African American News and Genealogy

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Residents of Raleigh area founded by slaves tell their story

RALEIGH, N.C. - Except for the piano lessons she has taught for 56 years, Frances Olivette Massenburg McGill spends most days at home, relaxing. She has earned it. McGill, 75, has held more than 30 different jobs, sometimes two or three at one time. She raised six children, "five good-looking boys and one beautiful girl." She is a college graduate, a semi-retired neighborhood den mother, a former crossing guard and a local television personality. McGill, born to an Anguillan mother and adopted by a prominent African-American barber and his wife, has done things most people don't associate with a black woman born in 1930. She worked. She married and divorced, married, divorced and did it again. She managed her own finances and bought her own home. "In this life, I tried to do things that would challenge my mind," McGill said. "I did everything I could that was decent." McGill's story is just one of 20 that St. Augustine's College sociology students collected this summer when they interviewed some of the College Park Idlewild community's oldest residents. The interviews are part of a broader effort to gather the stories, pictures and records that tell the story of a once-stable but now troubled East Raleigh community founded by freed slaves. In 1867, St. Augustine's College, an institution for black teachers, was built. Around it, the communities known at times as Lincoln Park, College Park and Idlewild grew. By the early part of the 20th century, the neighborhood was home to black teachers, carpenters, doctors, maids, gardeners, shopkeepers, morticians and porters. These communities had their own bakery, several full-fledged grocery stores and garden and social clubs. They were among the places for working and upper-class blacks to live inside the city. Today, community meetings are usually punctuated with talk about problems with prostitution and drugs. "This area, it has a rich, rich history," said Octavia Rainey, a community gadfly and chairwoman of the North East Citizens' Advisory Council. "Really, people think I'm crazy when they hear me say I have a gold mine. We do have our problems. But this neighborhood has a gold mine. We have our story." An effort to have the community declared an historic area went nowhere. When the community's unofficial historian, Ella Clarke, died, Rainey inherited her effort to collect College Park Idlewild's story. Then, Rainey got a call from Derek Greenfield. Greenfield is a sociology professor at St. Aug's. He thought gathering oral histories would give students an opportunity to explore the "symbiotic relationship" between the college and the community. And he wanted his students to learn something about themselves. "I want them to see that learning is not just something that happens within four walls," Greenfield said. "I want (students) to realize that they can be producers and contributors to knowledge." So Greenfield sent his students out into the neighborhood to talk with women such as McGill and Sadie Harris, 81. Harris' long-closed Lincoln Cafe served beer, barbecue and chitterling sandwiches. When she opened the shop in 1960, police warned her the streets right behind it were so dangerous they were known as Vietnam. "I told them, 'I'll take my chances,' " Harris said. Harris said she maintained order by calling every man who came in the door "Mister." For 25 years, she ran the business by day and got assistance from her husband at night. She had worked for years in Cameron Village restaurants before running her own. "Everyone is a repository of history," said Michael Taft, head of the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center. Taft said history books tend to include dates, facts, figures and information about the effects of past events. Oral histories offer perspective, what it was like for one woman or man to experience change, Taft said. The Folklife Center is a repository for more than 3 million items, including about 100,000 recordings dating to 1890. For Charmaine Brown, 22, the oral history interviews sent the St. Aug's senior into the community for the first time in her four years on campus. She was leery about venturing into a place that looks nothing like the suburban neighborhood where she grew up in Kings Mountain. Brown interviewed McGill and learned that independent women are not a 21st-century innovation. "Really, Mrs. McGill is something," Brown said. "She's smart, she's strong, she did a lot on her own. I think that's the way I want to be." Information from: The News & Observer,


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