Unearthing the history of Terra Cotta

by Eric Ginsburg

Only a few houses, two churches and two families remain of what was once a thriving black community a short walk across the railroad tracks from the Pomona piping plant. The factory closed its doors after an explosion on March 29, 1962 killed four people inside, and the company housing that made up the Terra Cotta community — named for the material used to make the pipes —slowly emptied.

Over time Green Ford has expanded onto a significant portion of the land off of Wendover Avenue in Greensboro, but the Terra Cotta Heritage Foundation hopes to preserve the community’s legacy and land through a small museum on Norwalk Street. Located inside a remaining home, the museum is open by appointment only and is one of the foundation’s principal projects.

Pulling up in front of the house on an overcast December day, my expectations were relatively low. I knew I wouldn’t be writing about this anytime soon, maybe not at all, but one of the curses of my character is a relentless and insatiable curiosity. I just had to know what was being unearthed, especially given the collaboration between the foundation and UNCG graduate students that culminated in an exhibit.

I’ve driven past the house several times, cutting from West Market Street to Wendover Avenue, but the patch of residences in an otherwise industrial area never caught my eye. Stepping inside the home, however, I immediately realized that this was no joke.

The museum-grade quality of the exhibit — complete with mesmerizing photographs, recordings of oral histories and a host who actually grew up in the community — frankly, is incredible.

Terra Cotta, known to its residents as “the pines,” was created as segregated company housing for black families that moved to Greensboro for work in the plant. Owned by the Boren family, the factory encompassed the social and economic lives of the Terra Cotta residents through a company store, sponsored community baseball team and two churches. Many former residents remember their days there fondly, something UNCG professor Benjamin Filene said could be hard to reconcile side-by-side with the real poverty people experienced.

Filene’s students conducted interviews with former residents and assembled the exhibit as part of their masters in history with a concentration in museum studies program. They told stories of community pride in a baseball team, of growing and canning food, of no running water and a lack of electricity on the weekends when the plant wasn’t operating.

The concept of public history emerged in the 1970s in opposition to more typical academic forms of the discipline, emphasizing the stories of ordinary people from the bottom up. It reshaped museums too, Filene explained, bringing local and community history to the fore.

Waves of Filene’s students have worked on community projects like this over the last seven years, but he said this was the largest and most permanent project yet and that students really threw themselves into it over three semesters. The next challenge, he said, is to staff the museum, possibly with volunteers like an undergraduate history club.

Motivated by a concern that the community’s history was slipping away as former workers and residents passed away, foundation director Dennis Waddell and other former residents have organized an annual festival to celebrate their shared heritage for the last decade. A quote on the museum wall from Christina Melvin espouses the fear that Green Ford will take over the remaining lots and do away with what is left of the residential community, relics like the platform of the old dance hall, a log cabin and a few remaining people.

Projects like this don’t just speak to the former residents trying to preserve their past or history junkies. It falls in the vein of accessible work that Filene pursues — making history more meaningful and less remote through community and local history, especially by working with “living memory” and conducting oral history interviews as his students did.

It’s not always a clean process — trust, nostalgia and the fallibility of memory all impact the final product. At one of the annual Terra Cotta heritage festival, former residents argued over a map, trying to pinpoint exactly where old roads and houses stood.

When my college career was drawing to a close, my history advisor only had one piece of advice to impart on our capstone class: Getting a graduate degree in history is not a fall-back option when you hit your mid-20s and feel directionless — in fact, it isn’t an option at all. Ever.

Unless we wanted to be professors, a move she also discouraged, my advisor repeatedly made a point of cautioning us against future academic pursuits in the field. For the most part I agree with her, but sitting in Filene’s office and walking around Terra Cotta, I felt the allure begin to build.