By Jasmina Nogo
â€œIf my grandfather were here today, he would have tears in his eyes,â€ said Karen Abbotts, the granddaughter of Rev. Charles Jones, as she welcomed members of the community to the Freedom Rider State Highway Marker Program and Unveiling Ceremony.
Jones was a white Presbyterian minister who gave the Freedom Riders refuge in his home and was threatened by a mob of white cabdrivers for doing so.
â€œThere would be tears of pride and tears of happiness,â€ Abbotts said.
Saturdayâ€™s program opened with several speakers, including the president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP, Eugene Farrar, and 92-year-old George Houser, who was one of the organizers of the 1947 Freedom Ride.
â€œOf the 16 that participated in our journey, Iâ€™m the only one left,â€ Houser said.
â€œIf we donâ€™t look the beast in the eye, we will be held hostage to that history,â€ Abbotts said, as the audience erupted in applause.
Following Abbottsâ€™ speech, Doval Watson, a Chapel Hill High School student, provided historical context to Jim Crow laws and Supreme Court cases that were key to the civil rights movement. A group of UNC students and other members of the community then provided an interactive dramatization of the Freedom Riders experience in Chapel Hill, receiving a standing ovation.
â€œThe dramatization was historically very correct,â€ said Houser. He recounted for the audience the Freedom Riders experience here and talked about the historical impact of the groupâ€™s peaceful protests and what the events meant to him as a white man from New York.
Houser said a Chapel Hill bus driver demanded that four of the Freedom Riders re-seat themselves according to race; when they refused, he called the police and they were arrested. The men were then violently threatened by a mob of white cabdrivers. Jones arrived at the bus station to rescue them and drove them to his home. The cabdrivers followed the car and physically and verbally threatened Jones. He subsequently drove the men to Durham and sent his family away to safety. UNC students gathered to guard the Jonesâ€™ home.
â€œWe never thought that here in the liberal arms of UNC weâ€™d encounter this,â€ Houser said.
Houserâ€™s speech was followed by a reading of Langston Hughesâ€™ poem â€œNegro Motherâ€ by Doretha Mason and the awarding of the winners of a Freedom Rider essay contest.
Then, despite the rain and cold, a group of students, residents and activists enthusiastically marched from the Hargraves Center to the corner of Rosemary and Columbia streets carrying banners and singing and chanting for justice, peace and equality. At the dedication site, Farrar unveiled the placard.
â€œThe power of one lies in the power of all of us to be one,â€ Houser said.
Following the unveiling ceremony, the group marched to the Town Hall for a reception.
â€œThe Journey of Reconciliation later served as the model and inspiration for the larger, more dramatic and successful Freedom Rides of 1961,â€ said Yonni Chapman, chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP History Committee, which initiated the highway marker campaign.
â€œMore importantly, the 1947 Journey served to publicize the methods of nonviolent direct action, which eventually became the guiding principle of Dr. Martin Luther King and much of the civil rights movement.â€
The historical marker was made possible by the Chapel Hill/Carrboro chapter of the NAACP and the Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist, with support from the town of Chapel Hill and the Justice in Action Committee.
Although weâ€™ve come a long way as a community since the days of Jim Crow and segregation, said Houser, we have a long way yet to go.
â€œThe struggle continues,â€ he said, â€œfor a better person, a better world, a better community.â€