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'We need our spots preserved': Oral historian joins effort to place Benbow Park on National Register of Historic Places

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Editor’s note: This installment is part of a series of stories following the grassroots effort to document the South Benbow Road area as a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places.

GREENSBORO — Bernetiae Reed recalls interviewing civil rights attorney J. Kenneth Lee in the basement of his home on Broad Avenue, where they sat at the same table as leaders of the movement including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley.

"That just stands out," said Reed, a former labor and delivery nurse turned oral historian, of her previous research in the area.

Lee also told her the story of the distinct spiral staircase leading downstairs, which had come off the ship he was on when the atomic bombs were dropped during World War II. The USS Dade was later decommissioned and was being taken apart.

Benbow

Bernetiae Reed poses for a photo outside the former home of prominent civil rights attorney J. Kenneth Lee in the Benbow Park community in Greensboro on Friday. Reed, an oral historian gathering histories of the Benbow Park community, said that during the civil rights movement the home's basement served as a law office for civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, Floyd McKissick, Constance Baker Motley and others.

"He had the architect put that in his house," said Reed, who spent part of her adolescence on McConnell Road in a house designed by Bill Streat, a Tuskegee Airman and one of the architects whose modernist designs helped start the process to place the community on the National Register of Historic Places.

Reed was recently chosen from among four finalists to collect stories as part of Greensboro's application for the proposed Benbow Park Historic District based on its architecture, the people who called it home and southeast Greensboro's connection to the civil rights movement. The effort will also include a yet-to-be hired architectural historian to document the sites as part of the application.

A Benbow Park Community Association meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday at Providence Baptist Church to talk about the National Register process, introduce Reed and explain how the effort to compile histories connects to the area's historical significance.

If approved, Benbow Park would be the first historically Black neighborhood to be listed in the National Register in Greensboro.

Benbow

If approved, Benbow Park would be the first historically Black neighborhood to be listed in the National Register in Greensboro.

In 2019, partly because of the interest coming from the Benbow Park area, the city conducted a survey of modernist buildings in east Greensboro and Benbow Park, which has resulted in the Benbow area's placement on the National Register Study List. That is a preliminary step for nominating and then listing in the National Register.

The City Council voted unanimously in October 2021 to accept a $40,000 grant from the National Park Service to help prepare the nomination.

"There are no copycats for the most part," Reed said of the designs. "There are unique homes, designed according to the owner’s wishes."

Organizers are hoping to create a buzz to capture oral stories before they are lost.

"What's especially exciting is that this is a community-driven project," said Mike Cowhig, a senior planner for the city who is involved in the application process.

The large concentration of Black professionals — from teachers and professors at nearby Bennett College and N.C. A&T, business owners to doctors and lawyers — broke barriers during segregation and have been connected to events of worldwide significance. 

The historical marker at Cone Hospital commemorating the Simkins vs. Cone lawsuit to desegregate hospitals has multiple Benbow ties. Drs. Girardeau Alexander, Walter Hughes, W. T. Miller (a dentist), Alvin Blount and Milton Barnes (a dentist) were residents of the area and plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Vince Evans grew up in Benbow Park, played football at Smith High School, and became one of the rare Black quarterbacks in the NFL. Bob McAdoo lived near St. James Presbyterian Church and was a regular at the Benbow Park basketball court. He's in the NBA Hall of Fame now.

Debra Lee, who attended Dudley High School, was the first Black female CEO of a cable network.

Sgt. James E. Reid, horticulture student and later A&T instructor, was possibly the first Black soldier to die in Italy in World War II and his family received his Purple Heart. The greenhouse at A&T is named for him.

Margaret Tynes, who sang on such famous stages as those of the Metropolitan Opera and the Vienna Staatsoper, also mesmerized those in the pews at Providence Baptist Church, where her father was the pastor for decades.

Within blocks of where one future jurist lived were the first Black members of the City Council (Dr. William Hampton) and Guilford County Board of Commissioners (Bert Hall), the city's first Black doctor (Dr. George Evans), and the first Black person in the 20th century to serve in the N.C. House of Representatives and as chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court (Justice Henry Frye).

"I didn't have to say, 'Can it be done?'" said that jurist, former Superior Court Judge Patrice Hinnant, who grew up on Broad Avenue. "I saw people doing it."

'World history' in those blocks

The register is the government’s official list of cultural resources worth preserving.

Being added to the list would not create restrictions on private homes but would tell the rightful story of the community's involvement in American history, notably the civil rights era, and the work of Streat and other early Black architects — many of whom were trained at A&T.

"Without having their buy-in, none of this would be moving forward," said architecture buff Eric Woodard, who discovered South Benbow Road and its inventory of mid-century modern buildings while taking drives around Greensboro.

There's world history in those blocks, Woodard said.

"Some of the struggle that these folks had to endure," Woodard said, "spurred them to do these amazing things."

Benbow

In 2019, partly because of the interest coming from the Benbow Park area, the city conducted a survey of modernist buildings in east Greensboro and Benbow Park, which has resulted in the Benbow area's placement on the National Register Study List. That is a preliminary step for nominating and then listing in the National Register.

People need to know the stories of how things really happened.

"None of this happened in a vacuum," Woodard said of those accomplishments. "For instance, when Judge Henry Frye started Greensboro National Bank, Bishop Wyoming Wells was one of the initial investors. And his house was designed by (Edward "Blue") Jenkins, an early architect."

And the stories have spread outside the area. Former Harvard-trained N.C. A&T President Emeritus Warmouth Gibbs lived on Ross Avenue and was one of the first Black men commissioned as an officer in WWI. During the 1960 Woolworth sit-ins, city leaders pressed Gibbs to keep A&T students on campus. But Gibbs' response — "We teach our students how to think, not what to think" — was iconic. 

After medical school at Howard University, Blount, who lived on East Side Drive, served as chief of surgery for a M.A.S.H. unit in Korea where he was the only Black doctor on the medical teams made famous by the movie and TV show. He was later among those Greensboro doctors who asked courts to integrate Moses Cone Hospital, leading to hospitals across the country having to do the same.

Lee, one of the earliest residents to build a home on what had been red dirt, had been a plaintiff in a case argued by Marshall, then chief legal counselor with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, to desegregate UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school. The case successfully opened the university’s doors for entry to other Black students. 

He also helped found the American Federal Savings and Loan in Greensboro — the first Black federally chartered savings and loan in the state and one of the first in the Southeast — which helped people buy homes.

Benbow

Harvester Parker mows the grass at his family's home on Carlton Avenue in the Benbow Park neighborhood in Greensboro on July 1. The community, which features many modernist house designs by Black architects, is in the process of getting on the National Register of Historic Places.

The historical designation would formally recognize the work of local Black architects.

Many of the Black architects who designed houses in the area were proteges of Edward Lowenstein, whose large architectural firm was based in the city and was the first white architectural firm in the state to hire Black professionals. That included Jenkins, who designed Dudley High School’s gymnasium — which was unheard of for a Black man to do those jobs — and was the third licensed Black architect in the state.  

Streat, another protege, was also the chair of the architectural engineering department at A&T and lived in Benbow Park. One of Streat's earliest documented designs in Greensboro is Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. This church also housed a young Jesse Jackson's civil rights office, and was the site of the then-A&T student's arrest. Jackson also often stayed in the Benbow Park home of a plumber.

Jenkins, a Navy veteran, designed St. James Presbyterian Church, St. Matthews United Methodist Church, Smith's Funeral Service (now Hinnant's Funeral Service), A&T's McNair Hall, and Greensboro National Bank.

Capturing the stories

Reed, who is a documentary filmmaker and has compiled extensive oral histories on topics including the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina to the Tuskegee Airmen, is excited for the opportunity to help tell Benbow Park's story.

Her mother is the namesake founder of the Mattye Reed African Heritage Center at N.C. A&T, and her father is a former agriculture dean at the school. They were also in the U.S. Foreign Service.

It was her father's loss of four brothers within a couple of years that got her asking more about her genealogy and heritage.

Her research included taping conversations with family. She even organized a family reunion in her father's hometown in Louisiana.

In 1997, she interviewed her father's then-98-year-old sister in Chicago, resulting in several audio tapes.

"It’s the most incredible thing to have stories in the voice of an older person who knows things you wouldn't otherwise know," Reed said.

She loves pouring over those interviews.

"When you re-listen to an interview you can’t take in all of the information the first time — for one you might not understand what they are saying and there might be research that makes it make sense," Reed said.

On her way to earning her master's in library and information science at UNCG, she worked hands-on at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill and the Friends Center at Guilford College. She has since been recognized for her work by the Society of American Archivists, notably for working with underrepresented communities to preserve their history and heritage.

She is also the author of "The Slave Families of Thomas Jefferson: A Pictorial Study Book with an Interpretation of his Farm Book in Genealogy Charts,” which she says was compiled to honor the slaves who helped build this country.

In a review of the book, the late Duke historian John Hope Franklin wrote that her research on the slave families was "Quite different from the answer given by a guide at Monticello who, just a generation ago, said that there was little to be known about the slaves of the nation’s third president."

He described the work as "careful digging" resulting in a "veritable treasure trove of materials about Jefferson’s slaves, from their family life and their labors to their involvement with their owner. "

Reed wants to be a part of placing Benbow Park on the National Register.

"They are going to show a map of Greensboro that shows the historic designations," Reed said of the community meeting. "We need our spots preserved."

Benbow Park closer to being on National Register of Historic Places
With progress made, Greensboro gets grant to take next step in African American architecture project
History in the remaking: Proposed Benbow Road district takes first steps forward
South Benbow Road area in Greensboro could become a candidate for National Register of Historic Places
Much of Greensboro's history, and that of America, comes from South Benbow Road

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

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