- Courtesy of Mathew Curran
- This image popped up on signposts in Boylan Heights and elsewhere in Raleigh during Mathew Curran's recent art show. Southeast Raleigh leaders charged it's a black man being lynched; Curran says it's his little brother, who is laughing.
Here's the question surrounding the house at 715 S. Boylan Ave. in Raleigh: Are its owners, an African-American couple in their 70s named R.J. and Agnes Royster, the victims of a racist campaign by neighbors to drive them out of rapidly gentrifying Boylan Heights? Or are the victims really the neighbors, who've watched helplessly as a daily drama of disorderly, sometimes criminal conduct unfolds at the Roysters' address—while the Roysters, though in bankruptcy, reject the neighbors' offers of help and deny the problems?
Two weeks ago, with the house facing condemnation by the city over serious code violations for the second time in two years, several community leaders from southeast Raleigh launched a campaign to make the first charge stick. In e-mails and statements to Raleigh City Council, they alleged that the predominantly white residents of Boylan Heights, located in southwest Raleigh, were "targeting" the Roysters for removal from their house because they're black.
"This is wrong," said J. Ronald White, president of the NAACP's South Central Wake branch. "This is hate crimes."
Danny Coleman, a southeast Raleigh activist and president of the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association (RWCA), the black community's oldest political group, said what was happening to the Roysters borders on "economic-based 'Jim Crow' practices ... that conjures up the past that we all want dead and buried."
The black leaders' charges were given banner-headline treatment by The News & Observer in a May 20 story that quoted R.J. Royster but none of his neighbors.
The N&O gave credence in particular to the charge from Royster and his supporters that someone had posted racist images—"hate signs," White called them—outside the Roysters' house. They said the images showed a black man being hanged.
That allegation, in particular, incensed lawyer and neighborhood resident Steve McCallister when he read it. For one thing, McCallister said, the images in question—pieces of stencil art—were on a post in front of his house, two doors up from the Roysters. Secondly, they weren't racist, McCallister said. Over his lunch hour, McCallister tracked down the artist, Mathew Curran, who is white. Curran confirmed that the stencil image was taken from a picture of his little brother—who was laughing, not hanging.
Curran calls it "innocent art" that was part of his recent show in Raleigh—and the image is reproduced on signposts all around downtown. Nonetheless, as a result of the controversy, Curran was summoned to Raleigh Police headquarters Tuesday afternoon to be interviewed, he said, about his "motivation."
McCallister also disputed White's characterization of recent meetings the NAACP leader attended with him and other Boylan Heights representatives, including City Councilor Thomas Crowder, whose district includes the neighborhood. White told the N&O that Crowder was leading an effort to get rid of the Roysters. On the contrary, McCallister said, the discussions were about how White and the city, working together, might be able to help the Roysters, since they didn't want their neighbors involved. Crowder, also not interviewed by the N&O, said he suggested possible solutions for the Roysters to White, including a possible trusteeship and reverse mortgage so they could afford to fix their property.
In the week since, in interviews with the Indy and in public Monday night at an often emotional meeting of the Central Citizens Advisory Committee, whose boundaries encompass parts of southeast and southwest Raleigh, Boylan Heights leaders have told a very different story about the house at 715 S. Boylan.
Their version: The Roysters are unable to maintain their house or control the behavior of the men and women who congregate nightly in the backyard and drink, curse, fight, and sometimes walk to the sidewalks to engage in hurried transactions with passing pedestrians or motorists.
The Roysters live with a daughter, her nine children, and one other man.
Documents from the Raleigh Police Department and the city's housing inspections department support the neighbors' stories. The police visited the Roysters' house 11 times on their own initiative—not in response to the neighbors' many 911 calls—between November 2007 and April 15, 2008. One such visit in January was to arrest the Roysters' son, Robert "Junior" Royster, on felony charges of possessing cocaine with intent to sell; the son was also charged with being a habitual felon and remains in Wake County Jail awaiting trial, according to the Wake County Sheriff's Department.
Also in January, city inspectors responded to a call from neighbors who'd spotted a power cord running into the house from a neighboring home and children carrying water to the house in jugs. The neighbors worried, and inspectors confirmed, according to housing inspections chief Roger Bonney, that 715 S. Boylan lacked electricity or functioning plumbing. Water pipes were almost totally clogged and the sewer line was too, Bonney said.
Such conditions are considered life-threatening, especially since children live there, Bonney said. His inspectors cited the Roysters for a lengthy list of other violations: loose electrical fixtures; missing switches; defective outlets; a back door that didn't close; broken windows; windows that didn't open; collapsing ceilings, stairs, floors, guard railings and foundation walls; and serious mold, rot and decay.
The city's codes set "minimum" standards for safe habitation, Bonney emphasized.
"This is about life safety, not what's aesthetically pleasing," he said.
He said the Roysters now have electricity, sewer and water and their house is out of immediate jeopardy of condemnation, but other improvements must be made. The City Council has given them 60 days and ordered an investigation into the matter by the city attorney.
At the CAC meeting June 2, Boylan Heights Neighborhood Association leader Jimmy Creech told 50 listeners, including White and Coleman, that he, his wife and other neighbors have tried to help the Roysters hold onto their house, not drive them out.
"We don't want anyone to leave," said Creech, a well-known Raleigh civil rights leader. On the other hand, he added, "What we have lived with [on that corner] are not problems you would want to live with."
Creech said problems at the Roysters' property, and another house at 701 S. Boylan Ave. owned by Agnes Royster's sister, Sarah Williams, date back to the mid-'90s. He described daily parties in the back yards that begin in mid-afternoon and last well into the early morning , with people arriving on foot from the low-income neighborhoods that surround Boylan Heights. "This goes on every night, year-round," Creech said.
In 2005, Creech helped organize an intervention to help the Roysters and Williams clean up their properties and run off the bad elements. Williams acknowledged the issues and accepted their offer, Creech said. So the neighbors pitched in to cut back her overgrown shrubs and trees, install a swing set for her children, and install motion-detection lights around the house. But the Roysters rejected any help, denying they had a problem.
Consequently, Creech said, the parties that once occurred mainly in the backyard of 701, a corner property, relocated to the unlit backyard of 715.
Also at that meeting, Jennifer Royster, the Roysters' daughter, said she lives at the residence with her nine children. Another man who lives there, she told the Indy, is not her brother Roy, contrary to what the neighbors believe. But she refused to identify him otherwise.
The Roysters' telephone number has been disconnected. A man who answered their door said they weren't at home and declined to identify himself, saying he was "just the maid." The Roysters did not respond to a message left with him.
Mayor Charles Meeker, whose house on South Boylan is two blocks away, said Monday following a City Council meeting that the Roysters' house has "the reputation of being a crack house." The housing violations are irritating, he added, but the real problem is drugs.
Asked his reaction to the charges of racism, Meeker said, "I just thought that remark was off-base—that just isn't the reality."