It’s 8:30 p.m. on date night at one of downtown Greensboro’s most venerable restaurants and the joint is so empty the steak knives are blowing a keening, metal whisper. The staff is low-talking about an early close and I’m trying to convince them to join me for the crescendo of NC A&T University’s 125th homecoming just a few blocks away.
The activities began a week earlier with the coronation of Mr. & Miss A&T, daily events, lectures, parties, comedy shows, step shows, luncheons and dinners throughout the week, while culminating in the legendary Saturday parade and the homecoming football game against the Howard University Bisons. A host of Sunday activities round out the week, but the real party is Saturday night when alumni and GHOE tourists pack downtown Greensboro tighter than a lycra dress on Gabuay Siddobay.
Young Dro, Rae Sremmurd, Wale, Fetty Wap and Future were rapping at the Greensboro Coliseum, and Gladys Knight was crooning the night before at Koury Convention Center. But the real party and after stretched from South Elm to Murrow Boulevard and beyond.
It’s 9 or so and the waning waitstaff demurs my invitation, citing a rare “off” Saturday night. I notice as I make my way down Elm that a few other normally lively establishments have flickering signs indicating dimming power and being closed.
The real action is centered around Churchill’s, where the queue to enter is like an anaconda in a basket. The ladies are decked in everything from cutout dresses that look like they’ve been attacked by Siegfried & Roy’s tigers all the way to ensembles that would make Cookie Lyons do a double take. The men are just as plume-worthy with Sunday best suits, tightly tailored hipster gear, explosions of color, layering and bling and refined casual wear. The mood is lively, but tense. It’s definitely a party — but it’s a private one, and this white girl was an outsider.
I’ve been here before — the outsider. In the early ’90s one of my first jobs as a journalist was as a reporter for the Carolina Peacemaker, founded in Greensboro in 1967. I worked for the legendary civil rights activist and Publisher John Marshall Kilimanjaro and the venerable Editor-in-Chief Hal Sieber, who served as a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and authored several books about civil rights.
They threw this cub up against the likes of local lightning-rod activist Ervin Brisbon, put me in a room with Jesse Jackson, gave me Coretta Scott King’s home phone number and sent me to pick up Toni Morrison at the airport. I covered murders, moments in history, fights for historic buildings and neighborhoods, political feuds, racial profiling issues and even a Klan meeting — all in the name of opening the lines of communication in this racially divided city.
Twenty some years later as I gave a eulogy at Hal Sieber’s funeral and looked out at the room, I was impressed at the rainbow turnout, this community of people shaking hands and telling stories and realized that this is exactly what Hal had been fighting for his entire life. It’s what we should all be fighting for every day and in every human interaction we have.