Jim Town Revisited: Video Explores the Once and Future Businesses of West Southern Pines
Jim Town Revisited
At one time, West Southern Pines was a self-sufficient township, often referred to as "Jim Town" during the era of segregation. The state's first incorporated black township boasted thriving businesses, strong leaders, and a tight-knit community of workers who built and served the developing resort area that we know as Southern Pines. Today, West Southern Pines is a shadow of what was. Old buildings leave little trace of the community that boasted silent movie theaters, corner markets and doctors' offices. Many of the community's residents believe that West Southern Pines can eventually see the vitality that made the area such a special place to live and work once again.
Look. Those people harvesting peaches, cotton and tobacco in Moore County around 1900 are likely the children and grandchildren of slaves.
A haunting sight - these grainy, blurred sepia photographs. Yet Kim Wade chose them to open her 70-minute video oral history of West Southern Pines because the people were its first residents.
Jim Town, the enclave was called, as is Wade's presentation, which chronicles long-gone businesses set against still-vibrant community spirit.
Was "Jim Town" coined to honor prominent citizens James Buffet and James Henderson - or a racist allusion to segregation laws in force from 1876 until the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
"In my generation it was never legally Jim Town," Wade, 55, says. "West Southern Pines was a chartered (black) township," the first in North Carolina, one of a few on the East Coast. "But I wanted the community to know what we were called."
In 1923, West Southern Pines was incorporated with a mayor and town council, later a police force, jail, school, hospital, bank, credit union, doctor, dentist, recreation facilities and stores, which served a captive clientele, many lacking transportation.
However, according to the minutes of the Southern Pines Board of Town Commissioners, on Feb. 10, 1931, members proposed revocation of the charter.
Reasons listed include: "Criminals from elsewhere drifting into WSP where they are protected from apprehension by a negro form of government." Also, "Danger from a health standpoint of an epidemic breaking out ... that would cause serious danger to Southern Pines as a resort ... that is dependent upon the negroes as servants." Lastly, "That the negroes were not capable of governing themselves ... and did not have sufficient funds to build streets and look after other civic needs ..."
WSP residents protested to no avail. The state granted the request for revocation and annexation.
These documents sear the conscience. Wade offers them because "I wanted the community to know this was the image Southern Pines had of West Southern Pines."
A second setback occurred in the 1970s when previously non-zoned WSP was zoned residential; as grandfathered businesses closed, new ones could not open.
"That had to economically destroy the area," says Mitchell Capel, son of successful businessman and former Southern Pines Town Council member Felton Capel, who still lives in WSP.
Picturing the Neighborhood
Despite municipal interventions WSP survived, along with its culture, lore, commerce and family sagas.
Wade chose a first-person mode concentrating on businesses rather than attempting a conventional history, since "East and West Southern Pines" had been published by Sara Lindau and Pamela Brown in 2004.
Wade drew on her own background, enriched by the memories shared by her 97-year-old grandmother. Wade grew up in WSP, daughter of a housekeeper and a bartender.
Her memories of segregation include sitting in the balcony at the Sunrise Theater. She witnessed integration firsthand during hermiddle-school years. Even after segregation was abolished, "People gravitated toward the familiar ... a plantation mentality existed," Wade says
Overall, Wade's recollections of life in WSP are positive.
"It was a village with businesses on every block. People stood around and talked about who went into the Army, who was promoted, who got married," Wade says.
On scorching summer nights, before cable TV and central AC, entertainment consisted of sitting on the porch, talking to neighbors and drinking Red Rock Strawberry Soda from Hainsworth's while kids played kickball in the streets.
"There used to be a store on every corner," says Jeanette Kearns, who has lived in WSP for nearly eight decades. "They were personal stores, owned by people we knew," often bearing the owner's name.
These, and service businesses - barbershops, beauty salons and gas stations - became gathering places for the nearly 2,000 residents.
In the 1970s, Wade continues, the norm was for students to leave the area for college, then come back to care for elders, join the family business or create a new one. They felt connection, continuity. Residential zoning curtailed growth. Wade and her sister were prevented from opening a hair salon in her home. Businesses owned by African-Americans had not transitioned to the east side. Faced with these impediments, young black entrepreneurs went elsewhere.
Collecting the Evidence
Wade listened to old-timers at family gatherings.
"I started jotting it down," she says. "It was intriguing to see this wealth of history documented so close."
She discovered that WSP had a dance hall and in the 1930s was on the "Chitlin' Circuit" - clubs where traveling entertainers performed. There had been a silent movie house, a sanitarium, a boarding school and social venues dubbed "tea rooms."
"It was like little Harlem," she says.
Wade researched other black communities in Taylortown, Midway, Addor and Jackson Hamlet. She studied creative writing and multimedia at Sandhills Community College. She wrote plays and participated in Black History Month productions.
Then, after absorbing history for 20 years, in 2011 Wade began approaching seniors about taping their memories of local businesses - some abandoned, others converted or destroyed by fire.
"Nobody turned me down," Wade says. "I let them talk and listened to the black pride come out."
Assisted by her fiance, Carlos Gettings, who owns a production company, Wade spent two months assembling more than seven hours of footage, including 8mm. films of a Southern Pines Town Council election event for Felton Capel, in the 1960s - a priceless montage of familiar faces, with names, many now deceased.
Hearing is Believing
The video opens with an overview by Cynthia Ann McDonald, daughter of Floyd McDonald.
"Let's celebrate the lives of those pioneers (like my father)." McDonald's memories include Winfield's Sinclair service station, window tinting and detailing business, the Wayside Flower Shop, a fish market, Mr. Moon's cement block business, and Dr. Ross' home office. How about those famous hamburgers from the Five Point Cafe?
Helen Charles speaks of Frank Wright's store, in the time before streets (or dirt roads) had names, or cars had license plates. "My mother worked for 50 cents a day."
Martha Dickerson, a 74-year resident, recalls Billy Thompson's Dry Goods store, dancing at the Mack Shack, and a bike shop where the owner had a gift for "calling snakes and animals out."
As a youngster, Floyd McDonald and his friends sat in the woods to watch cowboy pictures at the drive-in theater. Dorothy Lutz (of the dry cleaning family) got there in her father's car, for 30 cents admission.
Otis James Sr. remembers Jane Turner's store, Lewis Funeral Home and homemade rock candy people sold from their homes, "to make ends meet."
Robert Johnson says, "There was a lot of good stuff going on this side of town," including several restaurants and a Peppermint Lounge. Vacationers' chauffeurs stayed in a boarding house run by Virginia Jones.
Cicero Carpenter can't forget the mini-potato pies made by uncle Jesse Graham, who also sold musical instruments and instituted the Moore County Credit Union.
Joseph MacRae Jr.'s -family had a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue that introduced foot-long hot dogs to the area.
Others recall Larry Leslie's Pine City Barber and Beauty Shop, the oldest -business in WSP, and Cardinal Park, where kids unwelcome elsewhere swam and played ball.
Everybody remembers Miss Adelaide's store, where kids bought candy on the way home from church.
The presentation, affirmative but sometimes disturbing, closes with a poignant image - a vacant, windowless Pugh's Grill, overgrown with weeds.
Better Days Ahead
Fred Walden has operated the West Side Garage in the same location for 40 years, allowing him a broad perspective:
"I'm a little disappointed in the changes," Walden says.
When he grew up here all children went to the same school.
"We were close-knit," he says. "There was a lot more support. The only reason to go outside the neighborhood was to buy clothes. Now we've lost some of the middle class because there aren't any jobs. The school's gone, the teachers live all over. Parents die and houses are vacant."
Walden, of retirement age, is working with a college student in hopes he will take over the garage.
"It breaks my heart," adds Mitchell Capel, who moved to Spring Lake. His dad spoke about the years when an entire house could be built without hiring -tradespeople from outside the neighborhood. "I remember a thriving community where everybody looked out for each other. I don't feel that any more. It's an eyesore. People just hang out on the street."
But, Capel ventures, there's hope.
Wade notes that younger people who escaped to -Northern cities are -returning, disillusioned by conditions there. One new residence is being built on spec.
Wade, a member of West Southern Pines Citizens for Change and instructor at Sandhills Community College, reports a plan for community gardens and incubator space for cooks to produce canned and baked goods. She is also working on a healthy food initiative.
"I think it will still thrive," says longtime resident Francis Banks. "I'm satisfied to leave this Earth from the little house I've lived in since 1957, when I came home to take care of my mother."
Demographics have changed, Banks says.
"Now there are some whites and Hispanics, a more mixed area," she says. "But that's as things should be because we're all one blood. No one is better than the others."
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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