Fresh Eyes: Why Warnersville matters

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Ed Coneby Edward Cone

The crowd was still settling in after the dinner break at the Warnersville Community Coalition dinner, murmuring and pushing away plates as a movie started to play. Then the packed ballroom at Bennett College got very quiet, very quickly.

On two big screens, James Griffin was looking into the camera and remembering how the government tore his neighborhood down. An aerial shot panned out to show the extent of the destruction, acres of scraped dirt where houses, businesses and churches once stood, with the downtown skyline glinting in the background.   

The 56-year-old Griffin, soft-spoken but purposeful, has been a driving force behind the campaign to celebrate Warnersville’s heritage. And on this late-August night there was plenty of celebration — old stories retold, old friends reunited. But there remained a lingering question: How do you mourn something when the world doesn’t acknowledge your loss?

Decades after the razing of Greensboro’s oldest African-American community, both the insult and the injury still sting. A richly historic neighborhood that deserves a place of honor in this city’s story of itself was wiped from the landscape in the 1960s, and then scrubbed from civic memory. It just wasn’t something discussed in polite conversation.

Urban redevelopment, they called it. But in Warnersville, and other neighborhoods across the state and around the country, it was more like urban warfare. Families and businesses that had endured for generations were displaced. Much of the replacement housing was soulless, lovable only to bureaucrats. A vibrant landscape was bulldozed into its own unmarked grave.

There may have been some good intentions behind the massive program. Parts of the century-old neighborhood — its unpaved roads and outhouses symbols of Jim Crow inequity — could have used genuine renewal, and many people were happy to be relocated. But nobody was asking for the erasure of an identity or the diaspora that followed.

This was big government at its worst. This was white privilege and cultural cluelessness on steroids. This was something done to the people of Warnersville, not for them.

You want to find a root cause for the distrust in Greensboro politics, you could start with the gutting of the old commercial district along Ashe Street, Warnersville’s main drag. You want some subtext for the uproar several years ago over the sale of the old JC Price School, understand that the building where generations learned to read and write was one of the few physical legacies of the community left standing.

Please know that these are my words, not those of James Griffin. Know as well that I was not an unbiased viewer of that short documentary: Lisa Scheer, who produced and wrote the 12-minute film in collaboration with Harvey Robinson and Carolyn de Berry of Monkeywhale Productions, is my wife. So I know something about the effort that went into the movie, the depth of research, the trust-building and relationships that made it possible (you can see an edited version online at vimeo.com/136967822).

I flatter myself that I am an amateur historian of my hometown, but I learned a ton from Lisa’s work. About the founding of the neighborhood by a Philadelphia Quaker named Yardley Warner, who after the Civil War helped former slaves buy their own land and establish their own businesses in the settlement south of town that would take his name. About Warnersville’s great tradition of educators, preachers, athletes and gamblers, the house-proud families and the community center and the juke joints, the planning of the Woolworth sit-in. About the play-outside-until-dark childhoods and dense kinship networks that remind me of my own, very different Greensboro roots. And about the long battle by Griffin and many others to keep the memories alive.

I started to feel a sense of loss for this place I never knew. A sense of impatience, too, as official Greensboro plays catch-up to its own history. The city council, after years of inaction, recently named Warnersville a Heritage Community; not enough of the old neighborhood remains to qualify for designation as a historic district (it was good to see Mayor Nancy Vaughan and councilmembers Sharon Hightower and Marikay Abuzuaiter among the elected officials attending the dinner).

And it is important that the city-run Greensboro Historical Museum has mounted an exhibit about Warnersville. But the show (which grew out of Lisa’s work with James Griffin, the late Otis Hairston Jr. and others) is less than it could have been. Stuffed into a cramped third-floor space, right next to an inexplicably vast permanent display of Confederate arms, it veers toward sentimentalism and shies away from fully addressing the hard parts of the story.

Remembering history as it really happened is about a more than honoring the past and salving old wounds. Inequality and redevelopment are topics of the moment in Greensboro. Maybe if we can look back with some clarity, we can get it right this time.

Edward Cone is a former News & Record columnist and semi-retired blogger. 

  • Lex

    We invite those interested in learning more about the Warnersville community in general and J.C. Price School in particular to visit an online exhibit, J.C. Price School: “If These Walls Could Talk”: an oral-history project created by Greensboro College history students. It’s at https://www.greensboro.edu/museum-jcprice.php.

    • LJ

      I really enjoyed both the article and video. As a former employee of Old Salem,Inc.. and also a graduate of the History Dept. at NCCU I can really appreciate the uncalled for stuff that the Warnersville Community has gone through. The recognition is long overdue. As for JC Price HS the same goes for it’s struggle as well. There were actually three JC Price High Schools. The one in Greensboro followed by the one in Salisbury where my dad graduated from(he also attended NC A&T and was a product of it’s Mechanical Engineering and Math Depts.) and finally one in Southern California. Please keep up this most vital mission because too many of these communities have gone the way of the past.

  • Thanks for writing this, Ed. Warnersville deserves a central place in Greensboro’s civic identity. It was frustrating to see the city’s foot-dragging on recognizing Warnersville as a Heritage Community, but in the end they did it. And city staff and volunteers from the Historic Preservation Commission worked closely with James Griffin – an amazing person – to develop the Heritage Community concept, which, as far as I know, is unique in the state.

  • Not to take anything away from Warnersville but it went on in communities all over Greensboro such as East Market St: http://www.greensboro-nc.gov/index.aspx?page=1749

    “From the turn of the century to the late 1950s, the East Market Street Corridor flourished. It was the shopping and social center for many of Greensboro’s African Americans, who owned businesses on the street and provided services to those shut out by segregation practices in other Greensboro neighborhoods.

    This lively community began to wind down in the late 1950s and 1960s when, under the guise of “urban renewal,” thousands of people and more than 80 businesses (many minority-owned) were displaced. Most of those businesses never reestablished.”

    And it has yet to be reestablished today: http://greensboroperformingarts.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-positive-economic-impacts-of.html

    “”Hello Mr. Jones,

    We apologize that your request has taken so long to complete. We have requested several departments to review your request to see if they had any information pertaining to your request. Unfortunately, the City has not measured the economic impact directly attributable to the East Market Street streetscape project.

    Sincerely,

    Public Information Desk

    City of Greensboro”

    And it continues in communities like Heritage House, Glenwood and even other Greensboro communities where the poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American are all pushed out to make way for the rich and Ed Cone says nothing: http://marc.ridgillrant.com/2015/09/leadership-and-agendas.html

    ” The rumors are that the city is attempting to get Smith and Ray Warren homes sold to UNC-G and A&T Universities and converted into much more curb appealing student housing. Both of those properties are within close eye view of two major roads leading into the Council’s precious downtown projects. Those folks would be relocated to the Hicone Road location to the tune of about 220 units. In this location there is no library, no recreation center, no bus service and only one grocery store. The schools in this area have already been taxed and the Reedy Fork development is only 700 houses into a 3500 house project. ”

    Now Ed, Eric and Brian can claim they did not know but now they do know. What course of action will they take?

    • Lisa Scheer

      Billy, I am aware that the Warnersville Redevelopment Project was one of many such projects in mid-twentieth century Greensboro. But I chose to examine the landscape of this one community. This
      documentary project took many years to do. My interest was in illustrating a larger story about urban renewal by focusing on a single neighborhood. So do me a favor, don’t knock Ed Cone. Just appreciate the hard work that many of us undertook to chisel away at the prevailing orthodoxy about urban renewal. Thanks.

      • Lisa, You husband was in a position to change this entire city for the better, to stop future Warnersvilles from taking place. Instead he took the coward’s way out and watched it all happen– even promoted it. Call it knocking Ed Cone if you wish, I call it like it is.

        What happened in Warnersville is still going on all over Greensboro today. Ed Cone’s family, your family today, still benefits from Greensboro’s “Redevelopment”

        Talk is cheap, do something about it, put your money where your mouth is. After all, we all know Ed never would have written this article were you not involved in the project.

  • Ginia Zenke

    Paragraphs 4,5,7,8. Speaking for the family, “Yep”.
    If an historic site is destroyed in another part of the world, it is called “terrorism”. In the United States, it is called “progress”.
    (I am not comparing the following properties to World Heritage sites when I make this statement. However, on the scale of history created in Greensboro, Bellemeade, Dunllieth, Rose Villa, the old O’Henry & King Cotten hotels, the old Burlington Industries building on Eugene, and Otto’s raised cottage and our home, the older part being the home of abolitionist Eli Caruthers in the 1820’s, Blandwood, and all these neighborhoods that are the footprint of people’s memories, just might qualify, if anyone was listening. And all but two, are gone.)
    Little was spared during Urban Renewal, or when developers, private or public, got a bright idea. Some of the examples listed above were all examples of interesting and well-built architecture, celebrating the financial and industrial advancements of the city, and if it wasn’t the City/County that destroyed them, it was fellow private developers who had an equally blatant disregard for the history of the city and the accomplishments of their predecessors. And we wonder why we can’t attract businesses here. (In some business structures, there is a “legacy” factor: “What do we tangibly leave behind?” It’s usually a good building. We used to be able to point to the Burlington Industries building and say, “That company represented 40,000 jobs”.)
    How do we mourn? Every day. The world is right to fight terrorism in the world, but it is also necessary to fight the municipal terrorism in our own back yards.

    • Thank you Ms Zenke for pointing out the fact that it is still going on today.

  • Billy, thanks for letting me in on the news that my husband is the reason, or at least a complicit partner, in everything cruddy that befalls Greensboro. Maybe I should have set my sights higher than an oral history project on Greensboro’s first African-American neighborhood. The truly sad fallout of this thread is the misdirected anger and bitterness. Our Warnersville project was the product of many people coming together to share stories – a collaborative effort to record an important, overlooked part of African-American history in the urban South. I wish you could have sat in on some of those interviews. It may have enlarged your perspective, and
    diminished your cynicism.

    • Lisa, the problem is your husband’s liberalism ends when it reaches his wallet. Take his own blog for instance, well read by Greensboro’s elites and governing classes: Every reference to Warnersville also includes a reference to his lovely wife.

      History is fine, we need history. We need to collect, tell and retell history. But along the way we need to acknowledge the fact that even knowing history isn’t enough to prevent the ugliest parts of history from repeating itself right before us. And call me cynical if you like but right now in this very city the history of Warnersville is being repeated in minority and working class neighborhoods all over Greensboro in the name of progress.

      And you dearest Edward does nothing except write blog posts and articles promoting Lisa Scheer, the photographer.

      While I’ve been fighting for change for years. You’re damned straight I’m angry.

      Just a little bit of background Ms Scheer: While I am white I grew up in one of those Greensboro neighborhoods devastated by “redevelopment” and still live there today. I’ve witnessed first hand how your kind (the elites) use their power to destroy lives black and white. I’ve witnessed the aftermath too– years of economic downtown while your side of town thrives, my mother having to walk the street to get a petition signed because the City was refusing to fix the roof on our Greensboro City School (Bessemer Elementary) and children gunned down on our streets in cold blood at liquor houses the community had been begging the police to close for months, years sometimes.

      Keep documenting history, we need that. But if you think documenting history changes the world for the better… Well I’ll put it to you like this: The last couple thousand years of world history is pretty well documented and right now there are more people dying than at any time in the history of the world.

      Get over yourself, Ms Scheer, with all the money and all the money the Cone name brings in Greensnoro, your husband has done nothing to change our city for the better.