The new Orange County Environmental Agricultural Center — set to open in late summer — is being renamed in honor of Bonnie Davis, an agent of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, who died in 2018.
The center will be named the Orange County Bonnie B. Davis Environmental and Agricultural Center. She will be the first Black woman to have a building named after her in the county.
The building will house offices for various government agencies. This includes the Extension department, which focuses on outreach with farmers in the community, as well as the soil and water conservation division, the forestry service and the county parks and recreation department.
The dedication to Davis was approved at an Orange County Board of County Commissioners meeting in March.
“She was such an icon, breaking barriers, helping the community and advancing our community,” Chairperson Renee Price said. “When we talk about progressive people — she lived and breathed that.”
As an agent of the Extension department, Davis would travel out to farms and homes and set up demonstrations on a variety of topics that fall under the umbrella of home economics: cooking, nutrition, home financing and house care. She worked for over 40 years until retiring in 1990.
Davis’ career did not end with her retirement, however. She continued to be active in the community, being a founding member of the Friends of the Department of Social Services, and active in other organizations.
In her early career, Davis faced segregation in the workplace. When she began working in 1950, there was no restroom she could use in the office she worked in. They were whites only, and she was told to use an outhouse. She fought against this and soon had a bathroom she could use in the building.
Tyrone Fisher, the county Extension director, said he is proud of the legacy Davis leaves behind.
“Everyone I’ve talked — farmers, homemakers — talked about how Mrs. Davis impacted their life, and she served everyone that she worked with," he said. "Back then we had the separation of Blacks and whites, today we have similar civil rights issues dealing with who we serve. So Mrs. Davis started that – no matter what color you were, she strived to provide education for you.”
Ivelisse Colón, an agent for the Extension department, helped get the building named in Davis’ honor. She had not known Davis personally but felt her impact when she learned of her passing. Colón works with groups called extension clubs, doing work similar to that of Davis.
“It was a big thing because she worked with a lot of these women — our clubs are mainly women — and she had worked with them,” Colón said. “And not only with them, with their mothers and their grandmothers, so it was a big loss for the membership.”
After Davis' passing, Colón learned more about her life and her contributions. When the Extension & Community Association (ECA), a group of adults who volunteer with the department, held a day to honor its members, she heard about the building and decided it should be named after Davis.
“I thought ‘Hmm, this is a person that should be recognized in the county and in the state for the work that she had done,’” Colón said. “Not only because she was a Black woman working in the segregation times and was a catalyst working with anybody in the community to benefit all, but also because she was instrumental in what is Orange County now.’”
She consulted with other members of the ECA and reached out to members of the community who had had experience with Davis, several of whom wrote letters in support of the name proposal.
Colón was helped in this by Davis’ daughter, Bonita Neighbors, who said she was grateful for the support from the community.
“It just warms my heart because I love my town; to see how inclusive it is now,” she said. “If you would ever have told me this would happen a few years ago, I wouldn't believe it."
Neighbors often accompanied her mom at work. One of her earliest memories is intentionally drinking from the ‘whites only’ water fountain at her mom’s office. She recalls her mother as someone who appreciated the value of education.
"That was a primary focus. No matter what, you do your schoolwork,” she said. “My mom’s thing was keep your head high don’t worry about anything, because no one can take from you what you have between your ears.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.