Carrboro plaque to confront town’s tie to white supremacist. Will it be blunt enough?

The town will soon hang a plaque by its front door to explain how Carrboro was named for a Durham industrialist and white supremacist, and how his views don’t reflect the town’s values today.

But a three-paragraph statement approved for the Town Hall plaque Tuesday night will only touch on Julian Carr’s history.

“I would like for you all to look in the first board room,” resident Lillie Atwater told the Board of Aldermen. “There’s a picture with one of our [committee] member’s relative in there, walking down the street. We’re all from Carrboro, but Julian Carr, we did not want to elaborate on him.”

Atwater and others on a 15-member Truth Plaque Task Force met five times since September to discuss the town’s story. The diverse group — about two-thirds of them African-American — included a school board chairwoman, a local historian and a civil rights pioneer.

The 161-word statement to be embossed in brass letters on the plaque will focus on Carrboro — then and now — with just two sentences about Carr’s history as “an active and influential participant in Jim Crow era efforts to create a system of racial segregation.”

“Although the town continues to bear his name, the values and actions of Carr do not represent Carrboro today,” it will state.

Conflicted history

It’s not too late “to be more candid and blunt” about Carr’s history, Alderman Sammy Slade said.

The Confederate Army veteran, in recent years, has become known for bragging at the dedication of UNC’s Silent Sam Confederate statue in 1913 about horsewhipping “a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” for insulting a white woman. Activists have focused on those remarks as one reason to remove Silent Sam from the campus.

Julian Carr Raleigh

But Carr also ran a Carrboro mill — now Carr Mill Mall — and brought electricity to the town, which was known both as Lloydville and West End when it was settled in 1882. The town was incorporated in 1911 as Venable, in honor of UNC President Francis P. Venable. The state legislature later accepted Carr’s suggestion to rename the town in his honor instead.

The plaque’s “wording is very tame,” Slade said, when compared to the conversation about Silent Sam.

“When we’re talking about who Julian Carr was, we shouldn’t be shy about saying that he was a white supremacist and racist,” Slade said. “That would touch upon the sentiment and feeling that a lot in our community have, to come before the board and request that we go as far as considering the changing of our [town’s] name.”

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The unveiling of Silent Sam on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill in 1913. North Carolina Collection

More plaques are possible; the aldermen authorized a smaller task force to continue the work with $5,000 toward the first and future plaques. Task force member and former Alderman Braxton Foushee said the next plaque could further address Carr’s history and maybe hang in Carr Mill Mall.

“As part of that initial brainstorming process,” task force member Terri Buckner said, “we realized Carrboro’s history is much richer than one single plaque, and that we can tell the story better with more places recognized and people recognized.”

Carrboro truth tour

Former Carrboro Mayor Jim Porto first raised the idea of changing Carrboro’s name in 2016. Porto suggested renaming the town “Paris,” in deference to the town’s longtime nickname, “The Paris of the Piedmont.”

Current Mayor Lydia Lavelle and former Mayor Mark Chilton suggested an alternative solution in October of honoring a different Carr: Perhaps civil rights activist Johnnie Carr, or Elias Carr, the state’s 48th governor, a farmer and founding N.C. State University trustee, they said.

Julian Carr might not recognize Carrboro today. The once blue-collar town took a progressive turn in the 1960s and has been breaking barriers ever since, from establishing a domestic partnership for unmarried couples in 1994 to electing the state’s first gay mayor in 1995.

Alderwoman Jacquelyn Gist broached the idea last year of hanging truth plaques at Town Hall and also served on the task force. There is good and bad history in Carrboro that should be recognized, she said.

“I got this idea originally in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where they have an African-American history trail that goes all around the town,” Gist said. “So as our meetings progressed, and I learned things about Carrboro’s history that I had just heard as kind of background buzz for years ... the committee thought we need to talk about that, too.”

Alderwoman Bethany Chaney voiced support for a local history walking tour and urged the task force also consider Carrboro’s lynching history.

A newly formed Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition has started a community conversation about that topic. Several lynchings have been recorded in Orange County, including one just north of today’s Carrboro town limits. That lynching victim, Maney McCauley, is represented in the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

The town also could document the task force’s difficult conversations and choices, Chaney said. A December report from the group noted not everyone was pleased with an earlier, more forceful statement. The group came up with the current statement, which was unanimously approved by 10 of the 15 task force members, on Jan. 22.

“I don’t just mean the minutes,” Chaney said, “but sort of checking in with you every now and again to see how’s this feeling, what can we learn as a community about the things you’re learning about working with each other, but also about lifting up or uncovering history in new ways, looking at it differently.”

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A Truth Plaque planned for the left side of Carrboro Town Hall’s front door would be similar to one already posted there. The existing plaque marks the Town Hall building as the site of Carrboro’s Graded School, established in 1922. Tammy Grubb tgrubb@heraldsun.com

Carrboro Truth Plaque

Where: Carrboro Town Hall, front door, left side

Materials: Brass letters on a matte black plaque

Size: 16 X 24 inches

Cost: Up to $5,000, estimated at $3,000

The Truth Plaque Task Force crafted the following statement for the plaque:

“Carrboro’s roots began in the late 19th century when a branch of the North Carolina Railroad extended south to the edge of Chapel Hill, and the first local textile mill opened nearby. Informally known as West End and Lloydville, the community incorporated as a town named Venable in 1911.

Two years later, the state legislature renamed the town Carrboro at the request of Julian S. Carr, a post-Civil War business leader. He was also an active and influential participant in Jim Crow era efforts to create a system of racial segregation. Although the town continues to bear his name, the values and actions of Carr do not represent Carrboro today.

In the 1970s a group of Carrboro residents joined together to change the town’s power structure and advocate for a community that fully included all residents. Thanks to their commitment, today Carrboro honors its working-class roots while reaching toward the goals of social equity, environmental harmony, and fiscal responsibility.”

The statement was adopted unanimously by task force members Lillie Atwater, Terri Buckner, Delores Clark, Rani Dasi, Braxton Foushee, Charles Alston, Lewis Atwater, Nick Graham, Mae McLendon and Richard Ellington.

Staff writer Joe Johnson contributed to this story.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.