She’s a lifelong Carrboro resident. He’s a California transplant who moved to town last year.
She’s 78 and African-American. He’s a 50-year-old white guy.
She’s lived through injustice. He says he wants to prevent it.
Lillie Atwater and Jake Thorne were chosen to lead a group of residents who’ve volunteered to examine the town’s complicated relationship with its namesake Julian Carr. They came together Wednesday at Town Hall to begin working on the town’s first “Truth Plaque” which they hope to see installed sometime next year.
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Alderwoman Jacquie Gist broached the idea of truth plaques last spring during a board meeting. At the time, she said it might be a good time for the town to acknowledge its history and connection with Julian Carr.
Atwater remembers a time when African-Americans were hesitant to go to certain parts of Carrboro. The project she’s part of now would have been impossible then, she said.
“Some things have really changed,” Atwater said. “I’m very glad to see it. People say, `I wonder, what can we do to change the hearts of people?’ I would like this to change their hearts and minds. Underneath, we’re all the same.”
Like Gist, who came across truth plaques in Fredericksburg, Virginia, that described slavery and other events in the town, Thorne said he saw historical markers in Berlin, Germany, that described the atrocities committed by the Nazis prior to and during World War II.
“The experience I had in Berlin was a city with the confidence in itself to address its history head-on,” Thorne said. “We haven’t been able to have a sober conversation about our history yet, particularly in the South.”
Mayor Lydia Lavelle said town residents needed to have a say in the project.
“It’s important to our board that a group of community members come up with the wording or the symbol we erect on town property to recognize the history of the name of our town,” Lavelle said. “Carrboro today is nothing like Julian Carr would have imagined.”
An avowed white supremacist and a Confederate Civil War veteran, Carr gave a fiery speech in 1913 at the dedication of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. He celebrated the Confederate Army as the saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” He described how he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” after she had insulted a white woman, according to his speech.
But Carr was a philanthropist, too.
He supported higher education. He served as a trustee for Trinity College and donated the land that became Duke University’s East Campus when the school moved from Randolph County. Carr was a successful businessman who employed blacks and whites in his factories and mills. Carr Mill Mall once was the Alberta Cotton Mill that he owned.
Carr also was responsible for bringing electricity to the town. It is said that he offered that deal to the town in exchange for taking on his name.
Some have called for Carrboro, a town with a population of about 22,000, to change its name again.
The town was incorporated in 1911 as Venable, after Francis P. Venable, president of the University of North Carolina, according to North Carolina Miscellany. Before that, it was known as West End because it was just west of Chapel Hill. Some people called it Lloydsville in honor of Thomas Lloyd, who owned the first mill in town.
But changing the name would require approval by the state legislature, a long shot at best.
Pushing the bounds
Today’s Carrboro is nothing like the town during Carr’s era. He died in 1924.
The town’s progressive reputation took root in the 1960s, and it’s pushed the bounds ever since. The town elected the first gay mayor in North Carolina in 1995. It also was the first to grant domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples.
That’s why Gist said now is the time for Carrboro to publicly reckon with its past. She wanted it to be a community project. Gist was pleased to see the 15 people who volunteered. About two thirds of them were African-Americans.
“This is better than I hoped,” Gist said.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first of several in the coming months for the group. The first plaque will be about Julian Carr. Members will decide on the text that explains his link to the town and will also help decide where the plaque goes. If the group determines other events in Carrboro’s history need to be recognized, more plaques could be recommended, Gist said.
Town Clerk Catherine Dorando is also working with the group and will help them put together a report to the board by the end of the year. They hope the board will act on their recommendations in January or February.