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Thursday May 26th

Carrboro thrives 106 years after being incorporated

An archival photo of the Board of Aldermen in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Richard Ellington.
Buy Photos An archival photo of the Board of Aldermen in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Richard Ellington.

The town of Carrboro has changed a lot since it became incorporated in 1911. It wasn't even originally named Carrboro, but Venable, after the UNC President at the time, Francis Venable.

Since Carrboro became incorporated,  23 mayors have served the town. Carrboro board of Aldermen member Damon Seils said Francis Venable wasn’t happy to have the town named after him — at the time it was a fairly poor, small community. 

In 1913, the town was renamed after Julian Carr who had purchased various mills in the area and provided the town with infrastructure improvements including streets and electric power. He also had a notorious past for his racist actions. Despite his influence on Carrboro, Carr never lived in the town bearing his name. 

Seils said Carrboro’s governing board, the Board of Aldermen, is a common term for municipalities in North Carolina. Chapel Hill Town Council used to be the Board of Aldermen as well, and before that they were the Board of Commissioners.

Current Mayor Lydia Lavelle said that the conversation comes up periodically to rename the Board of Aldermen to the Town Council, but said the current board would consider it if it becomes an issue among residents. 

Carrboro is regarded as having the first openly gay mayor in the south, Mike Nelson, who served from 1995 - 2005. He is not only the youngest mayor of Carrboro, but is the longest serving as well.

Richard Ellington is a lifelong resident of Carrboro and is the president of the Chapel Hill Historical Society. He has worked collaboratively on two books about the town and was even delivered as a baby by a former mayor of Carrboro, Braxton Lloyd.

Mayor Lavelle is the first openly lesbian mayor in a Southern town, Ellington said. 

Carrboro was not always the progressive town it is viewed as today. Ellington said it wasn’t until students began moving off campus and into Carrboro that the town started to change.

In the 1970s, the Carrboro Community Coalition was created by a group of citizens to modernize the town. They began running candidates and weeding out many of the older Board of Aldermen members. The coalition focused specifically on the student population that was now living in Carrboro and could now vote with the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971.

In the 1980s the Association for a Better Carrboro — the ABC — was organized as a response to the Carrboro Community Coalition. Ellington said the ABC was a more conservative group and ran their own slate of candidates against the coalition.

“Before this, everyone ran independently,” Ellington said. “It made for a lot more contention but also more fairness — you actually had to listen to the different candidates.”

The CCC and ABC faded away over time, but Carrboro has been a dynamic community since then, said Ellington.

In 1977, Carrboro elected its first African-American mayor, Robert Drakeford. 

“He had a pretty progressive reputation at a time before Carrboro had really taken on that reputation, and he was sort of our first bicycling mayor and made a lot of advances for cycling infrastructure in the town,” Seils said. 

Another prominent mayor, Ellington said, was Ellie Kinnaird who was mayor from 1987 - 1995 and was named a "Town Treasure" by the Chapel Hill Historical Society in 2010, a title which honors exceptional residents who have contributed to their community over the years. Kinnaird was instrumental in creating the Carrboro Town Commons, and she was a strong advocate for the arts, environment and the community.

At a century and 6-years-old, Carrboro has evolved into more than just the town next to Chapel Hill. 

“One thing I like to tell is that we’re the only Carrboro in the whole world,” Lavelle said. “If you Google Carrboro, you get us.”


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