBois community) hasn’t gotten its fair share of attention from the Town of Wake Forest until recently. Through the Northeast Neighborhood Plan, designed to “enhance neighborhood safety, appearance, walk-ability, and recreational and economic opportunities,” long overdue revitalization efforts are underway for a part of town that some of its residents have described as “left behind.”
The struggles of African Americans are documented well enough that I don’t need to define them. While I don’t believe suffering to be inherently holy, I’ve learned that a sort of holiness can be expressed through having to endure the struggles of suffering. It is a holiness that comes through living as fully, lovingly, and authentically as possible, no matter the circumstances of one’s life. I’ve also learned that when people – any people – are able to create much out of little, the fruits of that labor are vastly more appreciated than (and even possess an intrinsic value that may surpass) that which comes out of the expenditure of easily-had resources.
This awareness came home to me in a big way ten years ago while working as the site coordinator for the DuBois History and Mural Project, and thus coming to know many East Enders. I saw the value that the community placed on the education provided by the DuBois School, a value that most whites can’t fully share because we have not had to struggle and suffer for our education. DuBois graduates too numerous to mention are living today the richness of their school experience through doing great things, both out in the world and here in the local universe.
The East End is bounded on the south by Roosevelt Ave., north by Perry St., west by N. White St., and east by Allen Rd. During the first two thirds of the 20th century, with its schools and multiple businesses and churches the area was almost a town within a town. Of the four churches, three remain, including the oldest, Olive Branch Baptist, which grew out of Wake Forest Baptist. Spring Street Presbyterian remains as a structure only and is about to become a performing arts center, thanks to the W.E.B. DuBois Community Development Corporation. This church was started in 1905 by Professor Allen Young, who also began the community’s first school the same year, predating DuBois by 21 years. (See next issue of Heritage Magazine for the Allen Young School story.)
This community’s rich history is one of a people who created much out of little but their goodness – and what a bounty goodness is. On a recent warm, spring Sunday afternoon, the East End’s Alston-Massenburg Center was full of blacks and whites, all come to hear Mary Evelyn Jones, featured speaker at the Wake Forest Historical Association’s May meeting, talk about the collective history – and her personal memories – of Wake Forest’s African American community. “We’ll go back in time,” the octogenarian began, “telling what our parents told us and what their parents told them about our ancestors.”
You’d never know that Evelyn Jones is 80 years old. Her beautiful, honey-colored skin is as smooth as that of someone half her age (I was wishing for a Grande size “Evelyn Cream” to apply at bedtime). With the vigor she’s known for (she still serves town boards, alumni and church groups, as well as her neighbors), she gave us colorful accounts of the still close-knit community’s history, intertwined as it is among business, social, church, and educational life, and painted pictures of a once strong, vibrant neighborhood and its – well, just plain goodness. It was a place where midwives served the entire Wake Forest community, attending mother and child for a week at a time, and is still a place where neighbors tend to each other – “Not everybody can afford to go to the rest home; if somebody’s needed, you go stay with them, bathe and cook for them.”
The former Wake County assistant teacher talked of neighbors named Gill, Smith, Pope, and Mitchell, entrepreneurs whose presence downtown included a poolroom, restaurant, barbershop, shoe shop, and foundry. Up in the neighborhood were candy and grocery stores, sweet shops and beauty parlors, music and dance teachers, undertakers and barbers. The area’s brick masons, electricians, and plumbers served both the East End and greater Wake Forest, as did the town’s all black volunteer Fire Station #2, located on the very site of our meeting that Sunday afternoon.
We heard about Ms. Gracie’s, a sweet shop that sold “High Rock” (nickel soda pop), and Mr. Percy’s, a grocery and restaurant. “Everybody bragged about Shorty’s hotdogs; we bragged about Mr. Percy’s. It was a place you could go on Sunday evening … and enjoy a cone of ice cream, a hot dog or hamburger with a soda, or just sit with your kids and enjoy the piccolo.” (For those not old enough to know, a piccolo is a jukebox; and for those not old enough to know what a jukebox is, google it!)
Marlon and John B. Cole, two white brothers from the Mill Village, ran a store on N. White Street. “Cole’s … was a life saver for the people on this side of town. They sold everything that people needed. They ran an account book, so if you didn’t have the money until payday, Marlon would credit the people.”
Evelyn Jones and others like her, most of them unrecognized, have for years done the holy work of their living, the results being a bounteous inheritance for all of us. I, for one, left the Alston-Massenburg Center that afternoon with a robust appreciation for the goodness of people, and for the living legacy of these neighbors in particular. The East End has always exhibited a gracious plenty of the holiness found in Wake Forest. Now, as the town at last stands taller in its responsibility to its citizenry by putting genuine energy into the East End, perhaps this little universe of a town will also find itself to be more healthy and whole.
© Amy Pierce and Wake Forest: Our Heritage, 2002-2013. Originally published in Our Heritage Magazine. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amy Pierce and Wake Forest: Our Heritage with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.