Barton College

Home sweet homeland.

I’m very conscious that the Wilson that I regard as home is not really a place that exists any more. It’s an idea. It’s maybe even an idealization. And I have to be careful not to romanticize what Wilson is, or even what Wilson was. My name is Lisa Y. Henderson. As much as Wilson is home for me, I’ve wondered if I could live here now. But I feel really incredibly fortunate to have grown up when and where I did. My closest community had a little core of first-generation, middle-class, college-educated African-Americans. My parents’ generation. And they came together in this town in the early 1960’s, in an era when there was obviously a lot of promise for change for Black people. But that promise mostly was being realized on a remote level, on a national level, and I grew up in a very, very segregated Wilson. I was too young to understand segregation. I was shielded from it, and I certainly never thought of myself in any as inferior to white people. We were conscious of white people, but they weren’t really part of our world. That didn’t change much even when I attended integrated schools. These past six or seven years, I’ve been coming home to give a couple of talks in February. Black History Month. And as a result of those talks, people have sought me out to learn more. I appreciate that. That’s part of of what I’m trying to do — to make people conscious of, or to think about the role of Black people in Wilson’s history. I feel like I have this incredible responsibility in this town — to sort of help it be a better place for everybody who lives here. To expand the idea of to whom history belongs. I think people, especially young people, feel disconnected from the idea of history. They don’t see how it matters. But when you can look around you, and see now only what’s here, but what was here, it makes it easier to think about what could be here. Now that you know what people have done, it’s easier to imagine what you can do. 

The passage above was condensed from a much longer interview in which I talked to photojournalist Keith Dannemiller about the idea of “home.” I am honored to be included in his exhibition, Homesweet, Homeland, now on display at Wilson’s Barton College. Dannemiller, who has lived in Mexico for more than 30 years, first came to Wilson for Eyes on Main Street‘s artist residency. Says Dannemiller, “Comprised of 50 color prints and 16 tintype portraits with accompanying interviews, Homesweet, Homeland is a personal journey of rediscovery of America and its essential diversity, in a region burdened by the baggage of tradition, the vestiges of slavery, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few, but with the hope and potential to forge a new, more inclusive community out of the manifold Souths of today.”

Barton College’s oral history project.

The introduction to Barton College’s Crossing the Tracks: An Oral History of East and West Wilson:

“Starting in the spring of 2013 and concluding in the fall of 2014, Barton College students began interviewing Wilson residents about social, cultural, political, and economic relations between residents of East and West Wilson, and how these relations have changed over the past sixty to seventy years. 

“In spite of the many significant achievements of the modern Civil Rights Movement, our nation, state, and community bear the scars and legacies of a deeply troubled racial history that continues to impact our relationships. While we might like to forget or gloss over the painful part of that history, its effect lingers, and denying it will not make it go away.  As the writer James Baldwin once said, ‘The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.’  One of the goals of Crossing the Tracks, then, is to bring these unconscious forces of history into our consciousness, so that we might begin to confront the historical effects of white supremacy and begin the process of healing.

“A history of segregation, built on a foundation of white supremacy, created a separate but unequal society.  And the traditional historical narrative is at best an incomplete history, written and preserved by those who hold political, social, and economic power.  It too often omits the strong voices and tremendous contributions of those on the margins of power.  Part of the mission of the Freeman Round House Museum is to fill this gap in the historical record by preserving and publicizing the contributions of African American Wilsonians to education, medicine, the arts, criminal justice, and entertainment.  Crossing the Tracks supports this mission.  It is an accessible collection of first-person accounts of life in Wilson that students, scholars, and the general public can use to study and write about this remarkable, underrepresented history.  In many ways, it builds on the work of Dr. Charles W. McKinney, Jr., whose book, Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina, documents decades of committed struggle by East Wilson residents to lay the groundwork for the modern Civil Rights Movement.”

The project includes videotaped interviews with 22 residents of East Wilson. The recollections of many, including Samuel Lathan, Roderick Taylor Jr., and Mattie Bynum Jones, date to the 1930s and ’40s, the latter decades covered by the blog. Barton College partnered with the Freeman Roundhouse and Museum to obtain these invaluable stories and all are available online.