Black cultural life in Raleigh getting a museum to call its own on city's southeast side

Joel Brown Image
Thursday, February 9, 2023
Black cultural life in Raleigh getting a museum to call its own
Work is underway in southeast Raleigh to create the city's first African American Cultural Center.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- It's a new portrait of Black life in Raleigh. Work is underway in southeast Raleigh to create the city's first African American Cultural Center. A total of $12 million from the city's newest parks bond will go toward the project that is bringing joy and hope but also some doubt.

In this corner of South Park, one of Raleigh's most-historic Black neighborhoods, grows an archival repository.

"We've come in and painstakingly taken every paper, every photograph, everything we can find," said Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh Museum.

The collection has been building for years in this room off the foyer of John P. "Top" Greene Community Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It's packed with donated artifacts, community relics, historical records, and family memories -- more than 1,500 in all.

It's Black Raleigh in boxes -- preserved in acid-free folders. Dollar is entrusted to turn it all into the city's first African American Cultural Center.

"Once you understand the history of this community is so rich and so deep with just incredible history that has shaped Raleigh and North Carolina, even the nation -- that organizers felt that they needed a place to share this with the rest of Raleigh," Dollar said.

The center is the brainchild of the South Park East Raleigh Neighborhood Association (SPERNA) and Lonnette Williams. She's a South Park native who pushed relentlessly since 2005 to convince the city to create the space inside the under-utilized community center -- aiming to tell the stories of the Black neighborhoods and the Black people who built this side of the city -- from South Park to east Raleigh, from Shaw to Saint Augustine's universities.

"And everything in the middle would be the area that we will focus on collecting artifacts and telling stories about people, places and events that happen in this area and influence in the city," Williams said.

In these archives, you could find the funeral program for Delia Haywood Phillips Pope. She died in 1955. She was the wife of Dr. Manassa Pope, one of North Carolina's first Black physicians.

There are memories of when East Hargett Street was Raleigh's "Black Main Street" -- packed with dozens of Black-owned businesses. Segregated from other parts of the city, the owners found refuge in homes in South Park and east Raleigh neighborhoods.

The center hopes to tell a triumphant story. It's also a complicated one.

"It's good you want to build this museum to tell the story of the Black community -- the Black community that you erased," said long-time Raleigh fair housing advocate Octavia Rainey who supports Williams' efforts for the center, but insists the city owes the community more after the injustices of urban renewal programs of the past, which she believes left a legacy of Black Raleighites dislocated from the neighborhoods they built.

"And when you build these neighborhoods back, Black folk are not coming back. We're priced out, forced out, shut out and taxed out," Rainey said. "And that's why I say this museum represents more of a memory."

Williams disagreed.

"I don't see it as just memories. Because it can also be inspirational for people, especially young people, to see the work that people have done over the years," she said.

Back at the soon-to-be cultural center, Dollar is promising the whole story will be told.

"You cannot appreciate the history if you do not understand the struggle of the people who've lived here," he said.

There are also plans in the works for what SPERNA is calling a Heritage Walk: an outdoor landscaped trail from South Park to St. Augustine's that landmarks the Black Raleigh neighborhood history along the way.

But the cultural center comes first. The hope is to have it open by the end of the year.