The following excerpt is taken from the article “Clues of Displacement: The Gentrification of Silver Hill,” a chapter from the book What People Leave Behind: Marks, Traces, Footprints and their Relevance to Knowledge Society, published in October.
Feature photo: Aunt Angeline’s Birthday Party in Silver Hill, 1943 [photo courtesy of Chenita Barber Johnson]
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the McCollum family. TCB regrets the error.
What people leave behind can provide insights into larger social forces and historical contexts. Physical remnants of older communities can inspire explorations of the past. When traces of previous settlements are located near newer buildings and infrastructure, they suggest a story of social change. Investigating this change can illuminate histories shaped by social structures, power dynamics and human experiences that reveal much about the people that came before and what led to the neighborhood’s present-day state. Such clues of displacement linger today in the spaces of a community formerly known as Silver Hill.
Silver Hill was a settlement that began in the 19th Century just west of Winston, NC (as the city was known before it merged with the town of Salem in 1913). Although it was overshadowed by larger African American communities in East Winston and other parts of the city, Silver Hill epitomizes many facets of post-Reconstruction history in the Southern United States. Within the enclave, the building of a vibrant African-American community, the hardening lines of segregation, the encroachment of a wealthy, white community, struggles for racial justice and eventual displacement can all be found. This displacement, which took place over several decades from the late-19th to mid-20th Century, was a form of gentriﬁcation. As the industrial expansion of Winston-Salem proceeded, the neighborhood became surrounded by wealthy white developments which cut off road access to their homes. African Americans resisted this encroachment and continued living in Silver Hill through the 1970s, but the development of new housing geared toward wealthier buyers eventually replaced the original homes and residents. This history serves as an important study because gentriﬁcation continues to be a focal point of concern for many communities of color.
First Traces of Silver Hill
The name Silver Hill ﬁrst surfaced in a plat map recorded on Sept. 19, 1894, showing 33 lots owned by William Edward Franklin. The map lays out two streets running north and south — Holiday Street to the west and Lincoln Avenue to the east. Cross Street bisects the neighborhood going east and west.
In 1886, a congregation of African Americans of the Primitive Baptist faith acquired land for a church just west of the lots that came to be known as Silver Hill. The church was called by several different names but was most commonly known as “Antioch Primitive Baptist Church.” The nearby West End Baptist Church (also an African-American congregation) purchased three acres of land adjacent to the church for a cemetery in two separate transactions dated 1907 and 1908. There were several African-American families already in the area before it became known as Silver Hill. These included the Cain family, which was headed by Emaline and Richard “Dick” Cain. They purchased their property in 1881 for $15. They held this property at the eastern edge of Silver Hill until 1917, when they sold it for $2,000 to real estate developer William L. Ferrell. It would eventually become part of the new, upscale Buena Vista neighborhood. The expensive home that stands on the former Cain lot today was built in 1939, leaving no obvious trace of its connection to Silver Hill.
The ﬁrst known newspaper mention of Silver Hill was in the Western Sentinel published on Aug. 11, 1898. It states that, “An immense crowd attended the colored camp-meeting at Silver Hill, near Winston, Sunday.” Camp meetings were religious events where worshippers congregated in rural areas for an extended period of time to live and pray together. They were particularly inﬂuential in the Piedmont region of western NC, where Silver Hill lies. The newspaper goes on to state that the crowd “came in from Reidsville and other places to attend a Primitive Baptist meeting.” This detail might help explain the appeal of the community to the McCollum family of Rockingham County (where Reidsville is located), as many of their children made Silver Hill their permanent home.
West Highlands and Buena Vista Surround
Starting in the 1910s, Silver Hill became surrounded by wealthy, white neighborhoods. Developers of the West Highlands and Buena Vista neighborhoods built some of the city’s most elite housing stock for executives of tobacco and other industries. The Cain property became the site of one such house. After the Cains left the area, a peculiar section was added to a March 26, 1925, deed transfer of the property:
This description also includes a 10-foot-strip running along the South side of that part of said lot 17D sold to Linville K. Martin and shown on said map as an alley. To that of the description this grantor only conveys all its right, title and interest in same, and does not covenant or warrant to defend the title as to that part of the property.
A plat map of Buena Vista shows this alley leading into Silver Hill from Hawthorne Road along the edge of the former Cain property and the two properties adjacent to it. This alley served as an “old traveled way or farm road leading from what is now Hawthorne Road through Silver Hill.” This had served residents of Silver Hill as the entrance to their community for several decades. However, the developers of Buena Vista claimed the road as part of lots 101, 102 (the former Cain property), and 17C, which were to become the property of wealthy white residents in the new neighborhood. This left Silver Hill residents without a way in and out of their community, as the alley they had used was now located on private property.
Residents of Silver Hill fought back. They gathered petition signatures demanding the city build a road to get in and out of the neighborhood and presented their demand to the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen. The aldermen commissioned a report from the Public Works Committee, which in turn presented their ﬁndings to City Attorney Fred Parrish. On Dec. 2, 1927, Parrish told the Board, “I feel that these colored people who built their homes on a well-deﬁned cartway which led from Winston-Salem to a church and graveyard have been bottled up, but I do not think it is a ﬁght of the city, as we have all of the streets and highway we can look after, without seeking others.” The Board of Aldermen rejected their request while unanimously approving road construction for several other communities, including Buena Vista.
Despite the setback, residents of Silver Hill found new ways to get to and from their homes. As the years went by and development continued at a brisk pace, Silver Hill became connected to other roads in the surrounding area. Their efforts to resist the enclosure and persistence after losing their old entrance to the neighborhood speak to an incredible resilience forged by a small, close-knit community.
A Gradual Gentriﬁcation
A zoning map from 1930, predating the notorious Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlining maps of the late 1930s, clearly demarcates Silver Hill as an A-2 residence district as compared to the A-1 district ratings given to the surrounding West Highlands and Buena Vista neighborhoods. These designations had an effect similar to later HOLC maps, warning that investments would be risky in the Silver Hill area and steering capital away from the African-American community.
City services came very slowly to Silver Hill. The neighborhood was annexed by the city in 1920. But it did not receive the basic infrastructural investments afforded to its wealthy, white neighbors. In 1936, the city teamed with the state of North Carolina using federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds to ﬁnally construct a sewer and water system in Silver Hill. The undertaking was fraught with delays, including a zoning dispute between the city and wealthy industrialist P. Huber Hanes, Sr. that held up construction.
On Easter Monday in April 1942, the Antioch Primitive Baptist Church was destroyed by a ﬁre. Fire Chief MG Brown told the newspaper that the church was not believed to have much ﬁnancial value. This dismissive attitude toward the loss of the community’s foremost institution is contradicted by Chenita Barber Johnson, a Silver Hill descendant and historian of local African-American life. She indicates that losing Antioch Primitive Baptist Church had a profoundly negative impact on the families who were connected with it. After their church was gone, West End Baptist Church (almost two miles away) became the religious home of many Silver Hill residents.
In 1948, the city upgraded the zoning of Silver Hill from A-2 to A-1. Whites began buying up property. Streets were still unpaved in Silver Hill, and the residents were still exclusively African American. But developers began building homes for white residents along the southern end of Silver Hill on Wiley Avenue and Carolina Circle. A 1952 city directory indicates that Silver Hill would now be renamed Wiley Avenue. Three new homes were under construction on the portion of Wiley Avenue that approached Silver Hill from the southeast. Several more new homes for whites lined Carolina Circle, including ﬁve on the southern end of the Silver Hill Cemetery.
Slowly, the original Silver Hill enclave was in decline. In 1956, city directories began listing 433 Wiley Ave., the former home of Ophelia and Henry Hunt, as vacant. A 1958 Sanborn map lists the house as a dilapidated structure. By the early 1960s, white families began moving into the last remaining section of Silver Hill. A decade later, only three African American families remained. By the late 1970s, William Blackburn was the only African-American resident in the area.
What’s in a Name?
The origin of the name Silver Hill is disputed. Multiple sources over the last half century have claimed that Silver Hill was so named because of a witch doctor who lived in the area and was paid in silver coins. Starting in 1970, several newspaper articles were written “in memory” of Silver Hill. The ﬁrst article featured a claim from a man who was reported to have lived “in the area” for over 40 years. He indicated that his grandfather had told him Silver Hill got its name “because Negroes used to take silver change there to ward off witches they believed in.” He added that everyone from those days was gone now, so the story could not be checked. Thus, it appears, a legend began.
On July 4, 1976, the Winston-Salem Journal sourced a man living on Horace Mann Avenue, a street just beyond Silver Hill populated mainly by white residents, saying “It was a colored hill. You know how it got its name, don’t you? Legend has it that there was an old Black man back there who was a witch doctor, and for him to doctor folks, they had to give him silver — silver dollars. That’s why it’s called Silver Hill.”
Although it might be a compelling story of the neighborhood’s past, it appears to be wholly concocted by nearby white residents. And although people around the world have believed in various forms of witchcraft for centuries, there doesn’t appear to be any other evidence that it was practiced in Silver Hill. Claims of witchcraft serve to “other” the former inhabitants of the community, depicting them as bizarre in comparison to their neighbors.
Occam’s razor suggests that the etymology of the neighborhood’s name was probably less complicated than the sensational stories ﬁrst reported in the 1970s. It seems more likely that the community was dubbed Silver Hill by a developer the same way most subdivided communities are named: with the goal of enticing buyers.
An Incomplete Telling
When the city of Winston-Salem erected a historical marker next to the Silver Hill cemetery in 2018, it marked another in a series of attempts to tell the story of the community. Similar to other Winston-Salem neighborhoods, such as the African-American West End (which was cleared for an expressway and a baseball stadium), the history of neighborhoods like Silver Hill seem to only be gloriﬁed after they’ve been destroyed. The same city that commemorated Silver Hill also refused to provide its residents access to their own community after private developers cut them off. Recently, Winston-Salem passed a resolution in favor of reparations, but has no concrete plans to pay those debts owed to local African Americans. The foregoing history thus begs the question, “What are the descendants of Silver Hill owed?”
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