Orange County

Can Carrboro keep its name without honoring a white supremacist?

Carrboro can’t easily change its name, but can the name honor a civil rights activist or a different Carr?

Mayor Lydia Lavelle and former Mayor Mark Chilton considered that idea Monday when asked whether the town’s name should no longer reflect its namesake, Julian S. Carr.

The state would have to approve a significant name change, Chilton noted.

“You change it to something besides Carrboro, you’re really asking to be interfered with by the state legislature, and it won’t be for the best,” he said.

Over 40 people showed up for that discussion and to hear more about the town’s history at a Mayors Roundtable featuring Lavelle and five former mayors. The event was held in conjunction with National Planning Month, Lavelle said.

Carrboro originally was called Lloydsville after mill owner Thomas Lloyd, and also West End, because it was west of Chapel Hill. It was finally incorporated in 1911 as Venable, in honor of UNC President Francis P. Venable.

But when Carr, a Durham industrialist, agreed to bring electricity to Carrboro, the town was renamed to honor him. The same Carr is now infamously 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” after she insulted a white woman.

Carrboro by another name?

Former Mayor Jim Porto asked the Board of Aldermen to change the town’s name because of that history in 2016. A group of residents is now working toward a “Truth Plaque” for Town Hall that could reflect the town’s and Carr’s histories.

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Carr, who never lived in Carrboro, has a “somewhat checkered” legacy, Porto said. He has suggested “Paris” as a new name, in deference to the town’s longtime nickname, “The Paris of the Piedmont.”

Or the town could keep its name but make it clear it honors a different Carr, Lavelle and Chilton said.

Lavelle suggested civil rights activist Johnnie Carr, who joined the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and succeeded Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

Chilton suggested Elias Carr, the state’s 48th governor, a farmer and founding N.C. State University trustee.

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Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle and former Mayor Mark Chilton share a light-hearted moment during Lavelle’s swearing-in ceremony at Carrboro Town Hall in 2013. File photo

Former Mayor Mike Nelson said he’s “not closed off to finding another Carr that we can be proud of.”

“The speech that Julian Shakespeare Carr [gave] is very hard to read, and knowing that’s part of the history is hard to swallow,” he said.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro merger

The mayors also delved briefly into the subject of merging Chapel Hill and Carrboro. That was studied during Porto’s term and would have saved both towns money, he said, but the study “landed with a thud.”

On Monday, the crowd responded with resounding boos and hisses.

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Robert “Bob” Drakeford, who was mayor of Carrboro from 1977 to 1983, meets with N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt. Drakeford was Carrboro’s first and only black mayor. Robert Drakeford Contributed

There was a time, former Mayor Robert “Bob” Drakeford said, when Chapel Hill “looked down on us [and] did anything to harm us whenever they could.”

“I’ve lived all over the world,” Drakeford said. “This is the most unique town I’ve ever been in. Keep it unique. It’s a good thing.”

Former Mayor and state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird agreed Carrboro has a different soul.

“One of the things that we have to remember is Chapel Hill is the University of North Carolina, and we will never be anything if we merge except one little part of this megapolis, which is really the University of North Carolina,” she said.

Growth challenges

The mayors also talked about big issues from their time and other topics, including Airbnbs, affordable housing and much-loved, long-closed restaurants.

Drakeford, the town’s first and only black mayor elected in 1977, recalled when Carrboro was a “sundown town,” where people of color knew not to be out after dark.

Drakeford was a reformer during a time of great transition, Lavelle noted. Under his leadership, the town hired its first professional planner and also saved Carr Mill Mall, which was in danger of being torn down after the mill closed.

Bob Drakeford-Carrboro cartoon.jpg
Former Carrboro Mayor Robert “Bob” Drakeford brought this framed political cartoon from his tenure to the Carrboro Mayors Roundtable on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. Drakeford was a reformer supported by the Carrboro Community Coalition who pushed for creating Chapel Hill Transit to serve the many UNC students who were making their home in the town’s newly built apartments. Robert Drakeford Contributed

Framed political cartoons from Drakeford’s tenure were critical of his work with a group of political reformers, the Carrboro Community Coalition. The group drove the creation of Chapel Hill Transit, as a way to serve the many UNC students who made their home in the newly built apartments along N.C. 54, he said.

The town also established two parks, including Hank Anderson Park, renovated the fire station, and sued the federal government for another U.S. Census count that saved the town a lot of money over the years. He is proud of what Carrboro became, Drakeford said.

Other mayors remembered their own challenges:

Porto: The town experienced the fastest expansion in its history during Porto’s tenure, from 1983 to 1987. Porto attributed “much of the livability of Carrboro” to the town’s first land-use master plan, drafted by his administration. It was a model for other towns, he said.

“Carrboro’s land use plan was constructed with a particular view in mind of what Carrboro wanted to be,” he said — a suburban town with “zones of use” that allowed the rare mixed-use building and required a car.

That view — and the climate — has changed, Porto said. He suggested a new, goal-oriented land-use plan for a sustainable Carrboro that sets expectations for developers but also gives them freedom to be creative.

“We have entered the end stages of talking about climate change,” Porto said. “Climate change is here, and we need to act urgently to address this issue.”

Ellie Kinnaird-Carrboro mayor.JPG
Former Carrboro Mayor and state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird served in public office from 1985 to 2013. During her tenure as mayor, she promoted the state’s strictest watershed protections, work to ramp up downtown and its businesses, supported the ArtsCenter, helped with the drive for a local library and found money to support the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Catharine Carter Contributed

Kinnaird: The mayor who served four terms before becoming a state senator in 1996 also played a role in saving Carr Mill and focused on creating some of the state’s strictest watershed protections, support for the ArtsCenter, and downtown vitalization and business.

She also pressed for Carrboro to have its own library, a vision that is getting off the ground now. Kinnaird praised Carrboro resident Nerys Levy and others for leading the 30-year fight to secure the county’s Southern Branch Library.

“It’s a true Carrboro story,” she said, “because it’s a leader and other leaders who got together and made sure it was not only just a dream and a vision. It was actually going to be manifest on a street in a walkable community in Carrboro.”

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Former Carrboro mayor Mike Nelson relaxes in his renovated mill house near the old Bellvue Mill in Hillsborough in this 2007 file photo. Nelson said he’s not opposed to keeping Carrboro’s name if it honors “another Carr that we can be proud of.” Chris Seward File photo

Nelson: Nelson said he found acceptance as Carrboro’s first openly gay mayor. The town already had debated the development of the AIDS House, which opened in Carrboro in 1995, and the creation of a domestic partnership registry in 1994.

It was an interesting time to be mayor, as there was a burst of creativity in Carrboro’s music and art scenes, he said. The town has an important place in his heart, he said.

“I think the most important for me, as I reflect back, is there’s just a rationality in Carrboro, an interest in making decisions based on facts and studying issues,” Nelson said.

Chilton: A historian and now Orange County’s register of deeds, Chilton noted that most of the community’s heritage as a blue-collar, mill town is gone, but “a lot of things that have come out of that transformation are good things for Carrboro.” What does remain is the architectural heritage and “a significant and thriving African-American community,” he said.

However, he cautioned that people of all races are being priced out of the community, and the decisions being made will affect that in the future.

“I not saying that’s where we absolutely are headed, but that’s something that we need to keep in the back of our minds, that as we approve new developments, how do they fit in with our community, not just in a physical way but from a cultural point of view and a political point of view.”

Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb