Rev. Robert Campbell says most people donâ€™t even know what Rogers Road looks like. Photos by Isaac Sandlin
Be it further resolved
Vocal and vigilant, Rev. Robert Campbell and the Rogers Road community continue to demand justice
By Taylor Sisk
â€œThe church,â€ Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, â€œis the place we go from.â€ Makes good sense to Rev. Robert Campbell.
The sanctuary of the Faith Tabernacle Oasis of Love Church is certainly no refuge for Robert Campbell. Outreach is his calling. For 34 years, Rev. Campbell has been ministering to the needs of a finely knit community on and around Rogers Road of, as Campbell observes, â€œmany faces, many skills.â€
It was in 1972â€”the year prior to Campbellâ€™s arrival in the Rogers Road communityâ€”that the town of Chapel Hill bought a piece of land just north of town on Eubanks Road for the purpose of placing upon it a new landfill. (Rogers Road runs into Eubanks Road to the north and Homestead Road to the south.) The residents of this largely black communityâ€”many of whose families have lived there for generationsâ€”were told the landfill would be temporary, that in ten years or so it would be covered, a park placed upon it, and that their duty to the greater community would then be done, a new landfill would be located elsewhere.
Rev. Campbell sits on a quiet spring Friday evening in the cafeteria of Faith Tabernacle, just off the sanctuary, recalling these 34 years, the promises made. That Tuesday prior, the Orange County board of commissioners had voted to locate a solid waste transfer station at the 208-acre landfill tract along Eubanks Road. The landfill is projected to fill to capacity in 2010. The plan now is to carry our garbage via the transfer station elsewhere. Rogers Road residents were of course discouraged by the decision to locate the station in their community, and not a bit surprised.
Robert Campbell is a compact man, precise in manner and movement. His wide shoulders bear testament to a familial line of stone and brick masons, to the Campbells and Parrishes who built Chapel Hill, of whom he is manifestly proud. His hands rest folded and easy on the table before him.
â€œIn the â€˜70s,â€ he recalls, â€œwhen Howard Lee was mayor of Chapel Hill, they came out here on Rogers Road and had a community meetingâ€¦. The town of Chapel Hill had a problem with their wasteâ€”actually, the university had locked them out of the [existing] facilityâ€”and the town of Chapel Hill had dragged their feet about finding somewhere to go.
â€œFirst they went up on Highway 54 on the other side of Carrboro to look at an area up there. But the doctors and the professors who stayed up there on Highway 54 threatened to sue them if they put a landfill up there.
â€œThen they went up new 86, up towards New Hope. And the people up there said no because of what they were planning to do with the New Hope Camp up thereâ€”because they would have children coming in every summer and it wouldnâ€™t work.
â€œSo the next place was this neighborhood. It was closer to town, and they convinced the neighborhood it would be the right thing. And they made promises.â€
Promises. The precise nature of those promises is today undocumented, disputed. Whatâ€™s for certain, though, is that this landfillâ€”the stench, the stray garbage, the circling buzzards, allegations that it has contributed to contaminated well waterâ€”has had a profound impact on a storied community.
The rural neighborhood into which Robert Campbell moved nearly 35 years ago is, in many ways, physically and socially, much as it was thenâ€”much, in fact, as it was over a hundred years ago.
UNC anthropology professor Carole Crumley and her students have researched the history of that area of Orange County going back to the early 19th century. Farming was of course a more bountiful enterprise in those days, and the community also served Chapel Hill with a variety of other necessitiesâ€”ice, for example. The land was owned by both black and white families.
According to Michael Scholl, a UNC doctoral student in anthropology who worked on the Orange County project with Crumley, â€œLaws restricting racial minorities from owning land werenâ€™t passed until the Civil War. As a result, many free people of color came to own land, usually as a result of having purchased it. After the war it was common to break plantations into plots worked by sharecroppers. Sometimes the croppers were freed slaves.â€
Dr. Crumley says that considerable architectural evidence that attests to the long history of the community can still be found.
In the 1950s, says Campbell, â€œThe Rev. Nunn had a church down here, and a lot of [other] churches would come out here and theyâ€™d have Easter egg hunts, they would have summer events, and it was a very active neighborhood.
â€œAnd thatâ€™s how a lot of families began to see how beautiful it was out here, and they wanted to move here.â€ He catalogs the names of families generations deep in the community: the Rogers, the Nunns, the Allens, the Caldwells.
â€œSo itâ€™s a proud community. Purefoy Drive, where I stay at? Itâ€™s all Purefoys, and Iâ€™m just one of the implants that lives on Purefoy Drive. Itâ€™s a neighborhood where you have hardworking, dedicated people that are concerned about the whole community. And itâ€™s just like time passed us by.â€
Building Chapel Hill
Robert Campbellâ€™s Orange County roots run deep:
â€œIâ€™m from right here in Chapel Hill. I grew up on Graham Street, right in town. My family, well, they were brick masons and stone masons. My family has built some of the oldest buildings on the campus of UNC. If you go onto the campus of UNC or you drive up and down Franklin Street, if you drive anywhere in Chapel Hill, my family has built most of the buildings; they helped build the buildings. They even helped build the hospital.
â€œMy grandfather, John Campbell, and my uncles Handy and Leo and Bill Campbell and my cousin Alfred Parrish, their handy work is all over Chapel Hill. They helped build Eastgate â€¦ my uncles helped build University Square.â€ Most of these men, he says, have now passed away.
â€œI worked in the business from age 6 years old all the way up until I was 18 years old.â€ Then, in 1969, he moved from the reserves to active duty Navy, serving a four-year hitch. He did three tours of Viet Nam, aboard a destroyer for a time, a destroyer escort at another. He manned an artillery and supply support boat. â€œWe also gave Navy gun support to the aircraft carriers to retrieve downed pilots. I ended up a petty officer third class; had a lot of responsibilityâ€¦. It was a very good experience.â€
Campbell returned to Chapel Hill with decorations and commendations. â€œIt was always my desire to come back to the state of North Carolina, to Chapel Hill. I had friends, family, and I just had a compassion for the area.â€
He couldnâ€™t afford, though, to buy a home in downtown Chapel Hill, and looked to Rogers Road. â€œThere were mobile homes that were put on lots, and it was very attractive. The monthly payment was, like, $210, for the mobile home and the lot, paying to own it.â€ After marrying, he bought a larger home. He and his wife, Patricia, have a 15-year-old daughter, Robin.
Campbell quickly became active in the community. He recalls that things â€œreally escalated in the latter part of the â€˜80s, right on into the middle part of the â€˜90s, when they really began to start searching for another place to put a landfill, and we spent countless hours negotiating with the politiciansâ€”right here in this sanctuary. We had it set up where you had community members that were part of a fact-finding group that came up with ideas, that came up with things that the neighborhood wanted done.â€
The speed limit on Rogers Road at that time, he observes, was 45 (today itâ€™s 40). â€œThere was no sign posted out there saying that there was children playing or walking down the street.
â€œIt was just simple things that we wanted. Lower the speed limit. Put signs out there that there are children playing in the area. We wanted water, we wanted sewer lines; we wanted to be a part of the Chapel Hill that we worked in. But yet we really wasnâ€™t a part of Chapel Hill, nor a part of Carrboro. We just wanted to belong, because we had so much history working in and around here.â€
It was in 1997, as Campbell recalls, that â€œit came to our attention that one of our neighborâ€™s water was contaminated.
â€œIt was something we kind of knew but we couldnâ€™t prove it; that there was something in the water. The water had a faint odor to it. It came out brown sometimes; sometimes it came out red.
â€œThey would say, â€˜Oh; thatâ€™s the ground water. Thatâ€™s the ground water.â€™ But usually it did not happen until they started digging and blasting over at the landfill.
â€œSo what happened was, the gentlemanâ€™s water was tested and there was some type of contamination in itâ€¦. And they recommended, donâ€™t cook in it. You can wash in it. And they recommended they put in a high-tech filtering systemâ€¦.
â€œSo we kept debating about what is coming out of the landfill. And every time they would throw some techno jargon at us. We knew there was a simple solution. So Mr. [David] Caldwell [Jr.] and myself went down to Raleigh. He was at this time the president of the Rogers Road Neighborhood Association. And we went down and requested to look at the test results of the tested wells around the landfill. And we come to find out that there was a lot of contamination that was being logged in that everybody was denying was happening.â€
Those folks, he says, are still using well water.
â€œThose are the types of things that we have been dealing with. Misdirection.
Misinformation. If we really wanted to do something, we had to really get out there and get the information ourselves. The landfill had been a big issue because of the health hazards. Sometimes, you drive through Rogers Road, you might see as many as 50 to 60 buzzards; 30 of them might be roosting on one or two houses. Theyâ€™re on the power line.
Today they were flying around in my neighborhood, about 15 of them. These are the type of things weâ€™ve been dealing with. Try and control them, you canâ€™t. You can not shoot them â€“ you canâ€™t even shoot at them; theyâ€™re protected. Itâ€™s just one of those things thatâ€™s frustrating.
â€œYou canâ€™t hang clothes out on your line like you used toâ€¦. It becomes more expensive. Because if you canâ€™t hang [your clothes] out on the line â€¦ that means you got to go out and buy you a washer and dryerâ€¦.
â€œThese are the things that we are going through.â€
â€˜All roads to Eubanksâ€™
â€œWe tried,â€ Campbell says, â€œto get as much information about the transfer station as we couldâ€¦. It came up at [a meeting in] the town of Carrboro, â€˜Letâ€™s go look at one and see what it looks like.â€™
â€œAnd so we went to look at [the transfer station] in Greensboro. Nice operation. But itâ€™s in a light industrial complex, sitting by the interstate,â€ with no homes in the immediate vicinity.
Having considered two other sites off Highway 70, the Orange County board of commissioners voted unanimously to place the transfer station on Eubanks Road.
â€œAs one of the commissioners said,â€ Campbell says, â€œâ€˜All roads lead back to Eubanksâ€¦. All roads lead back to Eubanks.â€™ And that was said at the meeting prior to the meeting we just had Tuesdayâ€â€”at which the commission voted in favor of the Eubanks siteâ€”â€œthat â€˜all roads lead back to Eubanks.â€™
â€œHe didnâ€™t lie. In a sense, some of us felt that was going to be the answer anyway.â€
Concessions were made in the transfer station resolution. It reads, in part:
â€œBe it further resolved that the Board will enter into discussion with the historic Rogers Road neighborhood to determine a community development program that enhances the neighborhood â€¦â€ These proposed enhancements include paving the driveway surface in and out of the new facility, seeking to install a sidewalk along Rogers Road and working to secure a bus route that serves the community.
But, Campbell says, the feeling in the community is that these were things that were â€œgoing to have to be done anyway.â€
â€œWeâ€™re looking at finding ways to hook up the families who are not hooked up to water, and bring the sewage to the neighborhood and hook it up to each one of the houses, find some type of grant money or bond money, do a bond that will cover the cost of this. And anything short of that, they have failed us again.â€
Explaining the source of this sense of having been failed, over and again, Campbell says, â€œTo me, and listening to my neighbors, it was that we just didnâ€™t have the power to stop them. We didnâ€™t have the financial, we didnâ€™t have political support, we didnâ€™t have the consensus of the towns around us.
â€œBecause most never come out here; most donâ€™t even know what Rogers Road looks likeâ€”except those that come out to bring their trash, and they donâ€™t have to come down Rogers Road; they just come on either end of Eubanks, and when you come on either end of Eubanks all you would see are trees and maybe one or two houses here and there. And so that was your conception of what this neighborhood looked likeâ€”so much that was not seen. Like the 125 kids that grew up out here, that went to the elementary school, the middle school and the high school. Nobody seen that.â€
Campbellâ€™s hands, which have mostly rested calm, are now punctuating his sentences, lifted by the preacher within him.
â€œAnd this is what we were trying to get them to see: that we are a people that you probably see everyday in your normal business. We are nurses, we are doctors, we are cooks. We are your public utility workers. Thatâ€™s who we are. We have many faces, many skills. But then when it comes to supporting us, very few people come out.â€
Was he surprised that the transfer station vote was unanimous? Did he think anyone might vote against placing it on Eubanks?
â€œAt one time, I did. Until I began to hear at the last meeting that there might be a timeline to do this, that they might not have enough time to go search out another site. And when I began to hear what Mr. [Mike] Nelson was reading about his resolution, I knew thenâ€”I just hung my headâ€”I knew then that it was going to pass.â€
â€œ… so thatâ€™s what we do.â€
Campbell today makes his living preparing meals for a UNC fraternity. â€œIâ€™ve been doing that for about four years. Iâ€™ve been in food service for over 30-something yearsâ€”looking to one day find a benefactor that will help me open up my own restaurant. â€¦ I take it to heart when I prepare food.
He otherwise stays busy with the Faith Tabernacle outreach work.
â€œWe have a back-to-school bash that we put on every year; weâ€™ve been doing it for 15 years. And what we do is, we bring in speakers to speak to the children, let the children know the community is with them: â€˜All we want you to do is go get an education.â€™ We bring them in, we provide book supplies for those that canâ€™t buyâ€¦. [Last year] we gave away over 120 grocery bags, nothing but school supplies. Some we got clothing, shoes and stuff like that. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™re about. We had children coming from as far as Wake County. We also provide food service for the Interfaith Council, the homeless shelter on Rosemary Street, every first Tuesdayâ€¦. Weâ€™ve been doing that for over 20 years.
â€œWeâ€™re very active in the community. Itâ€™s that we canâ€™t speak out against what needs to be done if weâ€™re not a part of trying to correct it. And so thatâ€™s what we do.
Why hasnâ€™t Rev. Robert Campbell run for office?
â€œTo do that,â€ he says, â€œI think it would take me away from being out there doing what Iâ€™m doing now. I donâ€™t think it would give me more of a leverage to get things done. I can stay where Iâ€™m at to rally the people, to ask for whatâ€™s supposed to be given to us, whatâ€™s supposed to be supplied for us.â€
Campbell sometimes preaches at Faith Tabernacle services. â€œIâ€™m an ordained minister. Iâ€™m one of the ministers that does outreach work from this church. They have always encouraged the ministers to do outreach, get involved in the community, see where you can help out in the community.
â€œThat,â€ says Campbell, â€œis what we do.â€