Warnersville Exhibit Opens in Greensboro

by Jeff Sykes

Warnersville exhibit gives voice to community’s endurance | @jeffreysykes

The story of the Warnersville community in Greensboro, like all good southern literature, is full of loss and a deep sense of place. This story, however, is more than powerful because it’s a true story lived by generations of African Americans who have refused to let circumstances dictate suffering.

A Quaker activist who bought up a few dozen acres of land to sell to recently freed slaves so that they might own their own property founded Warnersville in 1865. The community, just south of Lee Street between the modern day Freeman Mill Road and Eugene Street, flourished for generations until falling into decline after World War II. It was subjected to an early urban renewal program in the 1960s that all but wiped the neighborhood from the map.

But that spirit of self-determination has lived on, even as the original families have endured a diaspora of sorts. After the redevelopment plan of the 1960s saw all but two community assets “” J.C. Price School and Union Cemetery “” leveled, it was the Warnersville Recreation Center that served as a gathering place.

James Griffin’s mother, Constance Griffin, served as the assistant director at the rec center for 25 years. From 1960 to 1985 she was a mainstay in the community. Her grace and elegance left deep impressions on many, especially her son, who went on to found the Warnersville Historical and Beautification Society.

Griffin and another Warnersville native with deep roots in the community, Otis Hairston Jr., are two of the main reasons that a comprehensive exhibit surveying the history of the neighborhood opened this week at the Greensboro Historical Museum.

It was Lisa Scheer’s vision, however, that served as a conduit to bring the power of the Warnersville story to life through the use of modern documentary techniques. Scheer, a Greensboro photographer and documentarian, was furthering her studies at Duke University when Greensboro College bought the J.C. Price School with the intent to turn the property into athletic facilities.

The plan was controversial and drew opposition in 2008. With so much discussion of the neighborhood, a friend told Scheer about the redevelopment history and also about Otis Hairston Jr., who was said to have a rich collection of photos detailing Warnersville’s past.

Scheer visited Hairston’s home.

Looking at photographs on his computer screen, and then out the large picture window onto the neighborhood as it stands today, the artist and investigator inside came to life.

“I set about trying to reconstruct in my mind what this place looked like,” Scheer said. “I was trying to re-imagine a place that was all but vanished and articulate why there is such a profound sense of loss so many years after urban renewal.”

Scheer set about collecting photographs and recording oral histories, similar to work she did on a project about mill villages in northeast Greensboro. She knew there was “an enormous story to be told there in that neighborhood.”

She soon met James Griffin, and as his story unfolded so too did the idea of making a documentary film about his family and their experience during the Warnersville redevelopment and beyond.

Scheer collaborated with artist and filmmakers Harvey Robinson and Carolyn deBerry, who created a 12-minute film with Griffin narrating the story of his family displacement, the artifacts remaining from his family history and the spirit of endurance that remains despite the burden of loss.

Plans had been for Scheer to collaborate with the Greensboro Historical Museum on a Warnersville exhibit, but those plans were temporarily derailed when a staff change took place at the museum. Once current director Carol Hart was hired, however, the exhibit was back on track.

Hired in January of 2012, Hart said the Warnersville exhibit was an exciting opportunity to step into. She met with Scheer and the two began to plan out how to best tell the story. The first step for the museum was to form a community advisory committee to help guide the exhibit’s scope.

Jon Zachman, the museum’s curator of collections, said that the goal was to exhibit an authentic history of the Warnersville neighborhood, not the didactic voice of the museum.

“We knew it was not going to be possible to answer every question, but we wanted to answer the questions that were important to the community,” Zachman said. “The community is the storyteller and the museum the venue.”

The exhibit is the first of its kind for the museum, both in its intense focus on one neighborhood and in the use of a variety of multimedia technologies. A wealth of historical photos and artifacts fill the exhibit space, with lines of poetry by Alonzo Stevens displayed across the wall tops.

Stevens attended the exhibit opening Sunday and looked on with delight at an interactive kiosk set in the middle of the exhibit space. Museum staff collaborated with Greensboro’s GIS and IT departments to create maps and overlays detailing the homes, businesses and churches razed or moved during the redevelopment.

Stevens said he began writing poetry in the early 2000s, reflecting on his youth during the 1940s and his memories of the neighborhood as it was.

“I was really trying to express how I felt about the community back in those days,” Stevens said, adding that his primary poetic theme is to examine how people came together to overcome in spite of the hardships.

Scheer, the documentary photographer, said similar themes were present as she explored Warnersville’s history and past and current residents shared their stories.

“I realized what it represented was a century’s worth of work in the African American community in the urban south was essentially demolished,” Scheer said. “Wiping out those churches and homes was really a shame.”

Historical themes in often neglected African American history are in play in the Warnersville story, she said, including in-migration to urban cities, Jim Crow, segregation, and the kinship networks dating back to slavery that kept families connected despite displacement.

“Not only did this urban renewal program level the place, but it severed those very important kinship networks and it created this diaspora and maybe that was more painful for people,” Scheer said. “They shared and took care of each other. The deeper I got into it, I was just so privileged to be part of those conversations, beautiful conversations about family life. They were beautiful interviews. It was an amazing experience.”

Community activists are working to have Warnersville designated as a Community Heritage Site. Griffin, of the Warnersville Historical and Beautification Society, said the request is currently before the city manager’s office, with a few council members backing the proposal.

Griffin said many residents have moved on from the sting of the displacement, and are focused on the current needs and future development. Student housing is making a difference in the character of the Warnersville area, he said, and a grocery store is desperately needed.

The heritage designation would preserve and protect the legacy of the community, with the goal being for the city to recognize Warnersville’s history permanently.

“Since the buildings and the artifacts are no longer there, we feel that the land itself is a very special place and should be recognized,” Griffin said. !