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. 

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