Community breaks ground for Sycamore Hill project
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Lonnie Norcott grew up in Greenville’s original downtown, long before there was a town common.
Back then, the space where the park now sits was an African-American community dating back to the mid-19th century. Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church was the spiritual epicenter of the community neighborhood which bustled with grocery stores, service stations, barber and beauty shops and other conveniences, according to literature from the city.
Near the church were rows of homes and Norcott said everybody knew everybody and no one was treated as a stranger.
“It was a close knit-neighborhood,” the 82-year-old Norcott said. “Everybody thought they were related. Everybody called everybody cousin.”
Norcott was among more than 100 people who attended the Monday evening groundbreaking ceremony for the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, a memorial to honor and celebrate the heritage of downtown.
The ceremony took place on The Town Common, near First and Greene Street.
Supporters of the $1.9 million plaza hope the memorial will serve as a place for healing, hope and celebratory remembrance.
The church and entire neighborhoods were demolished in the 1960s and the church burned down in 1969.
Leroy James, 86, a former Pitt County agricultural extension director, joined the church in 1962 when he moved to Greenville from Goldsboro.
James said he remembers when the church burned down.
“It was hurtful and it (happened) so quick,” James said. But the church persevered.
“We moved but we’re still alive,” James said. “We’re still together. We still work together, and we’re moving on even though we had to move. The Lord has blessed us in many, many ways.”
The church relocated from First and Greene streets to Eighth street and then to its current location on Hooker Road, James said.
During the ceremony, Alton Harris, who serves on the Sycamore Hill Advisory Committee, told the crowd that his family’s home was demolished in the 1960s.
“While I was in college, the urban renewal came in and they tore down all the houses,” Harris said. “(The city) demolished the houses. They demolished my home and all the other people’s homes that were down here.
“Those of us that could afford to buy homes, we moved to West Fifth Street,” Harris said. Others moved to Kearney Park, which is now behind South Greenville Elementary School, he said. Harris’ family relocated to Danbury Court.
The church withstood the displacement of the neighborhood until it was destroyed by fire in 1969.
The plaza’s design mimics the entryway of the church, the central community area where pews once stood and the altar and choir area. Interspersed throughout the design are walls of varying height and width, on which the story of Sycamore Hill will be presented.
It is expected to be completed within 9-12 months according to Parks and Recreation Director Gary Fenton.
Harris and Norcott hope it tells a story that younger generations will learn and cherish.
“Today, people think this has always been the town common,” Harris said. “But there’s a lot more to that than this. There were houses on both sides of the streets, there were families all around here. All of this was black neighborhoods and all black families.”
Tamara Harris, whose grandmother, Mavis Langley-Harris, was an original member of the church, said the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza is about creating a brighter future for everyone in the community.
“It’s not only here to preserve history but it’s here to start a brand new future,” she said.
During the invocation, Rev. Kenneth Hammond, the interim pastor of Sycamore Hill, paid tribute to the members who could not be present and for those who have died.
“We pause to remember those upon whose shoulders we now stand, who paved the way for many of us to stand here today and to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities we now enjoy,” Hammond said.
“As we break ground, we honor their lives and legacies for truly they have made a difference for us,” he said. “As this memorial is constructed, may it not just be a tribute to the past, but a gateway to the hopes of a better people, a better community and a better world.”
Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly said that it’s moments like this that make him proud to be the city’s mayor.
“This should be a proud moment for all the citizens as we are shining a light on the past by honoring the history and the stories of families who lived here,” Connelly said.