Churches once abandoned by Jim Crow are being rediscovered
HILLSBOROUGH Harold Russell’s great-grandfather is buried in a forgotten cemetery where the graves’ markers have long since disappeared. Only the foundation remains of the neighboring chapel.
The church, Harvey’s Chapel, moved to a new site in the 1930s.Since then, much of the congregation has forgotten or never heard of the original chapel and its cemetery, but Russell hopes to change that.
Harvey’s Chapel is one of several African-American churches across rural North Carolina that had to relocate during the Jim Crow era once the county excluded its access road, originally built for wagons, from regular road maintenance and cars with low unercarriages came into use.
“It became so treacherous to get to the church,” Russell said.“That road was terribly bad. I’m sure that’s why the church site was given up.”
Now, the road is grown over with ground-level brush, moss and ferns. No trees larger than saplings grow in the old road because the dirt is too packed from the wagons, animals and cars that used to travel it.
Over 10 years ago, Russell read a newspaper story about local historian Tom Magnuson and called him to help locate the old church site and cemetery, about a quarter-mile from the Moorefield Plantation.
Magnuson, trained as a military historian, founded the Trading Path Association to find and map old trade routes. He has found four churches, like Harvey’s Chapel, within five miles of Hillsborough that relocated because of unmaintained roads.
Russell knew the chapel and cemetery were near a ford by the Moorefields plantation, so Magnuson and he followed a trail from the plantation to Seven Mile Creek and walked along the bank until Magnuson spotted the ford and the old road bed.
After following the road about 200 yards, they found the cemetery and original chapel site.
Back Ways Project
Russell, 83, is the third generation to attend Harvey’s Chapel. His mother’s family worshipped at the original church, and his great-grandfather helped found it. Russell and his uncle are now some of the only congregation members who know how to find the old church site.
After helping Russell, Magnuson connected with the Center for Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill and began working with its oral history program interviewing members of African-American churches that had moved when roads were closed.
In 2013, the center founded the Back Ways Project within its Southern Oral History Program. The project documents and shares the stories of southwest Hillsborough communities along rural backroads. The main focus is on the history of racial segregation in rural areas during the Jim Crow era.
Interviewing members of Harvey’s Chapel became one of their first projects.
Magnuson said most of the African-American churches in North Carolina were founded after the Civil War. Harvey’s Chapel was founded in 1892 by former slaves.
The old chapel, which Magnuson found while searching for the cemetery, is located on a wagon road, still barely visible today to the trained eye.
Magnuson explained that because wagons had poor brakes, roads had to be cut into the ground to make any slopes more gradual. These marks can still be seen today.
“These deep marks on the land are real land marks,” Magnuson said.“Once you know what to look for, it’s not at all hard.”
It feels important to understand how the legally enforced racial segregation of that era was actually paved into the landscape of our state.
Rachel Cotterman, Ph.D. student
‘Paved into the landscape’
Rachel Cotterman grew up a mile away from Harvey’s Chapel and now works with the Back Ways Project as a Ph.D. student in UNC’s Geography program. She has been working with Harvey’s Chapel to preserve the historical site of their original church.
Cotterman said that the first roads paved in the 1920s and 1930s make up the same basic road system we use today.
“It feels important to understand how the legally enforced racial segregation of that era was actually paved into the landscape of our state,” she said.
She said that in some cases, the Back Ways Project has found African-American communities intentionally moved to roads that were not publicly maintained. This allowed them to “carve out their own spaces for autonomy, congregations and resistance by being less visible to the Jim Crow state as well as to white supremacist vigilantes.”
But in other cases, like Harvey’s Chapel, the congregation could not reach their own churches because of their roads’ disrepair. They had to move to continue their worship.
“There was a lot of experimentation at the county level with ways of getting rid of blacks and making life as miserable as possible for them here so they would go elsewhere,” Magnuson said.
The current Harvey’s Chapel is located on Dimmocks Mill Road in Hillsborough.
The Back Ways Project could help the congregation learn more about its history, Cotterman said.
“The reason this seems so important and relevant to me is that it helps us understand how our rural communities formed and how they came to be the ways that they are today,” she said.
Russell hopes to permanently document the original church with signs leading to the site and cemetery, as well as an easier foot path, so church and community members can reach it.
“My main purpose is to try to get established as a historical site,” he said, “so, at least, it won’t go into oblivion later when part of us die off and no one else knows anything about it.”
Q&A with Tom Magnuson
Q: How did you transition from your education as a military historian to research old roads?
A: I got interested in the Southern campaign of the Revolutionary War. General Nathaniel Greene knew exactly how to fight in the South. The other generals didn’t know how to control their terrain, and the secret of strategic movement in the Southeast is fords – river crossings.
That was something I was interested in, and once I studied it to a degree, I understood the importance of fords. When I was a graduate student at Duke, my children and I were swimming in an old mill pond on Flat River and I saw a ford road going in below the dam, and it gave me a theory as to how to anticipate where a ford is going to be.
Q: How did you teach yourself to find old roads?
A: Once I understood the geophysical requirements for a ford, I began to be able to surmise their locations looking at maps. I would then go out to the site and actually look at the dirt and see what was there. It didn’t take more than one or two “Oh geez, I missed that one” that I actually got a model that worked quite well. I could anticipate where you were going to find an old road pretty easily by 2005.
Q:How many old roads, in a ballpark estimate, have you discovered?
A: Several hundred. Mostly in North Carolina. It turns out that the area of my studies is a function of gas costs.