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Carrboro Town Council confronts past and future of racial inequity in the town

Katie Murray, Orange County's Arts Commission Director, spoke on behalf of the project, urging the Council to help create "a stronger local arts agency, physical space and increased accessibility to the arts" for Orange County's community of artists.

Issues of racial justice took center stage at Tuesday’s Carrboro Town Council meeting.

Council member Barbara Foushee started the meeting with a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement’s surge in recent months.

“We are in search of action, not words, for there is still so much work to be done,” Foushee said. “I’m raw, I’m angry, some days I’m even afraid.”

Afterward, Mayor Lydia Lavelle suggested mandating a certain number of minority members for appointments to Town committees. A decision was made to hold appointment hiring until diversity in the applicant pool was increased.

The rest of the meeting focused on a proposed mural and changing the namesake of the town.

In the parking lot outside of the Carrboro Town Hall, the proposed mural would read “End Racism Now.” This mural had previously been approved by the council, but there were new disagreements over both the location of this mural and its message. 

Community organizer Quinton Harper said he was disappointed that the mural did not read “Black Lives Matter” and then later responded to a comment from council member Susan Romaine, who said such a statement may be seen by some as too polarizing and political.

“Susan, my existence is political," Harper said. "Every day I wake up, it’s politics … Not seeing the term ‘Black Lives Matter’ means I am not seeing anything that affirms my life matters.” 

The council then passed a motion to discuss other areas for murals. Council member Jacquelyn Gist proposed an amendment to focus on places where murals could go up with minimal delay. 

“We need a space for people to express themselves,” Gist said. “I am worried sick that in the coming weeks we will need it more.”

The other big item on the agenda was the consideration of changing the name or namesake of Carrboro. Currently, the town is named after Julian Carr, a white supremacist and KKK supporter.

The council heard comments from residents, including a former mayor and a high school student who started a petition to change the namesake of the town to Johnnie Carr, a civil rights leader.

All council members agreed that Carrboro disavowed the legacy of Julian Carr. However, some council members, including Damon Seils, voiced concerns that focusing on symbolic victories would distract from real issues. 

They said Carrboro has already confronted its past with 2019’s Truth Plaque Task Force that erected a panel explicitly stating modern Carrboro was not aligned with the values of Julian Carr. 

"This feels like a very white conversation to me," Seils said. "We’re talking about a decision that to me feels like it ought to be centering the experiences of Black people, and I don't feel that about where we are with this conversation right now."

Ultimately, they tabled the issue so more public opinion and information on the costs of renaming or changing the namesake of the town could be gathered. 

Anita Jones-McNair, Carrboro's recreation and parks director, joined the meeting to discuss reparations regarding the disproportionate number of trees in communities of color that lead to less desirable neighborhoods. 

This turned into a broader conversation about reparations and their implementation. Foushee urged fellow council members to think beyond just the traditional ideas of reparations.

“A dollar amount can never be placed on hundreds of years of bondage, torture and rape and separation of families,” Foushee said. “This is never a debt that can be repaid.”

The council agreed to devote a work session to this issue to formulate concrete plans.

The next Town Council meeting will be on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m.

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