African-Americans Enlist to Preserve the All-Black Town ; These Hamlets, Though Born of Segregation, Retain a Proud History of Self-Sufficiency

Article excerpt

Perry Barrett, for one, is asking himself this provocative question: Is there a place today in America for the all-black town?

While many African-Americans, including Mr. Barrett, grew up in small rural towns with nary a white person, those communities today have almost faded from the scene - a consequence of interventions such as the Voting Rights Act, desegregation laws, and the civil rights movement, not to mention changing attitudes.

But a few such towns persist - and some residents and former residents are determined to save them. Far from seeing places such as Taylortown, N.C., as anachronisms carried over from the days of Jim Crow, they view the black town as a beacon of self-sufficiency and pride - something to be savored, safeguarded, even invested in.

Barrett is one who's putting his money where his heart is.

As a kid in the 1930s, he careened across Taylortown, picking up trash and listening to Negro quartets play open-air concerts. In those days, he couldn't hope to live in nearby Pinehurst, a white and wealthy golf town whose black hired hands lived in segregated but proud enclaves like Taylortown, Midway, and Jackson Hamlet.

After living on New York's Long Island for most of his adult life, Barrett is investing his hard-earned savings in three buildings in his hometown, rather than in the real estate bonanza around Pinehurst's greens - even though he admits he has little hope of recouping the investment.

"I'd be smarter to put my money somewhere else," he says, peering at the leaning shacks and dirt tracks that block in his property. "But this is more important, it always has been to me."

The task for people like Barrett, though, is a daunting one. Many younger African-Americans are ambivalent, at best, about preserving this way of life, and the forces arrayed against the all-black town - development, politics, history - seem unstoppable.

"They're mostly towns that have a real small population, often an older population, and they're really beginning to think seriously about, how do we survive?" says Oklahoma lawyer Hannibal Johnson, author of "Acres of Aspiration" about the promise of all-black towns. "The reason they want to remain viable is the history of human spirit triumphing and self-determination."

Black towns once dotted the landscape from Alaska to New Hampshire and from Nevada to Florida. Some were carved from the dregs of segregation, marginalized in swamps and on the other sides of the tracks; others were hopeful gambits of self-sustainability. Some were created by "exodusters" fleeing the segregated South; others were simple camps left over from when planters left the rice fields. Hundreds - places like Dempsey, Alaska, Parting Ways, Mass., and Coit Mountain, N.H. - have gone by the wayside.

The rural black townships that survive today - with names like Atlantic Beach, Little California, Lost City, and Keysville - are mostly in the South, with some in Kansas and Oklahoma. A few are thriving. Some struggle against "structural racism," suggests Anita Earls of the University of North Carolina's Center for Civil Rights. Many, like Taylortown, are slowly crumbling.

Tale of Daufuskie Island

The drive to secure these towns for posterity - including sacred places such as burial grounds - is stronger in some towns than in others. Daufuskie Island, S.C., is one community where activists have tried to preserve some semblance of what was once a hidden black village, steeped in the Gullah traditions, accessible only by skiff.

"I was astounded [to see] what a national and international interest there was in Daufuskie Island and how many black folks claimed they'd lived there or had a relative who had lived there," says Lewis Pitts, a lawyer in Durham, N.C. "Sometimes it's materialistic things like water and sewer that drive these kind of struggles, but there are also these 'Roots' phenomena that drive it, and it's very powerful for our diaspora. …