Raleigh is loaded with places to go and tales to hear of its African-American history. What it doesn't have is anything that connects them into a coherent story. One example of the problem is at Shaw University. Shaw, the oldest historically black college in the South (it was founded in 1865), was one of the great centers of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Ella Baker worked there. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--called "Snick"--was founded there. But Shaw has no cultural center open to the public, nor even a good monument, to mark its achievements. Only a road sign. It does, though, have barbed-wire and steel fences all over its downtown campus, which says to anyone who walks over from the convention center or the BTI Center for the Performing Arts: Keep out.
A tour of Raleigh's black history (or, better, its black-and-white history) could include a stop at the place where Shaw's medical school used to be. (Didn't know it had one? It'll be the subject of one of the Raleigh City Museum's "Pieces of the Past" lecture series on Saturday, Feb. 21, at 2 p.m.; www.raleighcitymuseum.org. It was started in 1882 and came to an "unhappy ending" in 1918, according to East Carolina University's Todd Savitt, the lecturer.)
There was also a hospital for black folks at St. Augustine's College. The building is still there, its hoped-for renovation seemingly perpetual. It should be on the tour, along with the main building at Peace College, which was under construction when the Civil War broke out, and was pressed into service, first, as a Confederate hospital, and later, after the war, as an administrative center for the Freedman's Bureau.
The South Park neighborhood downtown and the Method and Oberlin Village communities in west Raleigh, were the first to be settled by free blacks both before and after the Civil War. None of the three has a suitable gathering place for visitors.
Raleigh does have its Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens, with a statue of King at the corner of MLK Boulevard and Rock Quarry Road. But the MLK Celebration Committee, a nonprofit group started in 1984, has never been able to get its dream of a black history research center in Raleigh off the ground. It briefly leased a location on East Hargett Street that served as a community meeting space, but then ran out of funds last year.
The committee, in a skeletal budget on its Web site, estimates the cost of such a center at $2.5 million. Its annual budget, though, is just $44,000, with most of its money going to King birthday commemorations in January, plus a children's choir. Other than the recent birthday events, the committee lists just one planned activity the rest of 2004: an April tour of civil rights venues in Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee.
Too bad there's no such tour of the venues in Raleigh, N.C.