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Black History

During Fayetteville’s 250 years, the city has been the home or birthplace of numerous African-Americans who have contributed to the city and the world beyond. Their contributions span the fields of education, medicine and music to name a few; their stories are both remarkable and memorable.

Henry Evans, for instance, arrived in Fayetteville in the 1790s. Originally, he had no intention of making this his final destination; he was on his way to Charleston, S.C. to continue his career as a cobbler and a preacher. A free black man, Evans felt a need to stay in Fayetteville and preach as a Methodist minister, though. He built the first Methodist Church in Fayetteville, called Evans Meeting House, a church where blacks and whites worshiped together. When Evans died in 1810, his funeral was attended by both blacks and whites and his church continued to be a place of worship for both races until rising tensions over slavery increasingly drove them apart. (The church, located in Downtown Fayetteville on North Cool Spring Street, is among the oldest in town and is known as Evans Metropolitan AME Zion Church today.)

At the end of the 19th century, when Dr. Paul Melcher opened his medical practice on Bow Street and became one of the first practicing African-American physicians in Fayetteville, a prominent educator named Dr. Ezekiel Ezra Smith (E.E. Smith), who strongly believed in the education of blacks, was made the principal and chief administrative officer of the State Colored Normal School, and he served in those capacities for fifty years. The school evolved into what is now Fayetteville State University. Smith was also appointed as regimental adjutant of the Third North Carolina Volunteer Infantry in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, was the Minister and Consul-General to Liberia, Africa and was editor of the Carolina Enterprise. Smith served as pastor of First Baptist Church for six years. Following a vision to open a large educational facility, he purchased 40 acres of land on Murchison Road, which would become the permanent home for the Normal School. Through gifts from Smith and his wife, Nannie, the campus would expand from its original 40 acres to 92 acres by time of her death in 1942.

Smith was also known for being an entrepreneur and a businessman. In the early 1900s he owned several rental properties around Blount Street. “He would rent to people with the understanding they had to keep the property up,” said Dr. Bertha Miller, executive assistant to the chancellor of Fayetteville State University. Smith was one of the founders of the North Carolina Industrial Association, which held an annual fair where African-Americans could display their crafts and which offered industrial and educational resources. The fair began in 1879 and continued until 1930. According to Miller, Smith was very much respected for his leadership in the community and admired for his educational philosophy about teacher training and practice teaching. “He conducted himself in a gentlemanly manner, and made wise decisions when it came to investing money,” she added. Smith displayed that same business acumen in securing funds for the school. When he retired in 1933, Smith had moved the school from the single wooden two-storied structure of the Howard School on two city lots, worth about $5,000, to developing a college campus on 50 acres of land worth over $500,000 — with eight brick buildings, four frame cottages, a barn, a laundry building, a stately President’s house and the Newbold School. “He was one of the main persons who set the mold of what teacher’s education should be in North Carolina,” Miller said.

Music has been a prominent feature of the African-American talent flowing out of Fayetteville. In particular, the city has been the home and birthplace to several jazz musicians. Brothers David Kenneth “Bubba” Brooks, Jr. and Harold Lloyd “Tina” Brooks were born in Fayetteville. Both were known for their tenor saxophone playing. Bubba joined the Army during World War II and was able to play with James Moody during that time. During his career he also played with Charles Williams and Don Pullen. For 20 years he played with Bill Doggett’s ensemble. “Tina” was known for his work on the famous Blue Note Label during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Fayetteville is still home to many talented musicians. Dr. Brooksie Harrington, a professor at Fayetteville State University, is a prime example, being both a musician and an educator. Harrington took 10 years of formal piano and organ training while growing up. By the time he was in seventh grade he was being paid for playing. While a student at The Ohio State University, he was given the opportunity to play piano for Lou Rawls. “I was at a function at the Governor’s Mansion and Lou Rawls was scheduled to sing. His personal accompaniment did not show up. Dr. Frank Hale, who had invited me there, found out that Mr. Rawls needed someone to play the piano and immediately said here is a musician,” he said, “I was just a little nobody,” said Harrington. “But Lou Rawls was extremely kind to me. He was even more suave and charismatic in person than television and stage performances show.” Harrington’s love for music inspired him to write his dissertation/documentary at Ohio State on the first lady of gospel, Shirley Caesar. His research included traveling with Caesar for over more than two and a half years on the weekends and then heading back to class on Monday mornings. This book is now housed at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a part of the New York Public Library. In November of 1999, the National Endowment of the Arts honored Caesar and Harrington with the National Heritage Award. Harrington is passionate about his music and performs most weeks, but he is even more passionate about his students. “I want my students to be the ones people come to see perform. They are the ones I want to see shine,” he said.

Reggie Codrington, a jazz saxophone player, also has his roots in Fayetteville. Reggie grew up in a musical family; his father, Ray, is a musician and can be heard on Reggie’s latest CD. “He played with Little Richard,” Codrington says with pride in his voice. Codrington himself has played with the likes of Kevin Toney, Paul Jackson, Jr., Frankie Beverly and Maze. He has nine CD credits to his name. Born with cerebral palsy, he had to overcome nine operations and numerous obstacles growing up. “Music was a great way for me to express myself,” Codrington said. Recently he has been traveling all over the world performing at military installations. “It is such an honor to be entertaining the military personal; they give so much for us,” he said. He also feels fortunate to be able to do what he loves for a living. “It’s a joy and a blessing to wake up and do something you like.”

Harrington agreed with Codrington on that count, “I am very fortunate to do what I do,” he said. Last fall Harrington found some other good fortune in his home, historical items that belonged to a woman who gave of herself to the community for much of her adult life. Harrington lives in the house that once was home to Henry “Doc” and Mary Terry Eldridge, educators at Fayetteville State University. Doc Eldridge was the chairman of the mathematics and science department and Mary taught music for 30 years there. She also served as the head of the music department and started the school’s choir, and the school song, “Old White and Blue” was written by her. In 1973, she was elected to the Fayetteville City Council, becoming the first African-American woman to serve on the council, which she remained on for 11 years.

Another female trail blazer during this time period was Sylvia X. Allen. Allen was known as a Civil Rights activist, but what her son, Dr. John W. Allen, remembers most is the devotion to family and community exhibited by both his parents. Sylvia Allen broke a racial barrier when she became the first black woman to graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill law school in 1962, which she did while being the mother of six children. “My parents had extraordinary minds and this was one of the ways my mother challenged her mind.” Allen became the first woman and the first African-American to serve as an assistant district attorney in the state. During Governor Jim Hunt’s Administration, she also served as an assistant state attorney general. Dr. Allen is proud that both his parents contributed to Fayetteville; his father, Dr. G. Wesley Allen, was an obstetrician and delivered more than 12,000 of Fayetteville’s newest citizens while he was in practice. “My mother always believed in service to your family and community.”

Ammie Jenkins, founder and executive director of the Sandhills Family Heritage Association, has strong feelings about this community, as well. She has dedicated her life’s work to preserving the legacies of what she calls the “unsung heroes’ of our area. Jenkins grew up in the Sandhills area on her great-grandfather’s land. When her father died in 1954, she and her mother and siblings were racially threatened and eventually forced to leave their land. Jenkins was determined to have an education and became the first black student to enter High Point College during in the 1960’s civil rights protests. More than 10 years later she revisited where she grew up and started thinking of her and her ancestors’ lives there and how their land had provided a means of family support and self sufficiency. In 2001 Jenkins founded the Sandhills Family Association with a mission to save and protect family land and livelihoods. The organization also preserves the culture of African-Americans from the area. Jenkins said it has been with the help of countless volunteers and supporters that the association has been successful with community outreach education, a farmer’s market, heritage tours and an annual cultural festival. Jenkins was one of AT&T’s honorees chosen for the 2013 North Carolina Heritage Calendar. Her story will also be told to students in North Carolina’s public schools, as it has been added to the curriculum from the second to 11th grade. Jenkins is quick to point out that the heroes of our area are not people like her, but the grandfathers and grandmothers who worked the land and endured hardships so their children and grandchildren could have a better life; the mothers and fathers who took care of their families, and the neighbors who were always there for each other. “We want to preserve that rich history and legacy of land stewardship, entrepreneurship, and the culture of our ancestors, and awaken the passion in our children to pass it on to future generations,” she said.

From Hiram Rhodes Revels, born in Fayetteville in 1827, who was the first African-American to serve in the United States Senate in 1870 representing Mississippi, to the unsung heroes whom Ammie Jenkins praises, Fayetteville has been the birth place and home to talented, gifted and passionate African-Americans who, through their own lives, passions and work, have given much to Fayetteville and the world beyond.