It's easy to pass a certain abandoned house on Purefoy Road in northern Chapel Hill without a second thought. A large tree in the yard and overgrown vines obscure the building, with its peeling green paint and boarded-up windows. The basement, which is accessible only through a small door near the back of the house, is doubly hard to find. Its dark quarters and colonies of spiders and insects would deter most from entering.
But for Ernest Dollar, director of Chapel Hill's Preservation Society, exploring the basement and finding a fireplace inside inspired him to map a family tree with roots to the antebellum South. The discovery of that heritage is now driving the Preservation Society's efforts to prevent the 1840s-era Hogan-Rogers house from demolition.
St. Paul's AME Church, which owns the property Hogan-Rogers rests on, plans to build facilities on the land—specifically where the house stands. The church, located on Merritt Mill Road, about two miles from the Hogan-Rogers property, is slated to break ground at the site in November. In addition to new athletic fields, a cemetery and senior housing, the project's blueprints show a church and museum where the house is.
Church officials developed the construction plans before Dollar realized the historical significance of the site. They intend to proceed with the demolition unless the Preservation Society can come up with enough money—at least $200,000, Dollar says—to move the house.
Looking beyond the boxes of needles, old condoms and clothes brought in by squatters and strewn throughout the house, Dollar sees potential. "The authenticity of those people who put those hammers and nails to this house in the 1840s is still intact," he says.
The house could be restored and preserved as a historic landmark, one of only seven antebellum houses in Chapel Hill. It could attract heritage tourism to the town while doubling as a community center, he says. Dollar envisions moving the house 150 yards up the street to land donated by Orange County Habitat for Humanity.
But the full project would cost about $600,000—an insurmountable sum without the city and county's financial support. Deardra Green-Campbell, whose family descended from former residents of the Hogan-Rogers house, has sifted through potential grant opportunities that could help save it. But because of Orange County's relative wealth, the project doesn't qualify, Dollar says, because preservation grants are rewarded primarily to those in less affluent cities.
The Hogan-Rogers house may not be much to look at, but it has good bones. One can safely walk up the stairs and onto a balcony. From that viewpoint, you can see the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood, a reminder of Chapel Hill's easily forgotten economic disparities. "It's pretty poor, it's a rural African-American community," Dollar says. "A lot of people living here are descendants of those Hogan plantation folks."
The underdevelopment of the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood stems from a landfill built in the area in 1972. Orange County and the Town of Chapel Hill promised neighborhood residents a community center and other amenities, but failed to fulfill that promise, Dollar says.
Although the 1972 deal was unofficial, the town has retrieved a document that appears to be the original agreement stating that when the landfill closes on June 30, 2013—about three decades later than originally proposed—the property may be used for tree preservation and recreation, says Chapel Hill council member Penny Rich.
Rich belongs to a task force of representatives from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County charged with recommending funding sources for neighborhood improvements in Rogers-Eubanks. These upgrades could include neighborhood sewer service and a community center, such as the Hogan-Rogers House. "Are we legally bound?" she asks. "No. Are we morally bound? That's another question and can be replied to in many ways."
The task force plans to issue a draft recommendation at its next meeting on Aug. 22. Any funding the city would contribute to the house's restoration probably would not be approved until December, Rich says—after St. Paul's begins construction.
"It's a difficult situation because there is a need for large sums of money and we can't use funds for a community center that are designated for other uses," Rich says. "It's just not that easy to find $600,000. Given the circumstances I don't know how much we can do to save the house."
That prospect is especially devastating to Green-Campbell and her family, who discovered their ties to the house after Dollar explored its basement. When Dollar saw the fireplace, he realized it probably indicated that slaves had lived and worked in the space. He researched the house's slave history, compiling his findings into an article and posting them to the Preservation Society's website. Two weeks later, a Google search led Green-Campbell to Dollar's article. After reading it, she felt certain she was a descendant of the house's slaves. Dollar eventually surmised that Green-Campbell's heritage was probably both black and white. It seemed her slave ancestor had a baby with the brother of her master. The path to proving that lineage included Green-Campbell reuniting with a long-lost cousin in Brooklyn who supplied the Y-chromosome for a DNA test needed to verify Dollar's hypothesis.
"Slavery stole the identity of most African-Americans in this country," Green-Campbell says. "But this is home now. This house is directly tied to our family. It's a wonderful experience to know who our distant ancestors are and to be able to tie it to a physical location."
This article appeared in print with the headline "History in jeopardy."