African-Americans enlist to preserve the all-black town

These hamlets, though born of segregation, retain a proud history of self-sufficiency.

Perry Barrett, for one, is asking himself this provocative question: Is there a place today in America for the all-black town?

While many African-Americans, including Mr. Barrett, grew up in small rural towns with nary a white person, those communities today have almost faded from the scene - a consequence of interventions such as the Voting Rights Act, desegregation laws, and the civil rights movement, not to mention changing attitudes.

But a few such towns persist - and some residents and former residents are determined to save them. Far from seeing places such as Taylortown, N.C., as anachronisms carried over from the days of Jim Crow, they view the black town as a beacon of self-sufficiency and pride - something to be savored, safeguarded, even invested in.

Barrett is one who's putting his money where his heart is.

As a kid in the 1930s, he careened across Taylortown, picking up trash and listening to Negro quartets play open-air concerts. In those days, he couldn't hope to live in nearby Pinehurst, a white and wealthy golf town whose black hired hands lived in segregated but proud enclaves like Taylortown, Midway, and Jackson Hamlet.

After living on New York's Long Island for most of his adult life, Barrett is investing his hard-earned savings in three buildings in his hometown, rather than in the real estate bonanza around Pinehurst's greens - even though he admits he has little hope of recouping the investment.

"I'd be smarter to put my money somewhere else," he says, peering at the leaning shacks and dirt tracks that block in his property. "But this is more important, it always has been to me."

The task for people like Barrett, though, is a daunting one. Many younger African-Americans are ambivalent, at best, about preserving this way of life, and the forces arrayed against the all-black town - development, politics, history - seem unstoppable.

"They're mostly towns that have a real small population, often an older population, and they're really beginning to think seriously about, how do we survive?" says Oklahoma lawyer Hannibal Johnson, author of "Acres of Aspiration" about the promise of all-black towns. "The reason they want to remain viable is the history of human spirit triumphing and self-determination."

Black towns once dotted the landscape from Alaska to New Hampshire and from Nevada to Florida. Some were carved from the dregs of segregation, marginalized in swamps and on the other sides of the tracks; others were hopeful gambits of self-sustainability. Some were created by "exodusters" fleeing the segregated South; others were simple camps left over from when planters left the rice fields. Hundreds - places like Dempsey, Alaska, Parting Ways, Mass., and Coit Mountain, N.H. - have gone by the wayside.

The rural black townships that survive today - with names like Atlantic Beach, Little California, Lost City, and Keysville - are mostly in the South, with some in Kansas and Oklahoma. A few are thriving. Some struggle against "structural racism," suggests Anita Earls of the University of North Carolina's Center for Civil Rights. Many, like Taylortown, are slowly crumbling.

Tale of Daufuskie Island

The drive to secure these towns for posterity - including sacred places such as burial grounds - is stronger in some towns than in others. Daufuskie Island, S.C., is one community where activists have tried to preserve some semblance of what was once a hidden black village, steeped in the Gullah traditions, accessible only by skiff.

"I was astounded [to see] what a national and international interest there was in Daufuskie Island and how many black folks claimed they'd lived there or had a relative who had lived there," says Lewis Pitts, a lawyer in Durham, N.C. "Sometimes it's materialistic things like water and sewer that drive these kind of struggles, but there are also these 'Roots' phenomena that drive it, and it's very powerful for our diaspora."

To be sure, some black towns are thriving. Eatonville, Fla. - hometown of acclaimed writer Zora Neale Hurston - is today a vibrant town that hosts a ZORA! festival each year, drawing tens of thousands of people.

But elsewhere, the dream has faded. In California, Allensworth, founded by a post-Civil War black colonel, is now a state historic park. Some see its demise as a working town as evidence that the experiment in black self-sufficiency failed.

Boley, Okla., is a rugged but peeling prairie town, where Maurice Lee III claims he didn't know there were different races until he saw a white person when he was 10. The four or five tour buses that stop there each year to hear of the colorful history of a now-drab town aren't enough. The overriding spirit of the town had been self-sufficiency outside the white power structure. But today, that fight is about over, at least in the West, and Boley is on the verge of blowing away on the wind.

"The point has been proven, and it was necessary to be proven at the turn of the 20th century. But of the 13 remaining black towns in Oklahoma, they're all tiny and all either stagnant or dying," says Mr. Lee, owner of the only manufacturing plant in Boley, which makes barbecue pressure-smokers. "At one time these towns were self-sufficient, and they are no longer self-sufficient."

Yoke of history a challenge

The legacy of segregation remains a challenge for some. Like many black hamlets, Princeville, N.C., was relegated to the poorest land - a swampy tract east of Tarboro. It was flooded to its rooftops during hurricane Floyd in 1999. Yet instead of taking an offer to move the town, its residents - who are proud of Princeville's standing as the first incorporated black town in the nation - decided to stay, behind a new government-built dike.

"It's a powerful force that has driven the Princevilles of the world - the notion that, sure, it's on a piece of [terrible] land, but it's a meaningful place," says Mr. Pitts.

Still others struggle against new incarnations of racism that stymie their opportunities, some say. Jackson Hamlet, N.C., a plat of some 400 black residents between the towns of Aberdeen and Pinehurst, is an example of "underbounding" - the practice in rural areas of annexing land around a predominantly black area but not the black area itself, say civil rights activists. The result: The black community receives few public services, which choke its ability to progress, they say. Median annual income in Jackson Hamlet is $22,000, compared with $59,000 in Pinehurst, only a fairway drive away. The two candy shops that used to compete in the village are now shuttered.

"What we're trying to get a sense of is, how many places do you find a black community disadvantaged by the structures that are in place," says Ms. Earls, director of advocacy at the UNC Center for Civil Rights in Chapel Hill.

If Pinehurst were to annex Jackson Hamlet, it would bring services such as sewer lines and police. But it could also mean gentrification. Residents are demanding that any annexation plan include a historic overlay that would safeguard the area's black families from developers. Pinehurst officials say there's historically been little interest, as Jackson Hamlet residents have been reluctant to pay the higher taxes that come with more services.

"We were hidden. People didn't even know we were here," says Carol Henry, president of the Jackson Hamlet Association and a lifelong town resident. "Now we need more services, but we want to make sure we don't lose what makes us unique."

Some have lost hope. Tom Gibson plans to move to Philadelphia to make a go of a gospel music career. Crime in Jackson Hamlet, he says, has become too pervasive. "It's impossible to realize your dreams in a place like this," says the 30-something food service manager.

In Taylortown, the roof on the historic Adams Theater, one of the town's few remaining historic structures, collapsed last year. As for Barrett, he's locked in a fight with the town over the future of the old Taylor homestead, a former hotel for black carriage drivers.

But he sees the battle as worthwhile. To him, the decision to invest in Taylortown is less a matter of residents' skin color than of an older generation sustaining the idea of home. "I'm a dreamer, but usually when I dream, I can make it come true."

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