By Taylor Sisk
Once â€“ when there was no Caribou CafÃ©, nothing in the way of a sandwich that wraps, and certainly no luxury boutique hotel â€“ Braxton Foushee sat down at Colonial Drug to be served.
Chapel Hill was even then a bit more progressive than the majority of the South, and a young black manâ€™s money was readily accepted in a Franklin Street business such as Colonial. But that young manâ€™s subsequent presence certainly was not. Order to go and be gone â€“ that was the nature of it when Foushee and others instead sat to be served. It was February 1960. For nearly a half century, Foushee has continued to live a life in service to his community.
Foushee sat on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen from 1969 to â€˜81 and on the OWASA board of directors from â€™86 to â€˜88. Heâ€™s now returned to the OWASA board, having been sworn in on April 12.
In a recent weekday breakfast interview at Elmoâ€™s, Foushee talked a bit about his history and that of his community, but mostly about the future.
Though he doesnâ€™t often speak of his role in helping to integrate local businesses and schools, he remembers well this segregated Southern Part of Heaven.
â€œAfter Sunday school we would go across [to Colonial], because that was the custom at the time â€“ youâ€™d go across the street and get your hot dog or hamburger or either a soda pop, ice cream, candy or whatever, and youâ€™d get that from Colonial Drug or from Long Meadow Dairy.
â€œWe went to either one of those places for little refreshments after church, and we were allowed in but you couldnâ€™t sit down â€“ you had to get your stuff and go.â€
Of the changes that were then demanded and ultimately earned, Foushee says, â€œ[A]t that time, the majority of our parents were working for the university or doing domestic work. And here come a bunch of young black kids â€¦ and we could shape the town. When you look back on it, thatâ€™s what happened â€“ we shaped the whole scope of the town and the university. Because now they had to deal with us, [we] who had no connections to them and didnâ€™t give a damn.â€
Fousheeâ€™s days in organized politics began doing leg work for legendary local activist Rebecca Clark:
â€œRebecca Clark, bless her sweet heart. I did voter registration with Rebecca Clark â€¦ thatâ€™s how I got involved in politics.
â€œAnd then I got into my middle 20s and [a friend] kept saying, â€˜Why donâ€™t you run for the Carrboro board?â€™ And I said, â€˜No, youâ€™re crazy; I wouldnâ€™t stand a chance.â€™
â€œWe mulled over that for about a year, two years. And then we did what we normally did â€“ we started counting. We looked back on the historical records, the voting schemes in Carrboro, and we decided that we might have a shot. So I went in and I put my name in.â€ He won.
As Carrboroâ€™s first black alderman, Foushee remembers quite a number of 6-1 votes. His proudest achievement while serving on the board, he says, was bringing bus lines to Carrboro. He recalls that when he entered office, many of the streets in the black communities in Carrboro were still unpaved.
â€œWe made some inroads in getting those streets paved, [getting] some reparations started. And I reckon the next proudest thing was that we hired a black town manager,â€ Richard Wright.
Meanwhile, Foushee raised his family here. He has four children â€“ two sons: one works for the Durham public schools, the other is a warehouse manager for Harris-Teeter; and two daughters: one with the Durham Housing Authority, the other a chemist.
From where he sits today, he believes Carrboroâ€™s growth has largely been for the better.
â€œI think one of our biggest accomplishments was saving this building right here,â€ he says of Carr Mill. â€œBecause [prior to that], we couldnâ€™t get people downtown; downtown was dying.
â€œI think weâ€™ve done a good job of managing growth â€“ and if you donâ€™t do a good job of managing growth, it gets away from you. Thatâ€™s what happened to a lot of small towns around Research Triangle Park. Actually, we were prepared for the growth. I just think we knew what we wanted to see Carrboro look like in 10 to 15 years, with the basic concept of bringing people downtown.â€
The board of aldermen discussed, during his tenure, â€œbuilding the little neighborhoods up, getting more people into these neighborhoods so they could walk downtown.â€
Of his return to official civic duty, Foushee says he knows that some people are going to look at him and wonder why heâ€™s back.
But, he says, heâ€™s never stopped keeping a close eye on local government. â€œI watch both towns a lot; just looking from the outside.â€
Whatâ€™s now brought him back to OWASA is that, â€œIâ€™m so darned tired of seeing these rates escalate.â€
Confronting that rise in OWASA rates is one of his two priorities.
â€œSomehow we have got to get these escalating rates under control. And theyâ€™re going up every year; for the next five years weâ€™re looking at a 7.5 to 8 percent increase.â€
Of his second priority, he says: â€œSince I left office, the top echelon has stayed the same. The percentage of black decision-makers [in Carrboro] is almost exactly the sameâ€¦. [W]eâ€™ve got to change that.â€
He then adds: â€œIt would be a shame to price people out of living here â€¦ I told Jonathan Howe 20 years ago that that was what he was doing.
â€œAn average family of four struggles in this town. I donâ€™t care what color you are; itâ€™s just a struggle. I would have hoped that would have eased up by now â€¦ that we would have a better handle on it.
â€œSo maybe I can make an impression, some kind of impact through OWASA. I think there are some people that think like I do on that board. Weâ€™re not in a majority, but there are people who think like I do.â€
As for again running for a board of aldermen seat, he says, â€œI donâ€™t want to run for the board again. Iâ€™ve had my time. Itâ€™s time for somebody else to do that.â€
Heâ€™s cautiously optimistic about a younger generation of leaders: â€œI would hope that we will be able to keep these bright minds in this town, in these communities.
â€œI think itâ€™s a great area to raise a family.â€
He then adds this caveat: â€œI mean, I love politics; I really love it. I love to see changes made and I love to see progress madeâ€ â€“ suggesting therein that heâ€™s yet got some sitting to do.