Youth leader

As a black community fights for survival, a leader lends his voice

HAMPSTEAD, N.C. (AP) — On a cold afternoon, Trianna Kirkland strolled the hallowed grounds of Manhollow Missionary Baptist Church.

She is joined by two people she considers family, even though the same blood does not run through their veins.

Rebbia Grant and her nephew, Dr. Johnny Batts, are just some of the many she admires in the black community of Edgecomb, East Pender County, because of their perseverance through adversity.

“These people are my family,” Kirkland said after warming up inside the church in Hampstead. “I’ve known these people longer than the ones I know from back home.”


Kirkland came to Pender County 42 years ago and didn’t have much family besides her husband, Robert.

Life in rural Hampstead was very different from that in his native Fayetteville. They lived in a single width mobile home in his mother’s garden for 10 years, before he built a house. There were no streetlights and the road was unpaved.

“He tricked me into going down to his ranch,” she laughed.

As Edgecomb’s elderly population declines and younger generations move away, Kirkland struggles to keep the community alive by tapping into its past. She is the liaison for the Eastern Pender County Progressive Center, also known as the Edgecomb Community Center.

“She lets people know about us,” Batts said of Kirkland’s work.

One of the modern success stories of the 20th and 21st centuries includes famous figures such as Ambassador Mattie R. Sharpless, who attended Sloop Point School before continuing her education and becoming an Ambassador for the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of farming. A portion of US 17, which runs through northeast Pender County, is named in his honor.

Through the oral tradition of transmitting the story, others going back centuries earlier include someone who has discovered a treasure. They believed it came from Edward Teach, the notorious pirate known as Blackbeard. While plowing a field, Kirkland said an enslaved man came across a chest and told his master about it. Batts, Grant and Kirkland all agreed that it was being kept secret.

Batts said another of a relative’s oral histories involves a family member escaping from the plantation with Harriet Tubman and starting a new life in Philadelphia. During the ride, the original plan was to reach Canada, but Batts said many made the decision to stay in Pennsylvania.

“There was a woman in the wooded area whistling and I didn’t know Harriet Tubman had been here,” Batts said of her lineage’s great-great-great-aunt. “The little children would sit around the old people and they would tell these stories. Our history is oral because they did not know how to write. Some of us have heard these stories and we can tell you.

For Kirkland, the challenge is to preserve the stories. The answer is where the story began.

STORIES OF PERSEVERANCE

A council was formed about a year ago for the Edgecomb Community Building on Church Road next to Sloop Point School – a school built to educate black students made possible by the work of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and educator Booker T. Washington. Thousands of Rosenwald schools were built in the South. North Carolina had the most with more than 800.

During the days of segregation, Blacks in Pender had to fundraise and donate to build places like Rosenwald School, which required matching funds from the organization. But they still had to pay taxes, which went to schools that black students were not allowed to attend.

“It was almost like double taxation,” Kirkland said.

Many students like Batts have continued their studies beyond the one-room building. After graduating from Pender County Training School, a Rosenwald school in Rocky Point, Batts went to Central University of North Carolina and embarked on a career in physics and worked on research projects from The NASA. Looking back, Batts explained how the Rosenwald School and associated teachers gave him a foundation.

“When I went to school there, I didn’t know anything else,” he says. “I thought that was it. As I got older I started to appreciate what we were learning there. When I went there I found I was able to compete with people who were going to different places. large high schools (in Charlotte and Winston-Salem).

Rebbia Grant attended Sloop Point School and traveled miles to get there. She also graduated from Pender County Training School in 1954.

“At the time, we weren’t thinking about things like that, all we wanted to do was just go for it,” Grant said.

She then married Woodrow Grant, who played a major role in building the church. Grant still enjoys being part of the Edgecomb community. She spent many years working as a teaching assistant.

“It was just home to me,” Grant said.

A FEAR OF LOSING HISTORY

The old wooden building in Rosenwald still stands as a reminder of the past.

“A lot of our young people need to know their history,” Kirkland said. “Right now they don’t care to know their story, but there will come a time in their lives when they want to know that story. We’ll be gone, and then they’ll be looking for answers.

Over its four decades, Kirkland has learned much about the community through oral history classes taught by senior citizens. She remembers reading Martha Batts’ church records from the early 1900s, with members of the congregation paying 2 to 10 cents for offerings.

According to records, Manhollow Missionary Baptist Church was founded in 1861 by a white missionary, Alvin D. Love, when members of the congregation were still enslaved. After the church was burnt down and rebuilt, black ministers led the congregation after the end of slavery.

“It kept them in bondage. Obey your master. Do this and do that,” Kirkland said of the Bible interpreted to bonded blacks. “As people advanced and were able to read for themselves and learn more about Christianity for themselves, they got divine information.”

Kirkland honors the determination and roots of Edgecomb residents in the past who built a community of homes when they were just a high school graduate.

“It comes from hard working people,” she said. “These people were gifted. They had the gift of carpentry and the gift of plumbing. They didn’t go to Raleigh and take a test to get certified in those areas. Many hurricanes have passed, but many of these homes and buildings are still standing.

Kirkland said the elderly population in the Edgecomb community is declining, as young people move away to larger cities such as Raleigh for job opportunities. It’s something that scares her, especially when she hears stories of people selling land that belonged to their ancestors.

“They’re selling it for next to nothing,” she said. “Do they know the value of what they have? That’s what bothers me. It’s scary to think about.

A CENTER FOR THE FUTURE

When it comes to history and legacy, that’s one of the reasons she got involved with the community center and asked for improvements, instead of seeing it deteriorate. She saw older women selling dinners from the back of their cars to raise money for the center established in 1968.

Grant’s husband helped start the community center as a major builder and served as its first president. The community sits on land cleared by Batts’ father.

“I saw how hard they worked,” she said. “This community center was closing. No one was interested and everyone was doing their own thing. Now we have a board, with younger people, and they come up with new ideas.

One of the recent events was a Christmas gala and fundraiser featuring live jazz music and a comedy show. It has always been a gathering place for reunions, children’s events and special occasions like a tailgate in May with local families. It was delayed for a few years due to the pandemic, but officials are eagerly waiting for it to return.

The Kirklands’ wedding reception was held in the building. She was 22 when she got married and said she learned a lot about the habits of people in the Edgecomb community while learning about the rich history. Her husband became a deacon in the church, so she became a church mother at a young age to be more holy.

“It amazed me to see what they were doing together in the church,” she said. “There was a rotating list where the preacher would come to certain people to eat. It was just cohesion.”

The community center has received donations in the past, but this poses a challenge since some potential donors assume the community is part of Surf City, which is one of the most prosperous areas in the county.

Fundraising efforts continue today by sending letters and requests to people who lived in Edgecomb. Kirkland said local writer and educator Claudia Stack is helping with the effort.

In the 1990s, Kirkland and board members requested that the center be a nonprofit through 501c3 regulations to help foster community improvements for people of all backgrounds.

“We need to do more,” she said. “I like dances and things like that, but we need to get more involved with young people coming in for tutoring and a place where people can use computers. Often when we write these grants, that’s what they’re looking for and we don’t have that in place yet.

Batts is proud of the resilience of the Edgecomb community, with the community center serving as an example. He added that the church has always been a pillar of strength in the community.

“Things in our community may die down, but someone will come in and restart it,” he said. “I don’t know where it comes from, but we have the will to get things done. In the whole county we are one of the few areas with a nice community center, a church and all that kind of stuff. It is our center, we are anchored.