The slogan for the town of Warrenton is “Historically Great, Progressively Strong.” Are you familiar with it? A little over a year ago, a town survey was conducted. One of the questions had to do with whether people knew about the town slogan and what it meant to them. Many respondents said they were not familiar with the town slogan and had little idea what it meant.
While I was a town commissioner for a short time, I inquired “from where this slogan came,” and the town leadership didn’t seem to know. Maybe someone out there knows, someone who was part of the decision to adopt this as our town slogan. However, the more important questions seem to be:
• What does it mean?
• In what ways is this slogan guiding our community?
• What does it mean to be historically great and progressively strong?
• How do we verify this, and on what points can we agree that Warrenton is historically great and progressively strong?
I don’t have the allowed space in this article to address both parts of this slogan, so I will only address the first part and encourage the rest of us to draw conclusions about being “progressively strong.” There are certainly signs around town, both historical marker ones as well as other signs which highlight our greatness. We are all aware that when history is written, published and accepted as true, that it is usually written by those who won. That is, it is those who were or are in places of power and prominence who tell and record the stories which dominate a community’s understanding of its history. What this means is that often a “history” is not altogether true or at least it is incomplete.
There have certainly been attempts in Warrenton to not limit the history which is told regarding “famous” people who had roots in our town: a historic marker about Jacob Holt (the renowned architect/builder), Benjamin Hawkins (delegate to the Continental Congress and a US senator), John Hyman (born into slavery and became a state senator) and John White (at whose house the marker states hosted General Robert E. Lee when he came to visit his infirm daughter). There is also the small Wortham Memorial Garden on the corner of W. Franklin and South Main Street which notes that this African American family were entrepreneurs.
There is also a current effort to erect a historic marker for Dr. L. Julian Haywood, who was born and grew up in Warrenton (in the black community of W. Franklin Street) and became an outstanding cardiologist who led the development of the first digital heart rhythm monitor in hospital rooms. We should also make note about Ella Baker, who spent summers on her grandparents’ farm in the Elam area of Warren County, and who became one of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s principal organizers and is credited for helping to establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
There are also the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Ward Transformer Company dumped toxic PCBs on some 200 miles of road. Protests erupted demanding cleanup and the halting of a toxic dump site near Afton. There are unsung heroes from this time period who are a central part of what made our history great, and they are credited for having started the national and global Environmental Justice movement.
There is no question that a balanced, full picture of history needs to be owned, recorded and made public. Jacob Holt was obviously a great designer and builder, but he also “employed” slaves for his construction projects. There is also “Mama,” who in 1861, quilted a blanket for the Egertons’ newborn son designed with the Lemoyne star, and the only quilt of its kind preserved in the NC Museum of History and Culture in Raleigh. While the quilt was handed down, the name of the slave woman who quilted it is probably not recoverable – but then again, the identity of some of the greatest people in human history has been lost.
Essential to our history, much of which needs to be recovered and celebrated, is the history of the indigenous people of the local area: the Haliwa, Tuscarora and Saponi people. They were living here long before Warren County was founded. It wasn’t until the last 50-60 years that the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe received state recognition. Their contributions to our culture and history are tremendous, and while the month of November is recognized as National American Indian Heritage Month, we ought to frequently celebrate this part of our history.
Is Warrenton historically great? Yes, I would say so, but we always need to be sure we tell all of the stories which have made us great. Are you aware of the two lynchings in 1921? A white mob took two black men, Alfred Williams and Plummer Bullock, from the old jail house here in Warrenton, carried them about a mile out of town (Warrenton-Norlina Road) and murdered them. The report of this lynching was covered in newspapers across the state and country, but an account could not be found in the local paper. This part of our history was “great” in the sense of being a great travesty of injustice. Nevertheless, it is part of our history.
In my career as a pastor, I have discovered that some people are very miserable because they refuse to confess their own faults, what the church calls sins. However, I also discovered that when someone did confess their faults that they found a freedom in telling the whole truth. I suggest that the strength of our progress as a town will be in owning the whole truth and not just part of it, both the good and the ugly. The history which is recorded in the Bible is a good example, including the stories of many outstanding servants of God, because this history itself is a mixture of the good and the ugly.
February is Black History Month. Let us look forward to more of our history being made known and claimed during this month ahead.