It's Sunday morning and I'm on my way to Martin Street Baptist Church in Southeast Raleigh. For two years, it's been the high ground in the political fight for control of the Wake County school system: the church, as a gathering place for the defenders of diversity; and Southeast Raleigh, the historically black area of the city and the county with all its problems and its promise.
My journal of Southeast Raleigh started last June with the Social Justice Summit at the Martin Street Baptist Church near downtown. The subject was what the faithful should be doing beyond the four walls of the church. Brad Thompson, a community leader of long standing, read from the Bible about our duty to lift up the poor—"the least of these." Many pastors preach that it's enough if you save your own soul, Thompson said. "But scripture teaches us that we have a collective duty as well."
There were 35 people in the room. According to my notes, I was one of two who were white.
A week ago, I attended Sunday service with a conservative congregation in a very suburban area of Southeast Raleigh. At the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, Pastor Patrick Wooden's message was indeed about barricading our souls from the sinfulness of the world. Again, I was one of two or three white faces, this time out of some 700–800.
Wooden and his flock—but mainly Wooden—put on an amazing show that brought me to my feet saying "amen" in spite of my staid Catholic upbringing and the fact that Wooden is a rabid anti-gay activist.
From June until now, I've been on a journey to discover a part of Raleigh that I've been through many times and where I've attended countless meetings, but which for me—and I think for much of Raleigh and Wake County—is a place too much talked about but not understood or shared.
Southeast Raleigh is a quarter of the Capital City. About 85,000 people live here, but they're not all the same. It's one of the fastest-growing parts of Raleigh, but some neighborhoods are in decay. It has a reputation for crime. There is crime. And poverty. You don't have to look hard to see it. But even in the worst parts of Southeast Raleigh, there's hope. In most of Southeast Raleigh, there's very little crime and the neighborhoods are middle-class—middle-class and still predominantly black.
There's a stirring in Southeast Raleigh, a semblance of do-it-yourself spirit. But outside investments are needed too—investments of money and of heart. There's no part of the city with more potential to grow and add vitality to our region than Southeast Raleigh. It will do so when all of us embrace it, from within and without.
What follows are a journalist's sketches, not a portrait of this place. I can't claim to know Southeast Raleigh just yet. But I do claim to want to.
AUG. 3, VIGIL ON HAY LANE: On this August evening, family and friends gathered with lighted candles in front of a nondescript house on this tiny street just east of downtown and a short distance from Martin Street Baptist Church. They've assembled to mark the one-year anniversary of the murder of Ezekiel (Zeke) Crowder, which remains unsolved.
A 30-year-old husband, father, electrician and Army veteran, Crowder was visiting on the front porch with another man—neither one lived there—when someone walked up and started shooting. Police think Crowder may have been the unintended victim of a ricochet bullet aimed at the friend, who was wounded.
According to Raleigh police, there were 21 homicides in Southeast Raleigh in 2008, a terrible year. The number declined to seven in 2009 and three, including the Crowder killing, in 2010.
The Rev. Diana Powell speaks for Project Ricochet, a fledgling volunteer effort to push the gangs out of the neighborhood and attract economic development. "It's time for a change, and we're not going to stop until somebody hears our voice," Powell says.
Six young men watch at a distance from in front of a boarded-up house on nearby Haywood Street. Whether they're gang members, I don't know. When the vigil ends, they're gone.
AN AGING LEADERSHIP: The South Central Citizens Advisory Council meets monthly at Roberts Park Community Center on East Martin Street, a few blocks east of Martin Street Baptist Church. It's one of the six CACs scattered across Southeast Raleigh. This one encompasses most of the neighborhoods immediately east of downtown, the historic heart of the city's African-American community.
In late July, I went to the meeting with some questions for Danny Coleman, the CAC chairman. He also chairs the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association (RWCA), for many years the major African-American political organization in the community. Coleman was in hot water for aligning himself with John Tedesco, the outspoken leader of the conservative bloc that took over the Wake County school board in the 2009 elections. Most black leaders were at war with Tedesco's conservatives. Why wasn't Coleman? And why, with city and school board elections coming again, wasn't the RWCA organizing behind progressive candidates?
Coleman, though, was absent, as was the vice chairman. When Margot White, the secretary, finally called the meeting to order, just 10 people were present, not counting a handful of city officials.
CACs are a forum for neighborhoods and the city to talk. The discussion that night was about drug dealing on Montague Street—the two cops there were nodding; they're aware of it—and about a blighted apartment building on Coleman Street that had been recently purchased and torn down by Raleigh's Community Development Department. The city was looking for a developer to fill the vacant lot with affordable housing.
Later, White brought up the lack of citizen participation. She suggested that the CAC hold a special meeting "to take stock of how we can be a better value" to the neighborhoods. But she worried that unless food was served, folks wouldn't come. "I don't know how we bring things back to the safe feelings and neighborliness we had," White said.
Older residents of Southeast Raleigh remember segregation with disgust, and they see it coming back to the school system unless Tedesco and his ilk are stopped. But they also remember the olden days of Southeast Raleigh with pride for how the community flourished despite segregation and worked together to defeat it.
Now, though, only a few gray hairs still come out for meetings in the "old" part of Southeast Raleigh. Young talent of the kind seen a half-century ago is conspicuous by its absence.
LONG NEGLECTED: After the CAC meeting, I speak with City Councilor Eugene Weeks. Weeks, 70, represents District C, the Southeast Raleigh district. In the October elections, he'll be on the ballot for the first time. A year ago, he was appointed to replace James West, 68, who left to replace the retiring Harold Webb, 85, on the Wake County Board of Commissioners. Webb got the seat when Vernon Malone, who died in 2009 at age 77, was elected a state senator. The Old Guard, they're called. All Democrats. All veterans of the civil rights era.
Weeks is a retired high school teacher. He's intelligent, energetic and has a long track record in community organizations. I tell him it's time for the city to get serious about building up Southeast Raleigh. He agrees. "I told the mayoral candidates, Southeast Raleigh's been neglected for a long time," Weeks remarks.
The night before the Hay Lane vigil, I ran into one of those mayoral candidates, Billie Redmond, at the Tarboro Road Community Center. A big crowd had turned out—yes, there was food—for a city-sponsored "Night Out Against Crime" event. Redmond was looking for votes. I raised the subject of Southeast Raleigh's neglect, including the carcass of the historic St. Agnes Hospital at the front of St. Augustine's College just up the street.
St. Agnes used to be the only hospital for blacks in Raleigh and miles around. Now it stands wrecked and abandoned, symbolic of how Southeast Raleigh's best places have been allowed to decay.
Redmond, a commercial real estate broker, is a dealmaker. To my surprise, she told me that, when she was on the board of WakeMed, the giant health-care complex on New Bern Avenue at the eastern edge of Southeast Raleigh, she very nearly put a deal together for WakeMed and St. Augustine's to rebuild St. Agnes as a community health clinic.
What an excellent idea. Redmond said she couldn't quite make the funding work. And she didn't want to say too much about it during the election season for fear of sounding like it was a campaign ploy. But she hasn't given up.