The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

March 8, 2013

United Manor Courts: An African American Community Self-Help Project

C. Rudolph Knight

TARBORO — This is the narrative of how four community churches came together in a self-help effort and enabled several dozens of low-income families to have safe and adequate housing in the early 1970s. A by-product of this project was home ownership by many of these families.

Prior to the 1919 flood, the majority of African Americans lived in Princeville after it started in 1865. Many residents of Princeville were day workers, crossing the bridge into Tarboro each morning and returning to Princeville each evening, a convenient arrangement for all concerned. However, this pattern was interrupted by the 1919 flood when the high water prevented this back-and forth daily trek, disrupting the work force to which the white community had become accustomed.

W. S. Clark, a prominent citizen and land developer, purchased Panola Plantation and Lloyd Farm, both east of Panola Street in Tarboro, for his grandson W. G. Clark, Jr. who offered lots for sale, creating the African American neighborhood known as East Tarboro. The lots were sold by the Panola Land Development Company primarily to two groups: Edgecombe County tenant farmers who desired to own their homes and Princeville citizens who desired somewhat higher land than was available in Princeville. The present of these residents in East Tarboro ensured that the day-labor work force would always be available, even during flood times.

Razing the old buildings in a neighborhood and replacing them with new structures is an ancient concept going back for more than two thousand years. In the latter half of the twentieth century, such projects, often with Federal funding, were given the name Urban Renewal. (Cynics were inclined to call them Urban Removal.”)

Urban Renewal came to Tarboro when, recognizing the poor condition of many East Tarboro homes, the Town began the process of securing Federal Urban Renewal funds in October 1966. Shortly thereafter, an area called Panola Heights was selected for redevelopment by the Planning Board of the Town of Tarboro.

Four black Baptist churches (Eastern Star Missionary Baptist Church, St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church, and Union Baptist Church) came together in 1968 to sponsor rental housing for families in East Tarboro. In their initial effort, the Low Income Housing Development Corporation provided seed money, and an option was secured on 15 acres owned by W. G. Clark, Jr., on East Baker Street. The Federal Housing Administration then approved the construction of 100 rental units on the site. However, at this point, the U.S. Corps of Engineers declared the site unsuitable due its being in the 100-year flood plain.

Undeterred, the group then secured an option on six-acres on Elm Street from W. G. Clark, Jr., and R. M. Fountain, Jr. After raising $2,000, the organizing group was incorporated in September 1969 as the Panola Heights Housing Development Corporation, Inc., and a 50-unit apartment complex was approved at a cost of $576,500 with an interest rate of 8.5 percent. Twenty five of the units were three-bedroom, 20 were two-bedroom, and five were one-bedroom. Quinn-Wiggins of Raleigh was selected to be the architect, and Roy C. Boddie was retained as the Corporation’s attorney. The contract to construct the complex was awarded to Henderson Construction Company. The Mechanics and Farmers Bank of Durham became the interim lender, and the Federal National Mortgage Association then purchased the loan.

The initial Board of Directors was large: Rev. Luther J. Morris, Rev. Terrance V. Foster, Rev. Jefferson E. James, Rev. Raymond A. Morris, Dr. Moses A. Ray (president), Richard Pitt (Vice President), Helen Newton Knight (secretary), Gladys Mays Giles (Assistant Secretary), Jessie Williams (treasurer), Florence T. Arnold, Columbus Beamon, James E. Bridgers, Magnolia Bryant, Alberta D. Brown, Mary K. Crawley, Artimissie Frank, Nathaniel Gray, Annie Walston Johnson, William Joyner, Arthur Lyons, George C. Matthewson, Emanuel Pippen, Luther Ruffin, Jr., Mary Pitt Williams, Anne Jackson (Manager), and George Parker (superintendent).

With tall units occupied, the four sponsoring churches dedicated United Manor Courts Apartments on Sunday, September 5, 1971, at 4:00 p.m. The dedicatorial address was given by Dr. J. Archie Hargraves, President of Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina. Words of greeting were received from U. S. Congressman L. H. Fountain; the Honorable (Tarboro) Mayor E. L. Roberson; the Honorable (Princeville) Mayor W. Ray Matthewson; the Honorable Hassell Thigpen, Edgecombe County Commission; Walter Smith, Director, Low-Income Housing Development Corporation; John Wheeler, President Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Durham, North Carolina; Claudia Edwards, Director, Edgecombe County Department of Social Services; and Alexander Bryant, businessman, Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

In a 2010 interview, Virginia Johnson Lewis recounted her experiences at United Manor Courts from 1970 to 1994. She was the first resident of Apartment 44 and had previously lived with her mother, Maggie Ray Johnson, in the East Tarboro neighborhood in rental houses on Bradley Avenue, Church Street, Dunn’s Alley, and Panola Street. She felt that the residents of the whole United Manor Courts neighborhood were helpful to each other, got along well, and looked out for one another.

“My experiences instilled in me a desire for home ownership and, with the aid and encouragement of the first managers, Ann Jackson and Janice Matthews, I purchased my house at 811 Elm Street for myself and my three children, Savalious, Minnie, and Joyce.

“Currently, I do community work as a helper in nursing homes and the hospital. My role model has always been my mother who worked in service for the Rawls and Madeline Jenkins Howard family. The most influential teachers at the W. A. Pattillo School were Vivian Moon Diggs and Ruth Moore Lawrence along with the truant officer, Ethel Lee Ward, who had great concern for me and my siblings to attend and complete school and, on several occasions, providing us with shoes to wear to school.

“Another community person who had concern for my family was Florence Thorpe Arnold who encouraged me to attend St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church where I became a member. Overall, my life has been fulfilling and rewarding.”

United Manor Courts was rebuilt following the flood of 1999. The rededication ceremony in September, 2003, included Mayor Donald Morris, Rev. Tyrone Hopkins, former Tarboro Council member Roland Clark, Rev. Robert Farmer, Walter Batchelor, Jr., Diane Lloyd Johnson, members of the East Tarboro neighborhood community, and other citizens of Tarboro.

The current Board is comprised of Rev. Tyrone Hopkins, Arthur Lyons, Earl Miller,  Diane Johnson, James Edward Bridgers, Patricia Foreman, Barbara Carter, Dazzerine Pitt, Cynthia John, Magnolia Bryant, Ardena Belcher, Rev. George Terry, Grace Savage, Rev. Kelley Andrews, Louise Stevens, and Rev. Bobby Warren.

The United Manor Courts community effort strengthened and promoted cohesiveness among the East Tarboro neighborhood residents. A community council was formed so that residents could develop a common bond and establish relationships between and among the members for the benefit of all in the community. The United Manor Courts project mission was to provide residential rental property to working individuals with the ultimate goal of the East Tarboro neighborhood citizens to own their own homes. This mission continues, successfully, to this day.

C. Rudolph Knight is a Tarboro native, a retired community college educator, a research historian, and the Chair of the Perry-Weston Historical Institute.