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Project saving memories from Sycamore Hill

Gwendolyn Speight Holman.JPG
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Gwendolyn Speight Holman looks out over the Tar River, where she used to chew tobacco with her grandmother.

Michele Butterfield shoots Holman.JPG
Lucille Sayles and her mother Lucille W. Gorham.JPG

Beth Velliquette

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Gwendolyn Speight Holman stood on the walkway overlooking the Tar River and a tear came to her eye as she remembered her childhood living a little bit up the hill.

The brown river flowing by the Greenville Town Common brought back plenty of memories, including a funny one about chewing tobacco.

Her mother wouldn’t let her chew tobacco, she said, but her grandmother did, and sometimes they’d sneak down to the river, each would put a little tobacco in their mouths and they’d walk along together chewing and spitting into the river.

It’s just one of the childhood memories that Heather White, Charlotte Fitz and Michele Butterfield are collecting for a project called “Beyond Bricks and Mortar” to remember the people who lived in the mostly African-American community that once stood in the area of the common.

On Tuesday and again today, they’re recording their memories of what it was like to live there before the Shore Drive urban renewal project relocated the residents and created the park in the 1960s.

White is assistant director for assessment and engagement at ECU’s Joyner Library; Fitz is program and events coordinator at the library and Butterfield owns Magnolia Photography. White conducted the interviews and recorded them, Fitz took notes and kept everything organized, and Butterfield accompanied each person to the site where they used to live and took photographs of them.

They received a grant to put together the project, which will become part of the archives at Joyner Library after it goes on display in mid-January. The project is supported by a North Carolina Arts Council Grassroots Grant and the Friends of Joyner Library.

Freddie Outterbridge, who didn’t live in the neighborhood but attended Sycamore Hill Baptist Church when he was a child, and his wife Lillian, helped track down many of the former residents and invited them to share their memories. First they contacted the people they knew then let word of mouth take over. Soon they had a long list of people who wanted to participate.

On Tuesday, the former residents stopped by at a little white tent to talk about their memories.

Barbara Gainer Brown, 75, lived in a white wooden house at the corner of First and Reade streets, where an ECU office building is now located.

“We had a little hill here,” she said as she stood in front of the plain brick office building. “It had a porch. We had a swing. It was my enjoyment swinging on the porch.”

She was born in the house and lived in it until she went off to college in 1958. The redevelopment work that tore down her home and others began while she was away.

“At that time, we were just like one big happy family,” Brown said. “We could just visit each other and go from house to house. We left our doors open and we did not have to lock our doors. We kept our windows open to stay cool in the summer.”

Across the street was Mitchell’s Grocery Store, which was owned by Holman’s grandfather, John Mitchell. Holman lived in three different houses on North Reade Street, which would have run down the hill to the river in the same area where the new playground is now located.

Most everybody attended Sycamore Hill Baptist Church because most people in the neighborhood didn’t have a vehicle, so it was easy to walk there, she said.

“Everybody knew everybody as a child,” she said. “Every parent was your parent.”

Her grandfather, whose store was attached to the side of his house, was a caring man who would run a tab for people who couldn’t afford to pay for the food, she said.

“He would not let anybody go without food,” she said. “They called him Mr. Johnny.”

Holman worked there every Saturday as a child and earned $1 a day and got to take home all the broken cookies. She admits now that she broke a few of those cookies herself.

She went on to become a math teacher for 22 years and then worked as an assistant principal for another 14. She drove down from Chesapeake, Va., where she lives, to participate in the project.

Lucille Sayles, 27, and her mother, Lucille W. Gorham, of Lucille W. Gorham Intergenerational Community Center fame, stopped by to talk about their memories. Gorham needed a little help getting around, but she was enthusiastic about the project.

Her daughter remembered that her aunt had a beauty shop called Magnolia Beauty Shop in her house near Greene Street. 

“It was like a family,” Sayles remembered. “There were stores down here. There were barbershops down here, a dentist, a doctor, a clinic, everything down here except a pharmacy.”

“Everybody knew everybody, and they were all related in one way or another,” Sayles said.

Like Brown, she went off to college, and when she returned the redevelopment had already started.

“It was good and bad,” she said. “It was good that we can have the park, but it was bad because we lost the community and we lost history and we lost people.”

A few people became so depressed after being forced from their homes, they never really recovered and passed away, she said.

Many of the people who move to Greenville have no idea there was a thriving community next to the river, and it’s good to know there will be a record kept of it, Sayles said.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said of the project. “We need some type of monument to let people know what was down here.”

Contact Beth Velliquette at bvelliquette@reflector.com or at 252-329-9566.


Photographs and interviews collected this week will be compiled into an exhibition at the Janice Hardison Faulkner Gallery in East Carolina University’s Joyner Library starting in January and running through March 5. On March 3, there will be a free community celebration honoring the exhibition from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Joyner Library.