When Virginia Barbee came to Chapel Hill’s historically Black Pine Knolls neighborhood in 1955, she said there was only one white family.
Today, the neighborhood just west of Merritt Mill Road looks much different than it did then, but Barbee said she is committed to recognizing the accomplishments of Pine Knolls community members.
Barbee, who started the Pine Knolls Community Housing Program in the early 1990s, said she wanted to recognize the contributions of other community leaders, including Ted Parrish and Robert Seymour, at an event at the Seymour Senior Center, but the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It gave us an opportunity to bring out what (the Pine Knolls Community Center) meant to us,” she said. “We haven’t used it in quite a while, but it gives us a chance to bring out what that center did for the African-Americans in this area, and it gives us a chance to honor some people that meant so much to us.”
Barbee said the center was founded in part due to safety concerns.
“When Reverend Seymour came here, he said ‘You know, it’s bad that the children from Pine Knolls gotta come all the way from the Robertson Street Center, gotta come across the railroad track and the parents be worried about them,'” she said.
Donna Rowan-Edwards, a Durham resident who was involved with coordinating the event, said some of the center’s accomplishments included facilitating college and career readiness programs for youth, operating a police substation and starting Juneteenth celebrations in Orange County.
The community center’s history is marked by a struggle for self-preservation.
“Most valuable things through history have come through some type of struggle or a conflict, and from what I gather with this community here and this Pine Knolls Center, it’s been nothing short of a struggle and a conflict,” Rowan-Edwards said. “And it’s more so to commemorate what the people who live right here in Chapel Hill have spent the better part of their life trying to maintain or trying to retain.”
Much of the conflict between the center and the Town of Chapel Hill involved the center's delayed repayment on $181,500 out of a $280,000 loan made by the Town in 1996.
Funds for the loan were allocated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and were designated for the purchase and renovation of seven properties in Pine Knolls to be sold as affordable housing. At the time, community center leaders said they couldn’t find buyers in time to repay the Town on schedule.
The Town initiated foreclosure proceedings on four of the homes in 1999 but dropped them after Pine Knolls community leaders made the final payment on the outstanding debt.
Still, tensions lingered. In 1999, George Sanford, then-president of Pine Knolls, told The Daily Tar Heel the center’s financial troubles began three years earlier, when the Town banned any additional loans. He explained that he even used his own money to pay the insurance on some of the houses.
“Saving the homes was our only goal,” he said. “We weren’t trying to beat the Town out of any money.”
Later that year, the Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously voted to end the Neighborhood Revitalization Loan Fund, which was used exclusively for residents of Pine Knolls. In a 2000 DTH interview, Parrish, the director of the center, questioned the sincerity of Chapel Hill officials’ efforts to diversify the group of people involved in town decisions.
“I think there is sufficient mutual distrust between the Town Council and residents in my neighborhood,” he said. “It just seems as though some town officials have their own agenda and they do not see Pine Knolls’ needs as a priority.”
Barbee said Pine Knolls community members collaborated with other historically Black neighborhoods in Chapel Hill in this struggle.
“We just need to make people see how important that center was to us because it not only helped us, but it helped the other African American communities,” she said. “They would have been gone as fast as we would have had we not been fighting because we tried to pull all of our communities in.”
Delores Bailey is the executive director of EmPOWERment Inc., a nonprofit that works to empower individuals and communities through community organizing, affordable housing and grassroots economic development.
Bailey said EmPOWERment Inc. hopes to purchase the Pine Knolls Community Center over the course of the next few months and convert it into eight to 10 affordable rental units. She said Parrish presented the idea for the project.
“It would be an homage to the people that helped create the Pine Knolls Community Center,” she said.
To honor Pine Knolls community leaders, Barbee said she would like the Town to erect a statue. Rowan-Edwards echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the significance of public commemoration.
“This is a community of people or group of people that fought for this community, that started out with all African Americans in the hopes of maintaining,” she said. “What does that mean? To us this day, it probably doesn’t have any ‘bad connotation,’ but to them back then? You’d be blind and ignorant to say that they didn’t see that as a threat. Why? 'Cause it’s all Black.”
By providing housing to low-income people, Bailey said EmPOWERment Inc. will help preserve diversity.
“Every politician runs in their campaign promises to provide affordable housing,” she said. “I just need to see it happen.”
Barbee said she hopes the story of the Pine Knolls neighborhood serves as a cautionary tale about development.
“That’s what we’re trying to do: show our people, let the churches, the leaders, our men, our ministers, just friends to each other, show us what we can do to hold on,” she said. “If this program, if the going out of the center can do that, it will, in a sense, accomplish more than the pain of bringing it in.”
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