The Town of Carrboro will place a "truth plaque" at the site of the former Freedmen's school at the border of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to recognize its historical importance.
The sign will read: “Green Cordal & Benjamin Craig, freed from bondage, purchased this land for a Freedman School and church. With funds from the Society of Friends, they built a schoolhouse that served hundreds of free Black children and adults.”
It's unclear when the plaque will be placed. The Truth Plaque Community Task Force, initiated by Carrboro Town Council member Jacquelyn Gist, implemented its first truth plaque last year at Carrboro Town Hall to recognize the history of Julian Carr, the white supremacist who Carrboro is named for.
“The plan is to do numerous truth plaques around the town that speak to our true history,” Gist said. “Knowing the truth of our community is really important as we move forward to address the evils of racism.”
Tom Tucker, the owner of Carolina Car Wash in Chapel Hill, said he first approached the Carrboro Town Council about recognizing the history of the school in 2015. When he bought the property for the car wash in 1997, he said he noticed in the title work that the land was originally owned by Quakers, and the Freedmen’s school and the St. Paul A.M.E. church were on that property.
In 2015, Tucker met Sherick Hughes, a professor in the UNC School of Education, whose students did research on and wrote about the former Freedmen’s school.
Torri Staton, one of Hughes’ former doctoral students, said Freedmen’s schools were a form of protest.
“Once states started emancipating, formerly enslaved people looked to education as a way to gain access to societal privileges and started pushing their way towards self-sufficiency in American society,” Staton said.
Staton said Freedmen’s schools were not only spaces for Black children to come and learn, but also a place for them to gain a cultural understanding of their contributions to society.
Sarah Bausell, another former doctoral student of Hughes, said this particular site is important to the community because there is evidence Cordal and Craig began dreaming and planning for the school before the Civil War ended. Bausell said Craig purchased the land at auction from the man who had very recently enslaved him. Craig’s wife, Dilsey, also played an instrumental role in the school’s formation and upkeep.
“It needs to be marked, studied and contemplated upon,” Bausell said. “It’s not that we discovered it — we responded to a community call and leveraged our research skills to play a part in making it happen. Elders in the community knew the history and were pushing for it.”
Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said the Town reached out to the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program about marking the site, but the school did not qualify because there were many similar schools in the state. The Town then directed its efforts toward the N.C. Department of Transportation.
She said there were three or four places the Town wanted to place the plaque, including near Tucker’s car wash, but the only place the NCDOT authorized was on the side of St. Paul A.M.E. Church on Main Street near the Carrboro welcome planter. Lavelle said St. Paul A.M.E has allowed the Town to place the plaque on its property.
Council member Barbara Foushee said telling the truth during this time is important because of today's climate with the University grappling with Silent Sam and recent protests over racial injustice.
“I don’t know if any of us have healed from the effects of slavery, white supremacy or Jim Crow because it still permeates through society,” Foushee said. “Truth telling opens it up and takes power away from it. Acknowledgement of what’s happening in the community or the nation starts the process of healing.”
Foushee said she thinks it’s important to keep opening up that history and keep pushing initiatives like this forward because everyone’s history is important.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.