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For two weeks, our Studio South Zero (SSZ) sat in West End just beyond the shade of a massive nut tree, in between a 148-year-old church and the even older graves of former slaves, buried a second time in a small wooded area. Except for the train, which passes through Mebane every hour or two, the air was still, peaceful. Summer branches blowing in gentle winds.
Every now and then, a car would pass by, the driver waving in our direction. A group of teens from around the block walked streets paved within their lifetimes, chatting and laughing. The red clay soil no longer clenches their clothes while they play. They still don't drink the water.
Their elders—many of them old enough to be their grandparents—thought of them when we asked about the future of these communities. What did they want to see in West End, in Buckhorn, in White Level, in Perry Hill, in East End, in Cheeks' Crossing in 50 years?
They wanted to see bigger congregations at the churches. They wanted more businesses in their communities as there had once been. They wanted clean water. They wanted restored homes and maintained streets and public parks, and church picnics.
They did not say they wanted to be annexed into the City of Mebane. It's not just about the taxes—though people certainly mentioned that perceived burden. There was a sense not only that they did not want to be where they were not wanted, but also that their communities were different. They may call it Mebane, but it's not the same Mebane.
We asked if they wanted to incorporate their own communities, make new towns. They expressed interest, but not much hope.
You can't blame them. The process of incorporating a new town requires broad-based community consensus, state approval, new political boundaries, administrative capacity. And a ton of capital.
And their demographics are changing. As Mebane replaces its old mills with chic new housing and little shops, the dilapidated houses just beyond the city limit become renovated family homes, mostly for White folk they don't know.
A new industrial park with a Walmart distribution center, among other things, is a new neighbor promising new jobs, new noise, more pollution, and not much community building. And when the NC-119 bypass finally does come, the work of community cohesion will be even more challenging.
On the other hand, younger family members are moving back to the area, claiming their share of family properties, hoping to build here what would be cost prohibitive in bigger cities.
And so, in the face of all of this change, these elders continue the work of environmental justice and placemaking. The West End Revitalization Association is relentless in its pursuit to fulfill the right to basic amenities across these historic Black communities. They try to pull younger folks into the fray, building new community where possible. Family members living out of town come back weekly for church services or every few months for family get-togethers and every year for family reunions requiring entire buildings and parks to accommodate everyone.
There is much uncertainty about the future of historic Black places like those outside of Mebane. Many founded after the Civil War died quick deaths, others were painfully slow. Still others, like Princeville, NC, are just managing economically, but still very much alive. In 2011, North Carolina changed its annexation laws, ostensibly making it easier for excluded Black communities to petition for inclusion into nearby municipalities. But the caution, as we will learn in Lowndes County, Alabama, is that the legal status of annexation/incorporation only matters if it results in the same benefits for Blacks as it always has for Whites.
No one is holding their breath.