Effort ongoing to record the untold Black history at Raleigh's Dix Park

Joel Brown Image
Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Effort ongoing to record the rich Black history of Raleigh's Dix Park
"It's a remarkable opportunity for us to learn about our past and to uncover these origin stories so that we can understand how we're all connected."

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- ABC11 marks the start of Black History Month at Raleigh's Dix Park and the ongoing effort to record the oral history of that land once home to dozens of enslaved Black people. There is an oral history project, years in the making, uncovering the tragedy, truth and triumph.

From her home in Harlem, New York, Wannetta Worthy told ABC11 that she always knew she had ancestral roots in Raleigh -- but for much of her life the history was untold.

Her family, like millions of other Black families between the early 1900s and 1970, was part of the Great Migration -- when 6 million Black people moved from the South, post-slavery, to opportunities in the northern, midwest and western U.S.

"And I've lived in New York, the borough of Manhattan for all of my life," Worthy said. "We knew our family was from Raleigh, but it was my grandfather's side and he didn't talk about it."

Not long after the state and the City of Raleigh struck the deal to create Dix Park, the new Dix Park Conservancy realized the history it had to grapple with on this land. It was once home to Dorothea Dix Hospital, the state's first mental health facility. Thousands of years before that, it was home to indigenous settlers -- here long before Europeans arrived. And in the middle of those two eras, Dix was the Spring Hill Plantation.

It included 5,000 acres of farmland worked for decades by as many as 90 enslaved Black people. Including John Hunter: a witness to the Revolutionary War; a celebrant of the first Fourth of July; a veteran of the War of 1812. Wannetta Worthy is his descendant.

"He was a blacksmith. He lived to be 112 years old. This man has lived through several historical events," Worthy said of her ancestor.

Elizabeth Page is a volunteer for the conservancy's Legacy Committee. It's working to compile the oral histories of the park's distinct eras in time, including its time as a plantation built by Raleigh founding father Theophilus Hunter in the 1700s.

"He was a Revolutionary patriot," Page said of Hunter who was also the second-largest owner of the enslaved people in Wake County. The oral history project aims to tell the whole story.

"I think it's a remarkable opportunity for us to learn about our past and to uncover these origin stories so that we can understand how we're all connected," said Page.

The connections can be empowering. Since Wannetta Worthy discovered the roots of her family tree in 2019 -- her family made a mass pilgrimage back to Raleigh, to Dix Park to see it for themselves.

The family's other ancestors, including Stewart Ellison, also came into focus. Ellison married John Hunter's granddaughter. He went on to become an accomplished builder and architect -- constructing schools, offices, and hospitals -- including the mental facility at Dix.

"Not only did it help us to connect to the past, knowing your history connects you not only to the past but it connects you to the present," Worthy said. "I know there are a lot of Black folks who are ashamed and don't want to talk about slavery. I'm not ashamed."

"Our family from the past are skilled artisans. John Hunter and Stewart Ellison founded the city of Raleigh. They built Raleigh."

The oral history project is still very much a work in progress. Multiple interviews are on tape and the Legacy Committee is working to compile more. The goal is to have all of them edited and available as educational tools in Raleigh -- for generations to come.