Dedication of The Purchasing and Naming of Brown Hill Cemetery
By Sam Barber
Sycamore Hills Missionary Baptist Church - Greenville, NC
June 21, 2015
This is the day the Creator has made. Let us rejoice and be glad.
It is a delight to be here to celebrate the coming publication of Sam Barber's journey to understand The Purchasing and Naming of Brown Hill Cemetery.
This occasion is part of a long thread of friendship that goes back 40 years.
You see. History matters. And today is proof of that.
This gathering has a history. It has a history for the group, for the community as a whole, and for individuals within the group. I am glad to be a part of that history today.
We make history every day. In religious terms, when we make history, we are co-creators. As John F. Kennedy said two generations ago, "God's work on earth must truly be our own."
Sam Barber is a co-creator. He has been for as long as I've known him. That's almost 40 years, another lifetime at Ohio State University, where he taught for all too short of a time.
It was the fall of 1973, first quarter, I think. To hear Sam tell it, an arrogant white student -- I didn't think I was being arrogant, but maybe I was -- brought up during a class session on African American choral groups the Wings Over Jordan choir. If I am describing this correctly, I believe Sam has said his jaw dropped and he was wondering how a white, 20-something student could know anything about Wings. We caught up with each other after class.
Well, it turns out history matters.
My father, the late Neil Collins, worked for Wings Over Jordan from 1939 to 1941 as the advance man, traveling from Harlem to the Hollywood Bowl, including North Carolina and other states in the South. He was 23 and wanted to travel. But, unwittingly perhaps, he was doing something that would resonate in the future, making history and co-creating a path to the future.
Sam was working on his dissertation when we met. The slightly arrogant thing I said, I think, were words to the effect that if your dissertation falls apart, this would be a good topic, and I know someone who can help you.
As it turned out, Sam did end up doing his dissertation on Wings Over Jordan, and we formed a lifetime individual and family friendship, not only because I took several of his African American Studies classes at Ohio State, but because of something that happened almost 40 years before we met.
Sam's path has crossed with mine fairly often over the years. When he contacted me about two years ago and asked me to edit his small project, I was a little reticent, I must now admit, for a number of reasons that I need not go into. But Sam is a friend, and I said I would help.
It was a project that got bigger.
It was worth it.
It deserves the attention of you and everyone in your community.
Sam's journey to share his understanding of the Brown Hill Cemetery was arduous at times, partly because of the intricacies of the scant research, but also because of the emotions the journey must have aroused for him. He showed tenacity and creativity and far less anger than I did as I read parts of the manuscript.
Even as we try to heal our land and communities, the memories of racial discrimination -- Jim Crow -- linger, too often buttressed by today's manifestations of racism. We have moved beyond, yet we face old problems in new times.
Historically, one of the things we learn from Sam's book is that death remains something of an equalizer, but the treatment of black citizens after death often was discriminatory, even to the point of -- at least until about the turn of around the twentieth century -- leaving the bodies of black folk unburied, alone, forgotten, and, in reality, desecrated. In this book, we find a variation on that story in more recent times.
The story of the treatment of Greenville's black citizens at the time of their deaths is part and parcel of the struggle of blacks to achieve any semblance of racial equality. Until I worked on Sam's book, I hadn't really given this issue any thought.
Yes, I understood that cemeteries had been divided by fences, and many black cemeteries are still neglected across the South. The reminders of more racist days remain. But Sam's book taught me how the insidious patterns of racism and segregation permeated the process of forming and purchasing Brown Hill Cemetery throughout its various phases.
Sadly, the racism persisted into the 1960s with the city's redevelopment. Sadly, too, the legacy persists today with the lack of recognition for the role of black folks in the city's history.
Here is where Sam's book moves beyond history. It becomes prophetic, not in the sense of predicting the future, but as an examination of what is, and as a call for action.
In this way, Sam takes on a new role as a co-creator for this community. His call to action offers choices that might lead beyond the illusion of inclusion to the true inclusion that builds trust and heals the wounds of exclusion.
It offers a way forward so people can join together to co-create the Greenville community in ways that respect human dignity, not only for those who have gone before, but for those who are here, and most importantly, perhaps, those who are to come.
Sam, I treasure your friendship and hope others will assist you in your role as prophet and co-creator who energizes the work of the Creator here.
June 21, 2015