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
"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. …