A Winston-Salem neighborhood that rose from the receding waters of tragedy
A small inscription on the poster for the 13 th annual Pond Community Reunion in 2004 exults: “Look where He brought us from.”
The imprint bears the hallmark of some of the Pond’s totems of pride: the 5 Royales, a path-breaking R&B group from the 1950s whose members came from the neighborhood; the Winston Leaf House, where many of its residents worked; Kimberly Park Elementary; multiple churches; and, as a testament to wresting triumph from bitter adversity, the reservoir.
Located near the present-day intersection of Trade and 8 th streets — a crossroads where the daytime rumble of tractor trailers coming and going from a phalanx of produce warehouses is replaced by the throb of music from Ziggy’s and the District Roof Top Bar & Grille at night — the reservoir had served the town of Winston’s water needs for 12 years in 1904.
Its steep, sloping sides made it looked like a Mayan pyramid with the top shorn off. It was a spare and unlovely piece of the industrial architecture that served not only the growing population of Winston — destined to merge with neighboring Salem in less than a decade and become one of North Carolina’s major cities — but also the rapidly developing business empires of the Reynolds and Hanes families.
On the morning of Nov. 2, 1904, at about 5:20 a.m., the northern wall of the reservoir collapsed with a rumble akin to an earthquake, and 800,000 to 1.4 million gallons of water mixed in a cocktail of loose brick surged down the hill, funneling into a railroad cut that formed a narrow trough and rushing down Trade Street before veering to the west and following the drainage contour of Peters Creek.
Alberta Black’s family lived in a cluster of shotgun houses in the area of 10 th Street and Oak streets at the time. Only Oak was paved; the other streets were little more than paths. Ernest, the eldest of her siblings, was 4 days old at the time.
“There was a man and lady on their way to work at 4:30 in the morning,” Black said. “The water was dropping on their head. They thought it was starting to rain. It washed them down the street all the way to Northwest Boulevard.”
Alberta, the youngest of the siblings, was born 25 years later, in 1930. Her mother told her about the tragedy. Their house was not in the direct path of the deluge. Black said her mother tried to go outside, but the water was flowing too fast and she had to retreat indoors until it subsided.
Nine people were killed, according to the official count, but a retrospective article in the Twin City Sentinel from the 1950s suggests that the record might not be complete.
Seven of those killed in the deluge were white. Barbara Carvana, who grew up on Oak Street near an area of Trade Street hill known as the Horse Shoe, recalled that the railroad tracks served as a racial dividing line, with whites populating the east side.
“The white people lived on 9 th Street, and where the water flowed, that’s where our people lived,” Carvana said. “It affected the white race just as much as it affected the black people. It hit them first.”
The water settled in the bottom along Peters Creek, which is now shadowed by Northwest Boulevard, from Trade Street to the southwest, reaching well past what is now the Cherry-Marshall expressway.
Neighborhood lore has it that a city official surveying the aftermath of the reservoir collapse said it looked like “a pond.”
The name stuck, and an African-American community grew up around the receding waters, its birth marked by tragedy.
“A whole neighborhood sprung up from a swamp,” observed Delores Scales, a hairdresser and one of the Pond’s unofficial historians.
The reservoir collapse was a social disaster intimately tied to the nascent city’s industrial development. The Winston Water Supply Co. was formed in 1880 with seven directors, including a local judge, a state senator, and members of the Hanes and Gray families, according to an undated article by Twin City Sentinel Editor Bill East that is on file in the North Carolina Room of the Forsyth County Public Library. The company was unable to attract investors, and so the seven directors had to resort to borrowing money in their own names to pay for a pump house, water mains and hydrants. Water and electricity were the twin elements that powered industrial growth.
“The pattern of civic management that would rule the city for 100 years began to form, as business leaders coalesced in the 1880s into an elite class that dominated the civic, economic and political affairs of Winston,” Frank Tursi wrote in his 1994 book, Winston-Salem: A History. A supremely confident looking RJ Reynolds is shown in an 1897 photograph with a caption describing him as “the biggest blood in Winston.”
The town of Winston bought the reservoir and waterworks in 1894. Voters approved a $100,000 water bond, and the reservoir was renovated and expanded, adding 10 feet to its height and supplementing it with a metal holding tank in October 1904 — less than a month before the disaster — according to various retrospective newspaper stories. Mayor OB Eaton personally inspected the reservoir on Oct. 28, five days before the tragedy and found a small leak in the southeast wall, the Winston-Salem Journal reported in a 2004 article.
Although historical accounts reference no official investigation, the cause seems intuitive in hindsight. One contemporaneous news story set forth: “Popular opinion is that the structure collapsed as the result of construction defects and an overcapacity amount of water.”
Fam Brownlee, historian at the North Carolina Room, said the technology used to build the reservoir had been long out of date.
“New York City had a reservoir like that 100 years before,” Brownlee said. “It was a pyramid shape. There had been many disasters by that time. Whenever you store water for a long time, it eats away at whatever is holding it. Dams had been bursting all over the country, but they paid no attention. They were 30 years behind on fire protection. By the time Winston was founded, they had three-hand pumpers in Salem, but Winston did nothing; they were too busy making money.”
The mayor and board of aldermen met in emergency session in mid-morning as the water was settling over Peters Creek, according to a 1965 retrospective piece in the Journal. The mayor pledged that the city would pay for the burial of the dead and treatment of the wounded, repair damaged property, and pay compensation for household furnishings and personal belongings that had been lost.
The Journal did its part for the establishment cause to dissuade victims from suing the city, arguing several points in an editorial published shortly after the disaster, including that lawsuits are costly, judgments are often delayed, there was no evidence of negligence on the part of the city, any judgment would be appealed, and that lawyers rather than the victims would get most of the money. The editorial warned would-be plaintiffs that to sue “is to estrange yourself from the people who have your best interests at heart.”
Alberta Black, Barbara Carvana, Lois Wilkins and Delores Scales — four women who came of age during World War II and the years immediately after — gathered in Black’s house on West 23 rd Street on Memorial Day to reminisce about their experience growing up in the Pond neighborhood.
“Everybody was your mama and everybody was your daddy,” Black recalled. “You better not say something when you’re out because someone else’s mama will give you a whipping. Before you even get home your mama’s gonna know about it, and then you really don’t want to see her.”
“Like a family” was how Wilkins recalled relationships among residents, and Black chimed in that everybody took care of each other.
“It was a self-supporting community,” Scales added, noting that a fish market and meat market flourished. Carvana recalled a black-owned bakery.
The four of them have organized a neighborhood homecoming almost every year since 1991, but it’s been two years since the last Pond Reunion took place. The first reunion inspired other historic black neighborhoods in Winston-Salem to follow suit. Happy Hill Gardens took up the idea. The Boston Round Up of 1993 is commemorated on a wooden sign near the intersection of University Parkway and West 13 th Street.
At their age, the women are looking to younger generations to take on some of the responsibilities of the reunion. People have to understand that feeding everyone requires bringing a covered dish to share. Someone needs to organize the program. That entails recruiting people to talk about their memories of the neighborhood. Someone else might get up and do a comedic bit. And the Unionites, the gospel group from Union Baptist Church, usually perform.
“We tried to get the young people to take over,” Black said. “They want to eat and greet, but they don’t want to work. The Pond Reunion, to us, is like cutting on the TV because everybody has something to contribute to it.”
Carvana emphasized that the residents of the Pond were never poor, making it clear that they always took pride in themselves and their community.
That’s not to say that there weren’t tough times.
“I remember one time we didn’t have no food,” Wilkins said. “We were about to freeze in this house with thin walls in the wintertime. This man, he brought us some firewood and we got warm. We didn’t have no food, and someone told my mother about social service and so she went and got some food there. She left early in the morning and didn’t get back until early in the evening.”
Within the Pond, there were several little niche neighborhoods. Monkey Bottom and Spook Ranch are mentioned in Winston-Salem’s African-American Neighborhoods: 1870-1950, a 1994 report by Langdon E. Opperman. Carvana recalled that the Horse Shoe was equipped with public toilets that residents found remarkable for their capacity to flush. Black recalled Peppertown, located near Pepper’s Warehouse, and 12 th ½ Street, which residents jokingly called “Hell and a Half.”
Smoky Hollow was so named, Carvana said, “because the train would come around that corner from Reynolds High School, and it would go, Choo-Choo BOOM!, and all that smoke would settle on your house.”
The women reminisced about a man named Mr. Slim, who intercepted trains delivering coal to Reynold’s massive network of tobacco factories at 3 rd , 4 th and 5 th streets.
“Mr. Slim, he would get on that train at Cherry-Marshall, and he would drop coal off that train all the way up to Trade Street so people could pick it up,” Carvana said. “There were people in those houses who needed that coal. They would use their crocus sacks to pick it up.”
The neighborhood wasn’t monolithic.
One feature of segregation was that black people of all economic classes were forced to live in the same area. Among the shacks were pockets of the Pond “you had professional people that built beautiful houses,” Carvana recalled.
Whatever the economic circumstances of the residents, they took pride in their community’s appearance.
“Everything around here was clean, inside and out,” Carvana said. “We swept everything. There wasn’t no nasty people.” The women recalled how their mothers would scrub clothes with Red Devil lye in large iron pots until they gleamed with whiteness, how when a hog was slaughtered its grease would be culled to make soap.
Peters Creek was a source of recreation and also peril for children growing up in the Pond. The creek was traversed by a pipe that the children used as bridge. The water would periodically swell with heavy rains. On one such day Maurice Barnes, a 4 th grader who was a distant cousin of Delores Scales, slipped off the pipe and drowned.
Two pipes converged that deposited pollutants from Hanes Dye & Finishing and the BF Huntley furniture company into the creek upstream from a favored swimming hole.
“You would come out of the pool and be covered with that dye,” Scales recalled. “Your mama knew exactly where you’d been.”
Carvana observed, “A furniture factory and a hosiery mill — you know that was trouble. My brother got one of the worst lashings.”
“He wasn’t the only one,” Lois Wilkins remarked.
Reynolds Tobacco Co. drew workers from South Carolina, Virginia and eastern North Carolina.
Many of the residents worked in the leaf houses — Winston Leaf House at the top of Trade Street and Export Co. on 9 th Street were two — that drew the harvested crops from farms in the surrounding countryside and, in turn, fed the manufacturing operations at Reynolds.
Work in the leaf houses was seasonal and workers would put in 12- and 13-hour days, Scales, explained, whereas Reynolds employed people year-round and ran standard eight-hour workdays.
“When they graduated from Winston Leaf House, they went to Reynolds,” Carvana said.
Their parents’ generation struggled to improve working conditions at Reynolds.
“My mother worked at RJ Reynolds,” Scales recalled. “She joined the union. Then there was AFL and CIO. She was a member of the CIO. They got together. They stopped the machines. They all got fired. My mom got fired.”
Her mother never returned to Reynolds, instead going to work for National Carbon Co., a plant that produced batteries and underwater detonators for the war effort. The job paid better than her previous engagement. But Reynolds retained an important economic role in the family, as Scales’ husband retired from the company.
One of Carvana’s uncles also worked at Carbon. Unique for the time, blacks and whites worked side by side in the plant.
If the 5 Royales — an R&B group that laid the ground for both Jimi Hendrix and the Mamas and Papas — were the proudest musical export of the Pond, the neighborhood’s gifts in athletics were equally matched.
The Winston-Salem Pond Giants, a semiprofessional baseball team in the Negro Leagues, took its name from the neighborhood.
“They started out on the Pond, and they drew [players] from all over the city,” Scales said.
Scales recalled attending games as a girl at a ballpark on the Southside. The Pond Giants took on rivals from Greensboro and Indianapolis.
“I remember the Indianapolis Clowns,” Scales said. “They played like the Harlem Globetrotters. They played baseball dressed like clowns and the crowds loved them. They packed out the place when they came.”
Scales is fond of saying that “nine churches frame the neighborhood.” Even so, the moral constraints of church, along with the binding obligations of community, allowed room for letting loose.
“It could get a little wild,” Scales acknowledged.
The color of lights outside houses in the neighbored signaled what type of party one was likely to find.
A blue light gave notice of a dinner that church folks would feel comfortable attending.
A yellow light signaled caution. It might be a house-rent party. A pastor could at-tend such an event, but one might also find a bottle of liquor discretely stashed in the backroom.
A red light, perhaps for a fish fry, denoted a more illicit gathering.
“Bottom and top” referred to beer and liquor, available for purchase at the corner store at Northwest Boulevard and Trade Street.
“The Green Grass Hotel” was a jesting name the locals gave to the embankment along the railroad tracks where down-ontheir luck men gathered to drink. Today, they call it “the Patio.” Some changes are only nominal. In the 1950s, the Kimberly Park public housing community was built in the Pond, along with the Happy Hill Gardens project across town. Delores Scales, Barbara Carvana and Lois Wilkins were among the first residents at Kimberly Park.
“Urban renewal, that was one of the best things that happened,” Scales said. Carvana and Wilkins echoed the sentiment with gusto.
The women enthusiastically recited the improvements in their quality of life that came through public housing: running water, steam heat and inside bathrooms, to name a few. Residents took pride in their new homes, Carvana said. Only later did public housing come to carry a stigma.
Many but not all of the shanties were torn down with urban renewal.
Evelyn Terry, a Winston-Salem native who is now a state lawmaker, returned home from Philadelphia in February 1971. She landed a job as a community organizer with Experiment in Self Reliance and worked out of an office in an apartment building on Abattoir Street that is now owned by Union Baptist Church. The job exposed her to a depth of poverty that she had not encountered prior to leaving home.
“There were lousy housing conditions,” Terry recalled. “It was in the midst of redevelopment. Coming back home from Philadelphia I was shocked. You can see the sun and moon; they had toilets on back porches. There was active tuberculosis on Abattoir Street.”
The Experiment in Self Reliance was founded as a community action agency in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Delores Scales remembers that era as a heady and energizing time. The Experiment in Self Reliance provided educational programs that taught sewing and other skills, Scales recalled, and helped residents improve their lives.
Barbara Carvana put it like this: “It was time for us to explode up. We had the eligibility, but didn’t have the advantage. We were never poor…. As a people we always made the best of every situation in life.”