Walking through the town of Carrboro today, one might have little idea about the town’s racially-charged history, but a newly formed community task force hopes to change that.
The Truth Plaque Community Task Force is made up of about 15 Carrboro residents and is working on a plaque to be displayed outside Carrboro’s Town Hall. The group wants to acknowledge Carrboro’s history of racial tension, dating back to the naming of the town itself.
Julian Carr, whose name the town bears, has long been the subject of spirited debate in the community, but especially in light of recent Silent Sam protests. Carr made inflammatory comments at the statue’s dedication in 1913 speaking about assaulting an African-American woman.
“One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds,” Carr remarked at the event.
This behavior was not unusual for Carr, who was known as a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. However, he also played a critical role in the development of Carrboro. Richard Ellington, a board member of the Chapel Hill Historical Society, said Carr’s assistance to the town is how it became named for him in the first place.
“He asked if the town would change its name to Carrboro in his honor if he was to add to a lot of substantive things, such as running electricity into the community,” Ellington said.
While the idea of changing the town’s name has been proposed, it would be no small feat.
“It’s been looked into, and it turns out it’s such an expensive process,” Ellington said. “So I think what’s happened is that the town is going to try to educate people and leave the name as is.”
Jacquelyn Gist, a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, had the initial idea for the truth plaque project while visiting Fredericksburg, Va., in 2017.
“Fredericksburg has this African-American History Trail,” Gist said. “They have plaques all over the city telling the truth — they don't call them truth plaques, I started calling them truth plaques — of what happened there.”
Gist felt the plaques were a good step in the right direction for cities and towns to recognize their histories.
“I thought, let’s just tell the truth about where our name came from,” she said. “Rather than changing our name, let’s put a plaque in front of Town Hall that says, ‘We were named after this evil so-and-so who made this speech at the dedication of the statue.’”
Gist wants to see the project help to acknowledge how far Carrboro has come since the days when Carr himself roamed its streets.
“Carrboro has been home to civil rights heroes,” Gist said. “We commit ourselves to working as a community for social change and social justice.”
While the Board of Aldermen will play a key role in the process, it was decided the community should take the lead on this project.
“The Town of Carrboro wishes to acknowledge this history as a part of the process of changing and transforming the narrative of Carrboro and dedicating itself to a future of racial equality and justice,” a notice issued by the town said. “This plaque is an opportunity for the community to play a direct role in contextualizing the true history of Carrboro.”
The group has only met once so far, but current discussions are already encouraging Gist.
“At first, I had hoped that it would simply be acknowledging who we were named after and his connection with our entire community,” she said. “And now moving forward with this amazing group of people, I hope that the true full story of the history of Carrboro is known.”
The task force will have their next meeting on Oct. 5 and is expected to submit a report to the Board of Aldermen in the coming months so the board can consider its recommendations in early 2019.
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