Power of Community: A Jackson Center Story

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Marian Cheek Jackson

Power of Community

A Jackson Center Story

 by Tom Griffen

A while back I went to the Jackson Center on Rosemary Street—an unassuming house sitting just adjacent to St Joseph’s C.M.E. Church. Someone was painting the hand rails leading up to the front door and advised me to take caution. I entered, and was warmly greeted by all three people in the front room. The vibe of the place and everyone’s overall tone made me feel like I had entered a friend’s home.  

I spoke with Hudson Vaughn, The Jackson Center’s senior director. Hudson is a white man with youthful eyes and hip facial hair. He wore a newsie cap and gave me a solid handshake. Turns out he grew up in Memphis where he attended a racially diverse school. On Sundays, as a UNC freshman, he’d board a bus bound for Durham to attend a predominately black worship church. Just like the one he went to back home. 

After graduating in 2008, Hudson met Mrs. Marian Jackson. She, along with other Northside neighborhood residents, taught Hudson Chapel Hill’s history, which was enough to convince him to join the newly formed Jackson Center. Now he and the center’s team work to honor, renew, and build community in Chapel Hill’s historic Northside neighborhood.

Northside has historically housed Chapel Hill’s working class, the majority of which has always been African-American. The neighborhood spans a wide circuit of community streets located along the north side of Rosemary Street and bordered by North Columbia Street in Chapel Hill and Lloyd Street in Carrboro.

Many Northside residents believe the fabric of their neighborhood is being compromised due to gentrification and development—original single-family homes are being bought by investors, rebuilt as duplexes or complexes, then leased as higher-end rentals offered beyond the financial means of the neighborhood’s traditional residents. On June 21,2011, the Town of Chapel Hill adopted a moratorium on such Northside development, but state legislature passed a ban on the moratorium on June 24, 2011, which left the neighborhood up for grabs.

“The Jackson Center activated a community network,” Hudson said.

The Jackson Center is named for Marian Cheek Jackson, a long time historian at St. Joseph’s C.M.E. Church. A lifetime Northside resident herself, she still lives in her family home of over one-hundred years. A home built by her grandfather, a former slave from Warren County who came to Chapel Hill in the early 1900s to work for the university.

From the outset, the Jackson Center, as a collaborative, actively sought out and listened to the life histories of Northsiders. The result of these verbal accounts was a recognition of the deep connections between people who work, live, worship, play, and serve in the neighborhood. The Jackson Center felt an obligation to maintain the neighborhood as a place where university and community members come together to build upon a proud history. They created an Oral History Trust that works to do justice by Northside legacies and those of similar Chapel Hill neighborhoods.

The Northside Neighborhood Initiative is a partnership of The Town of Chapel Hill, UNC, Self Help (a minority-focused, community-development credit union based in Durham), and the Jackson Center. They are committed to a shared vision: create a family-friendly, multi-generational community that balances the needs of long-term residents, new owners, renters, and students.

With an initial $3 million no-interest loan from UNC and the town’s contribution of $200 thousand per year, Self Help is able to lead the acquisition and resale of Northside properties so they might be used consistently with the community’s mission.

“We do what we can to maintain a community development center run by the community,” Hudson said.

As I was leaving the Jackson Center, Hudson took me around the center to show me photos, old and new, of Northside neighborhood’s rich history. He told me that on May 8, 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Hargraves Recreation Center (then called the Negro Community Center) to meet with African-American community leaders. Hudson recommended I take the Soundwalk tour of Northside.

“Soundwalk?” I said. “What’s that?”

He told me it’s a free, feature-length audio documentary designed to be listened to as it directs the listener on a tour through the Northside neighborhood. He said I can stream it on my smartphone or use their provided CD players.

I came back a week later to do the tour. Since I don’t have a smartphone, I opted for the CD player and headphones. For more than an hour I was guided through Northside as I listened to stories by various new and old neighbors. I disappeared into their narratives, imagined how things used to be, as I walked past relevant landmarks. Folks sitting on their porches waved as I passed. I waved back.

When two young people, students perhaps, asked what I was doing, I pressed pause and encouraged them to visit the Jackson Center to learn more about what’s now their neighborhood.

Eventually I returned to the center and was given the same warm greeting that I’d grown used to.

These folks know a thing or two about creating, and maintaining, a community. They made me feel right at home.