In Jim Crow Chapel Hill, public gathering places for Black people were routinely deemed public nuisances and shut down. Sundown practices confined Black people to select neighborhoods in the evening hours. Black youth did not have safe spaces to socialize and participate in organized recreational activities.
The Negro Civic Club, a key advocacy group for Chapel Hill’s Black community throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, noted the lack of safe spaces for Black youth to socialize and participate in organized recreational activities. They proposed the idea of a recreation center in 1935, but it wasn’t until 1937 when simmering tensions led to a race riot that white Chapel Hill acted. In the aftermath of the riot, local police became much better armed, and the local government approved plans to build a “Negro Community Center” in June 1938. In 1940, local Black stone masons and carpenters began construction on the Center with funding from the Works
Progress Administration. Funding fell short in 1942, and the project stalled until the arrival of the Navy’s B-1 Band.
Another milestone for the Center and the community came in October 1947, when local organizers held the first meeting of the Chapel Hill NAACP, which celebrated 75 years of
service in 2022. Marcellus Barksdale writes in his article “Civil Rights Organization and the Indigenous Movement in Chapel Hill, N.C., 1960-1965,” that “perhaps the most important contribution of the branch to the local community was that it provided another experiment in community organization that differed from the church and the school. The very presence of a chapter of the NAACP in a town automatically increased the thought and talk of civil rights.”
“Branch of NAACP Being Formed Here.” Daily Tar Heel, October 22, 1947.
“Judge Phipps Urges Officers to Arrest and Bring to Court Both White and Negro Rioters.” The Chapel Hill Weekly, August 27, 1937.
“Mass Meeting Is Slated For Sunday.” The Chapel Hill Weekly, May 5, 1960.
“Picketing Resumes at Two Businesses.” The Chapel Hill Weekly, March 10, 1960.
“Report on the Present Status of the Chapel Hill Negro Community Center.” The Chapel Hill Weekly, February 22, 1942.
“A Report to the Citizens of Chapel Hill.” May 1960. I Raised My Hand To Volunteer: students protest in 1960 Chapel Hill. An Exhibit of the Manuscripts Department in the Wilson Library. 23 January-31 May 2007. University Library, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.