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Persistence brings results for a proud and historic community

Omega Wilson, president of Mebane’s West End Revitalization Association, stands in front of the historic church and cemetery that he and his neighbors have fought to save. Photo by Isaac Sandlin.

Editor’s note: This story is the sixth in a series that examines issues related to environmental justice and to the fight of the Rogers and Eubanks roads community to be relieved of what they allege to be an undue burden. To read the stories in this series and for other resources, go to www.carrborocitizen.com/main/rogers-road

Mebane’s West End Revitalization Association takes on city hall

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

“A visceral response,” is how Omega Wilson describes it, a sensation “that makes you so angry you can’t think. That’s what people call rage. When you get so mad you can’t count to two.”

This, he says, is how his West End Mebane community, approximately 90 percent of which is African-American, felt when they learned a highway bypass was going to be laid smack through the neighborhood, displacing families, razing a 130-year-old church and destroying the cemetery in which generations of community ancestors, including Wilson’s own, are buried.

How could the community not have been previously made aware? How could it be that this plan had apparently been in development for years (according to Wilson, for well over 10 years) without the community being informed, so that its members could speak out against it in public hearings?

“People would say, ‘I mowed the mayor’s lawn,” Wilson, founding board member and president of the West End Revitalization Association, says. “‘I took care of his kids.’”

Nearly half of West End lies within the Mebane city limits. And Mebane is, after all, a small town. Residents shared a post office with city officials, shopped in the same stores, attended, for the past few decades, the same schools.

“‘I taught his kids and his grandkids,’” Wilson recalls people saying of one official or another.

“‘Well, I’ve been knowing her for 20 years.’”

There it was though – a story in the local newspaper that a spur off NC Hwy. 119 was going to divert traffic from downtown and dissect the West End community.

Wilson sits today in his insurance office in the West End, calmly recreating the sequence of events that on a bitterly cold day in December 1994 launched his community into action, when news of the bypass first surfaced – a sequence of events that continues to unfurl.

A moratorium on the highway still holds today. Meanwhile, Wilson travels North America speaking to grassroots organizations about community development, and the West End Revitalization Association continues to work to preserve, stabilize and develop an historic neighborhood and to construct a stronger sense of community.

More ‘pro-action’

As a program director for Chapel Hill-based MDC, a nonprofit specializing in community development, John Cooper has worked on a number of environmental justice projects. He’s a friend and associate of Omega Wilson’s, and he says he’s learned a great deal from the man.

“When I was active in the environmental justice movement,” Cooper says, “I felt like a lot of what was going on was reactive.” Rather than NIMBYism, what disadvantaged groups most often experience, says Cooper, is WIMBY: “Why in My Backyard?” – with the question being raised after it’s all a done deal – after the permits have been signed, the momentum mounted. By then, Cooper says, you’re fighting a losing battle.

“So I was of the mindset that what was needed was more pro-action,” he continues. “What was needed was a better working knowledge by disadvantaged groups of land-use planning and of the decision-making that was going on in their communities.

“I met Omega Wilson around the time I started to feel that way, and he was doing exactly that. He had a group of folks who organized before the ground was broken for a highway, to stop that highway. Essentially, all environmental justice issues are land-use issues – they’re decisions about what’s placed on the land, how the land is used, how the land is treated, how it’s protected. Those are land-use decisions, and land-use decisions are finalized well before ground is broken.”

The West End Revitalization Association (WERA) was formed in 1994 after community members learned of the decision to run a Hwy. 119 bypass through West End.

“We saw something about some of this in the newspaper,” Wilson says, “and we started asking the city manager about what was happening, and got no information.” A public hearing was then called for Dec. 23.

“And of course people were kind of alarmed,” Wilson recalls. “People were shopping and cooking Christmas dinners and all this kind of stuff. They had to turn off their stoves.”

Wilson says 30 to 40 people came out for that meeting on a night in which “the ground was as hard as a rock; it was 17 degrees that night. And people were saying, ‘What in the world are you calling me for? [You sound] like the world’s coming to an end.’ And of course when they got there, and saw the map …” Wilson’s voice trails into a derisive chuckle.

The community was stunned. More than 20 homes in the immediate vicinity would have been lost under that initial plan – each family was to be paid $25,000 for their home. The Church of Christ (with a cornerstone that reads “1865”) would be gone, as would the cemetery and a Masonic temple.

“My grandmother is out there,” Wilson says, pointing out the window of his office, which also serves as WERA’s headquarters, to the cemetery behind the Church of Christ across the street. “My father’s arm is out there. My father lost his arm in a sawmill. His arm is buried out there.

“Uncles and aunts, veterans, preachers, teachers are buried out there. The level of disrespect was just absolutely. … It’s difficult to talk about without getting emotional. To think about the idea of somebody doing that to you. … The church house [would be] gone; the cemetery, gone – all in one fell swoop.”

The community, under WERA’s guidance, mobilized, gaining a better understanding of how land-use decisions are made – and can be unmade – and working to improve relations with city officials – this latter to little avail. In 1999, WERA filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 1994, Bill Clinton had signed Executive Order 12898 – “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations” – which stated that, “To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law … each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionally high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories …”

What WERA learned from the federal government was that there were potential environmental justice violations related to the highway plan that involved six branches of the federal government – the Department of Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development among them.

“And all these branches have offices of civil rights that are supposed to review these plans,” says Wilson.

“How did they let this through?” Wilson asked the Department of Justice. “Happens all the time,” he says he was told.

The complaint that WERA filed, Wilson explains, wasn’t to stop the highway: “We were filing it to get involved in the process. Because we thought the possibility of stopping the highway was zero. So we wanted to get into the planning process, to see what they were going to do and to fight for more money for people’s houses. Because $25,000 wasn’t going to do anything.”

The complaint listed a number of disparities that remained unaddressed in West End – unpaved roads, no sidewalks or gutters, no public water and sewage, being redlined out of annexation.

“The city was annexing property in town all the way [almost four miles out],” Wilson says, “and we’re right here? And this is downtown? And they’re not going to annex us so we can vote?”

The resistance was now fully mobilized.

Wheels in motion.

“Within 72 hours of filing the complaint,” Wilson says, “it was like the ground was shaking. We said, ‘What did we just do?’ We didn’t realize what was happening.”

WERA was now dealing with the federal government – and not everyone in local government was pleased with this development. Wilson experienced open hostilities and a lot of people within the West End community who were initially involved in the fight walked away at that point, afraid, Wilson says, to take on local government – afraid of losing their jobs with the city or the county, perhaps even with UNC.

A solid core of 12 to 15 remained though. In 1995, WERA became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Over the years, they’ve received support from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. They received training through the Rural Center in how to organize and structure themselves and they became a Community Development Corporation.

In 2000, they were joined in their efforts by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the most prominent nonprofit law firms in the country, based in Washington D.C., founded in 1963 at the request of Pres. John Kennedy.

A research project was conducted with the support of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice Small Grant Program. And in 2004, WERA received a $100,000 grant from the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice for a Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Project called “Right to Basic Amenities.”

The City of Mebane has meanwhile applied for and received federal and state grants to make infrastructure improvements in West End and its sister communities, including White Level to the north of the city and Buckhorn Road to the east in Orange County (about a fifth of Mebane is in Orange County).

In an August 2007 press release, Wilson said, “We are pleased to see some progress with first-time sewer service connections for residents with 50 to 100 percent failure rates of backyard septic systems that threaten drinking well water and surface water. Contamination in streams was tested at levels over 300 times EPA standards in the West End, White Level and Buckhorn/Perry Hill communities.”

The future of the highway bypass is as yet unresolved.

Tending the vineyard.

What will the ultimate outcome of WERA’s work be? And what of that highway?

“I don’t know,” Omega Wilson allows. “I know it’s not a situation where Goliath is going to sit down and say to David, ‘Hey, you got me.’ It doesn’t work that way. The conversation is, ‘Wait till tomorrow.’ That’s what we still hear from some city officials.”

“I’ll put it this way,” Wilson says, then excuses himself, leaves the room for a moment and returns with a portrait of a man named J.K. Malone: “We’re continuing a legacy.”

Malone helped organize community groups, “African-Americans and white residents alike, to help build a high school” says Wilson, “and he was able to do it against all odds: the only county high school that African-Americans [in Alamance County] could attend.”

“You become a tender of the vineyard,” Wilson continues, “and when you have dead limbs and things, you have to prune the vineyard in order for it to continue to produce.

“I grew up on a farm, so I know what happens to the dead limbs of the pear trees and the apple trees and the corn stalks when you cut them. … They were debris, they were in the way. And if you didn’t get rid of that undergrowth, that contamination, then you’d have rotten stuff in your good food. Then the ashes from that, you would use to fertilize the plants.”

Likewise, he says, you’ve got to take the negative energy, the lingering prejudices, the impulse to maintain a status quo that should have long since expired, take it and be nourished in its passing, and grow.

Wilson’s objective has been to help deploy the community’s energy to productive purpose, “rather than yelling and screaming in city council meetings and getting nothing done.

“Persistency is the part of it that makes it a winning formula – in whatever we’ve done.”

He tells of going to a recent function where he ran into a state official who once held a dim view of WERA’s chances of accomplishing much:

“He shook my hand and said congratulations for staying alive. He said, ‘I respect that.’

“But you’ve got to stay in the fight in order to get that respect,” says Wilson. “And I said [to myself], ‘Wow. We got dressed up and came to the party, and this time we got dinner.’”

Helping make it work.

“You can’t have this level of success,” Wilson now says, “and not share it. The old phrase is, ‘You can’t light a candle and put a basket over it.’ You can’t hide your light under a bushel basket is what my grandma would say.”

When WERA began its own schooling in how to organize and how to succeed, it sometimes took the advice of experts and sometimes the community had its own ideas.

Wilson uses the Rubik’s Cube as an analogy in how to figure out the formula of success. “A lot of it we did against the advice of the experts and the friendly folks, because we didn’t feel going that way would help.

“It was like the guy who never shoots three-pointers, and the coach is saying, ‘No, no, no … yes.’ We got a lot of that.

“Now it’s a matter of helping other communities make it work for them.”

Wilson serves today as a representative on the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and travels the county and beyond speaking to community organizations, “Native American groups, Hispanic groups, Asian groups, white groups, about what we’ve done, and share with them some of our strategies and techniques.”

Back in Alamance County, “We’ve still got a lot of stuff to do.

“I had one city councilman say to me, ‘When is all this going to be over with? When are ya’ll going to be through with this stuff so that we can get back to doing what we’re going to do.” That is to say: construct a highway that was once all but a done deal.

In the meantime, improvements to infrastructure continue.

“We have over 500 houses that were at risk in these three communities,” Wilson says. “And when this is done out here – the 51 houses that are scheduled to be started on in the next few weeks – we’ve still got over 400.”

“Community groups have to create the leverage to make this stuff work. That’s who we are. That’s where we are. And that’s why we’re continuing to work.”

In the Jan. 10 issue of The Citizen: Moving forward.

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