Jeff Watson

Many observe February as Black History Month. The collections at Roanoke Rapids Public Library have a number of resources to assist with a school assignment or for those who would like to make a historical exploration.

In the past, prior to the pandemic we would schedule programs people could attend in person to learn more about the history of the area. In this column, I want to devote space to mention three local areas of black history, corresponding resources in the library and on the website and suggest a possible road or field trip you may take in Halifax County to view artwork of a local artist.

One local past resident who played a role in shaping American history and culture was Ella Baker. Baker was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist. She was born in 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, and later moved to Littleton. She was instrumental in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which harnessed the energy of students in the Civil Rights Movement and developed leadership among youth. She embraced the philosophy of “power to the people” and the importance of working together for a common goal.

In her later years, she moved to New York and passed away in in 1986. There is a historical marker in Littleton to commemorate her life work. The library has two juvenile biographies available for checkout. They are “Lift as You Climb: the Story of Ella Baker” by Patricia Hruby Powell and “We Who Believe in Freedom: the Life and Times of Ella Baker” by Lea Esther Williams. In the recent past, the library has shown the film “Fundi” about her life and work.

A second individual who played a role in making change and influencing history is Sarah Keys Evans. Evans, a Women’s Army Corp private, traveled by an interstate bus from New Jersey to North Carolina to visit her family. On Aug. 1, 1952, when asked at a bus terminal in Roanoke Rapids to move to the back of the bus, she refused similar to Rosa Parks who did the same thing three years later in Montgomery, Alabama.

Because of her refusal to move, two police officers removed her from the bus and took her to a local police station. She sought and obtained a legal ruling that prohibited discrimination with regard to seating on buses. There is a monument including murals in the Martin Luther King Park located on Wythe Street and Virginia Avenue in Roanoke Rapids. There is also a historic marker in her honor. The library has “Take a Seat — Make a Stand: a Hero in the Family” by Amy Nathan, which tells her story.

Another significant historical contribution that occurred in our area was the availability of the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves to escape. Research completed with regard to those seeking freedom links connections to Halifax County. The county has three distinct National Park Service designated Network to Freedom sites. They are the Old Town of Halifax, the Roanoke River and the Roanoke Canal.

A local committee holds events to publicize the stories of those who participated in the Underground Railroad — go online to halifaxundergroundrr.com. The library has a number of books on this topic. We have just ordered a picture book “William Still and His Freedom Stories: the Father of the Underground Railroad” by Don Tate and hope to have it available to the public in a few weeks.

On our library’s website, there are slides on our home page that list possible virtual field trips for students. A major source of listings for possible virtual field trips from the N.C. Division of Cultural Resources are on our website with links.

Another possible field trip within Halifax County is to view the 10 murals designed and created by local artist Napoleon Hill. They are located in Roanoke Rapids, Weldon, Halifax, Littleton, Enfield, Scotland Neck and Hobgood. For information, search online at bit.ly/3ufYLjN. The trip takes about two-and-a-half hours and covers 102 miles. Enjoy a relaxing ride and see history through the eyes of a local artist.

For our city and county to thrive, citizens should lend their artistic talents. Strong support of the arts provides opportunities for freedom of expression, fosters an atmosphere of acceptance and caring and signifies a commitment to pursue common goals.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” To me, history is interesting and important. We need to realize where we came from to serve as an impetus to move toward where we would like to go. I encourage you to explore the historic background of our city and county.

Thanks for reading. Roanoke Rapids Public Library provides collections, connections and community all for you.

Jeff Watson is the head librarian for the Roanoke Rapids Public Library. He can be reached at jwatson@roanokerapidsnc.com.