Determined to Build a Community

portrait of Black woman

Jennifer R. Labalme

drawing of black workers in striped costumes

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 3, "Painting South." Find more from that issue here.

In 1980, when North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt announced plans to open a Consolidated Diesel Company plant in Nash County — with guarantees to the company of water and sewerage, highway improvements, a training facility, and additional land — the residents of Bloomer Hill and Village Heights began fighting to save their land. Though the two small communities faced formidable opponents, they banded together to demand a say in what happened to their homes and land.

The two unincorporated subdivisions are located across the highway and a short distance down the road from Consolidated Diesel, a joint project of the Indiana-based Cummins Engine Company and the J. I. Case Company. Capital investment for the heavy industry totaled $355 million, with a projected workforce of 1,800. Approximately 625 people live in the two beleaguered communities, which together occupy only about 60 acres of land: Bloomer Hill with 55 acres and Village Heights with approximately five. Of the 159 houses on this land, almost half are considered substandard and 34 are without indoor plumbing. A small percentage of the residents work in agriculture and the rest in domestic service and in non-durable industries.

Income, education levels, and other economic indicators in the two communities are similar to those in other rural, semi-rural, and newly developing urban areas of the South. These factors make the South a source of low-wage labor and cheap land for new industry — causing some economic and political observers to refer to Southern states as 'domestic colonies." The struggle to build and improve their community is not unique to Bloomer Hill and Village Heights; similar battles are taking place throughout the region.

In the fall of1983 Ann Morris visited Nash County to interview some of the principal participants in that struggle. And Southern Exposure spoke to Phil White, a community legal educator with the Eastern Carolina Legal Services program, who provided local residents with technical assistance and moral support in their efforts to persuade county, state, and industry representatives to address their needs and grievances. White summarized his findings in a report entitled "Organizing Black Rural Communities in the South," from which he allowed us to draw.


Alexander Evans was a teenager when his family bought one of the swampy half-acre lots in the community which is now Bloomer Hill. He remembers how they filled in the land by "hauling dirt, pushing it by a wheelbarrow," and "dumping in pine bark to soak up the water." After the Evanses built up the land, they constructed their own house, as several other local families had done before them. By the time the Evanses moved in in 1948, a community related by blood and hard work was sprouting up to replace the weeds.

For the next 10 years, the growing community remained nameless. In 1958 a new school was built to replace the one next door to the Evanses home, and a group of residents decided the community should buy the old one for use as an activities center. The residents belonged to a number of different churches, traditionally the centers of community activity in the rural South, and they felt they needed a common meeting ground right there in their own community to serve as a unifying force.

Individuals and families chipped in money to make a small down payment to purchase the building. At that time the group decided to name the building and the community Bloomer Hill in honor of Hugh Bloomer, who had made it possible for them to own their property.

In the 1930s when Bloomer bought a white house on a hill surrounded by 100 marshy acres near the town of Whitakers, North Carolina, he made known his plans to found a Jewish community there. As the story goes, he was run out of town after a controversial marriage to a member of the wealthy landowning Braswell family. When he moved North, Bloomer left the swampy estate to the Braswell family with the stipulation that the land be sold only to blacks. Some say he was a progressive man who wanted to help local sharecroppers own their own land, while others contend he did it to spite the bigoted whites of Whitakers.

Whatever his reasons, several sharecropping families living on the Braswell form took advantage of their first opportunity to own land and purchased lots in 1945. And by 1958 the small and growing community had formed the Bloomer Hill Development Club. Katie Roberson, who was in grade school at the time, remembers how she felt about the decision to name the community: "Before that, there were lots of houses here, but when you came here all you could say was you were going home. Afterwards, you could say you were going to Bloomer Hill."

Walking through the community she loves, Roberson nods toward the large wooden schoolhouse. "That's our community center. We have everything there — gospel singing, preaching, discos, community meetings, day care, voter registration. We've had Sunday school there every Sunday for the last 23 years."

Roberson's classmate, Ida Cooper, also feels a strong affection for the community her grandparents helped found and says its history makes it special. "I look back at the type of people who came here," she says proudly, "basically, they were hard workers, determined to build a community. And eventually they did. The fact that we even have a community center shows how we band together." Cooper returned to Bloomer Hill several years ago to raise her family after attending college in Durham and living in Washington, D.C., for eight years.

Down the road from the community center is a fenced-in area with a tall concrete block in the center — Bloomer Hill's well. In 1969 the community members formed a water commission and borrowed money from the Farmers Home Administration to dig the well and build a water system. "That way we could have control over it ourselves," Roberson explains.

The houses in Bloomer Hill range from three-room wooden shotguns on concrete blocks, with outhouses in back, to brick ranch-style structures with two-car garages. The lots are small and most of the backyards have vegetable gardens.

At one end of Bloomer Hill is the railroad track separating Nash from Edgecombe County, and at the other end is U.S. Route 301. The community borders the Whitakers town line to the north, and the Consolidated Diesel plant to the south. Along the highway are Bloomer Hill's three businesses: a general store, a funeral parlor, and a barber shop. Roberson's parents own the one-room store, and today her mother is handing out sodas to three of her grandchildren. Business is slow at the store; it's not cold enough for sitting around the wood stove, and the older children aren't yet out of school so the video games are silent. A TV set sits on a chair in the middle of the dusty floor.

There's dust everywhere. Crews of men are digging trenches in the dirt road preparing to lay the red pipes that are stacked on every comer in town. Bulldozers are scooping up the sandy soil — soil Roberson says will remain in Bloomer Hill, "so if we ever need dirt again, we won't have to go out and buy it." The construction is the most visible sign of recent victories to gain improvements in the community, the result of a three-year fight for much-needed sewer lines, curbs, gutters, and asphalt streets.

Other successes are harder to see. "It's all black people here now," Roberson says. "One time we had a white man buy land and put a slaughterhouse in. He was raising skunks, too, and it stunk up all Bloomer Hill. We finally had to run him out." The dilapidated slaughterhouse is now a prayerhouse, with a hand-lettered sign announcing weekly meetings.

On the edge of town is a grassy meadow which three years ago was an open landfill. Roberson explains that the importance residents attach to their community is reflected in their persistent efforts to get the dump closed. "Most of the people living in Bloomer Hill have their roots here. We remember how hard we had to work to build up the swamps, how we built the community from scratch. And so we just don't want to leave. That's why I'm still here today. Children stay to keep on with what their parents made." Roberson herself has lived here since she was a baby and is now secretary of the community club. "This place might not look like nothing to some, but to those of us who've lived here it looks like the best place ever."

For years Bloomer Hill's residents watched trucks from the neighboring, mostly white town of Whitakers dump barrels of chemicals, dead animals, and other debris into the open pit. Worried about their children playing there, they wrote letters to the Whitakers mayor asking him to close the dump. When the mayor refused, they appealed to the Nash County Board of Commissioners, and a community delegation took up the issue with the Greenville Health Department. Still no action was taken. When PCBs were found in neighboring counties, Bloomer Hill citizens became even more concerned.

Residents continued writing letters, filing complaints, and pressuring the board to close the landfill. In October 1981, when still nothing had been done, a group of residents decided they would have to bypass local officials in order to get action. A group of approximately 20 representatives took an envelope of snapshots of the dump to Raleigh and met with one of Governor Hunt's aides. The aide wrote a letter to the Whitakers mayor threatening a fie, and within a week the landfill was closed. Later, the pit was filled in and grass planted. "Closing this landfill was our first successful fight," Roberson remarks.

The landfill was only one of several issues facing the people of Bloomer Hill during this period. The gigantic multimillion-dollar plant, Consolidated Diesel, was moving in next door, and residents could get no answers about what effect it would have on their community. Governor Hunt had gone all out to recruit the high-tech industry, luring it with promises of free water and sewer lines, land for expansion, and other benefits. When Consolidated Diesel announced its decision to locate in Nash County, Hunt exclaimed to an audience in the county seat of Rocky Mount that the plant would mean "Christmas throughout the year" for eastern North Carolina.

Phil White, from Eastern Carolina Legal Services, disputes this oversimplification of the benefits of incoming industry: "One would think that the development of industry would bring with it a higher level of social development and progress for the immediate communities," he says. ''However, this has not always been the case, particularly for the rural black communities. Jobs, while they provide some cushion, are no absolute guarantee for the community's social progress. The majority of the Southern poor, in fact, who do work still are living at the poverty level due to the low wage scale. What is becoming a common occurrence in these communities, resulting from industrial expansion, is that the residents are being forced off their last bit of land, having their communities broken up, and scattering longtime friends, relatives, and the elderly from their only source of social and economic reinforcement, their communities."

True to this pattern, there were no presents under the tree for Bloomer Hill residents. In fact, the community was being used to help provide services for Consolidated Diesel, while its own rights and welfare were being ignored. In the excitement of snaring the industry, no one had bothered to tie down the logistics of who would pay for the water and sewer lines to the plant, or where the 47 acres for the plant's expansion would come from. Local municipalities were refusing to pay, and the county's answer was to ask Whitakers, the town nearest the plant, to apply for a $5 million Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG).

In the UDAG application, Whitakers asked for funds to pay for the plant's water, sewer, and land. The grant also requested $844,000 for improvements in Bloomer Hill and the relocation of 12 homes there. Because Bloomer Hill qualified as a "pocket of poverty," its inclusion gave the grant a better chance of being approved.

Though Bloomer Hill was included in the grant proposal, its residents were not informed about the application. They learned about it when an Eastern Carolina Legal Services advocate informed residents of a small notice in a Nashville newspaper about a public hearing. To apply for a UDAG, a locality is required to hold two public hearings in order to give citizens a chance to participate. When Bloomer Hill representatives asked the Whitakers town clerk why they had not been informed about these hearings, they were told that because the community was not an incorporated part of Whitakers, their participation was not guaranteed.

The community was angry about being excluded from the grant process, but was even more outraged that the grant application had even been filed. For three years Bloomer Hill residents had applied unsuccessfully for their own block grant, and each time county officials had denied them needed support. Now it seemed that the county was in collusion to push the Whitakers UDAG grant through at Bloomer Hill's expense. Residents worried about the impact of the grant, and were suspicious of officials who had a history of ignoring their needs and rights.

Even improvements the UDAG promised to Bloomer Hill were suspect. When residents asked Legal Services to study the grant proposal, their suspicions were confirmed. The "water and sewer improvements" mentioned in the grant would bypass the black community. To run the lines to homes would cost thousands of extra dollars which the grant didn't cover. The beneficiaries of the grant would be Consolidated Diesel and the white residents of Whitakers. But the water they would be using would come from Bloomer Hill.

Another sore spot was the grant's mention of relocating 12 homes to make room for Consolidated Diesel's expansion — the training school that the governor had promised the company. When White questioned the county commissioners about which homes were involved, he was told the proposal referred to 12 homes directly across the street from the plant. White pointed out that these constituted a separate community (Village Heights), not part of Bloomer Hill. But the officials foresaw this argument and had acted to incorporate the homes through rezoning. No one in either Bloomer Hill or Village Heights had been informed of the rezoning, and the two communities became allies when this information surfaced.

As details of similar behind-the-scenes planning emerged throughout the spring of 1981, increasing numbers of people in Bloomer Hill began to attend community meetings. Those who had for years fought against the landfill and for Bloomer Hill's own block grant were joined by their neighbors; soon monthly meetings became weekly meetings, and attendance soared to as many as 150 residents.

By May of that year, the Bloomer Hill Community Development Association, with Katie Roberson and Ida Cooper as newly elected officers, was convinced that evidence of bad faith in the county's dealings with the community was sufficient for them to demand a meeting with the county board of commissioners. When a date was set, the community club sent local children out on their bikes, knocking on doors to spread the word. More than a quarter of the town's residents drove the 30 miles to Nashville for this crucial meeting.

"The club had told everyone we were going to ask the commissioners some specific questions and that we wanted answers," Roberson recalls. "The whole community was behind us. We went in there, and had every seat taken, lining all up and down the wall, and even going out the door." The crowd was so large that the meeting had to be moved from the commissioners' chambers to the courthouse.

The commissioners were surprised by the show of community strength and solidarity, and by the tough questions: Why had Bloomer Hill not been notified of the public hearings about the UDAG grant? Under whose authority were the houses being relocated? What kind of compensation would the residents receive? What impact would the increase in traffic have on the community? What guarantee existed that the plant would employ people from the area?

"We'd been sidestepped for so long that we finally just hollered out," says Alexander Evans, who was one of the representative speakers at the meeting. His uncle, Frank Evans, recalls, "We went in and made our position known. We let them know that either you do what you're supposed to do for us or we'll remember you at the polls. If you can do it for Whitakers, Battleboro, and other towns, then you can do it for Bloomer Hill. We just felt we'd been passed by for too long. We really should have gotten funds back in 1947 and 1948 when this place was developed. That's what happens in other areas. But being what they at that time called 'colored,' we never got what we deserved."

The all-white board gave no answers, and on most issues the commissioners said either that they didn't know or that the matter was outside their jurisdiction. The empty promise to "follow up" on the landfill problem was the only pledge commissioners made that evening.

Tempers flared at one point in the meeting when Bill Rose, an industrial development consultant for the commissioners, commented that the people of Bloomer Hill should be thankful; the commissioners, he said, were "getting them off the backs of garbage trucks."

"Everybody got upset at that," Roberson recalls. "It was racist, and we do have lots of people in our community in sanitation work."

Community representatives demanded and received an apology for Rose's remark. But the group left the meeting more determined than ever to get some answers and demand accountability from the elected officials. "We let them know the community was stirred up," declares Roberson. The unexpected pressure placed on the commissioners by the community's persistence, publicity around the issue, and the threat of violent retaliation against the black community by Klan elements among the white population began to have an effect on the board.

Two months after that meeting, the County planning director responsible for preparing Bloomer Hill's previous block grant applications resigned, as did one of the county commissioners. Both cited only personal reasons — not the controversy — but the Bloomer Hill residents knew there were other factors.

When the news came that the Whitakers UDAG application had been denied, the Bloomer Hill Community Development Association decided to try again for its own grant. This time the members' hard work paid off. They were awarded $738,000 to put down much-needed sewer lines and add curbs, gutters and asphalt to their streets.

Nash County's new planning director, Beth Shields, was instrumental in preparing the grant but she credits the community for its success. "It helped a lot having a very active organization," she says. "Their participation was impressive and important — sometimes we'd get 60 or 70 people out at a community meeting to talk about the grant. They also did a lot of legwork. They went out and did the survey themselves, and one of the members even went to a workshop on grant writing."

"Bloomer Hill got that grant because Bloomer Hill made it clear it was not going to sit back and be silent," adds Phil White. "They really educated themselves around the issues. The whole thing made the community much more conscious of itself. Real leadership was developed, and questions of power and self-determination became real for the community."

The community's effort to get the block grant taught Bloomer Hill important lessons, Frank Evans recalls. "It's been a hard-fought battle. There were funds coming in all around us, so it was frustrating. But the people stayed in there, plugging away. Everybody's learned that it takes patience, that change isn't going to happen overnight. The greatest lesson that was taught here is that it takes togetherness. We have our fussing and fighting — if you'd come to some of our community meetings you'd think we were all enemies, even brothers and sisters — but when we come out of that door it all stays in there. We've learned it has to be that way, that we have to stick together."

Down the road in Village Heights, the families fighting relocation were learning a similar lesson. When the contents of the UDAG grant application became public, residents in the 12 houses across the street from Consolidated Diesel thought they might have to move to make way for a wider road. And they quickly joined together to oppose the relocation.

"When we bought the house here four years ago, we expected to live there all our lives," says Anniebell Bryant. "We just didn't think it was right for someone to come along and say, 'You've got to get up and go,' and you don't have any say."

At first the 12 families fought just for information. No one would tell them whether or not they had to move, or how much compensation they would get if they did. They met with county and plant officials, local businessmen, and bureaucrats from the state department of transportation, but got no firm answers. They waited for the state to condemn their homes, as it was threatening to do, but nothing happened.

Bessie Pittman remembers how difficult it was to be in such limbo. "We just kept going on, from meeting to meeting, not knowing for sure what would happen to us. All that upset and aggravation — well, it will just do something to your mind. We were just like little bitty ants being stepped on by elephants."

By the fall of that year, the people of Village Heights were tired of being stepped on. So when Governor Hunt announced that he was coming to the area for the groundbreaking ceremony at Nash Technical Institute, a college being built to train workers for Consolidated Diesel, the 12 families placed large signs in their yards. One asked, GOVERNOR HUNT: ARE YOU A GROUNDBREAKER OR A HOMEBREAKER? Another stated, THOU SHALT NOT STEAL, CONSOLIDATED DIESEL.

"We wanted to let people know we were there and weren't going to be pushed around." explains Anniebell Bryant.

As soon as the signs went up, the pressure came down. Worried about the impression they would make on Governor Hunt, local business and civic leaders, and county commissioners began badgering residents to remove their signs. Pittman was visited on the job at Nash General Hospital by one commissioner, and, though she doesn't talk about it now, the conversation was obviously threatening. "He tried to pressure her to take down the signs 'til she got so frightened and upset she didn't know what to do," remembers Alexander Evans, who went over to the hospital to bring her home. "But she didn't take down her sign."

According to White, other residents from both Bloomer Hill and Village Heights were similarly harassed on their jobs during the course of their efforts to obtain just compensation. Commissioner Bob Silas, for example, visited Katie Roberson's job trying to get her supervisor to put pressure on her to sell her home. "When she got off from work there were people there from the community to meet her. They put their arms around her and took her home," says White. He believes that the level of personal support was a crucial factor in the community's ability to maintain unity throughout the stress-filled struggle.

Pittman kept the sign in her yard for almost three weeks, as did all other 11 homeowners. Hunt made no comment on the signs during his visit, but the fact that he saw them was enough for her. "All we wanted was for people to know this was happening to us," she says. "We wanted someone to see." And see they did. Docey Alexander, a resident of a nearby rural community outside of Enfield, remembers that the Village Heights children were out every day after school carrying signs. "It was a shame what they were doing to them. Those little children out there. And I don't think they got nearly as much help as they should have from the people in the area who had a little influence. Most of them just kept quiet and let the children be the ones." She adds that the struggle was so dramatic that other people in the area may start to demand more from their local elected officials, including the black ones.

For the next year and a half, the Village Heights residents held out for a fair settlement. "Every time they made an offer, they'd say it was their last one," Bryant remembers. "But we didn't think it was fair, so we wouldn't accept." The local media criticized residents for procrastinating, but White explains that "just compensation has to be measured not only in terms of land, but in labor, which includes the labor involved in the struggle for that compensation."

By the time a compromise was reached in December 1982, the residents had won a package worth $650,000 — twice the amount of the initial offer. Under the agreement the families got to choose where they wanted to live and received public water and sewer service, a little more land than they had had before, and $6,000 each in aggravation compensation.

All but a few of the families chose to stay together, and moved their homes to a site half a mile down the road from the plant and the newly widened road. Most are happy with the settlement and new location, says Bryant, but she adds, "I don't feel we won, really; if we had won we wouldn't have had to move."

White puts the fight in a larger perspective: "Companies like Consolidated Diesel come in and displace blacks and other working people, but hire most of their labor force from outside the area. The temporary improvement sometimes brought by industry is often offset by the effects of displacement. It doesn't necessarily bring progress to all the people. The people of Village Heights won a defensive strategic victory. They forced the infrastructure to respond to them. Initially, neither industry nor public officials had any intention of dealing with them at all, they were just going to roll right over them." White is quick to point out that the fight isn't over yet.

Consolidated Diesel has hired only one of its 300 current employees from the Bloomer Hill/Village Heights area: college-educated Ida Cooper. She is also the only local resident the company has sent to Nash for training. At a recent meeting with plant officials, community members were told the company was looking not for applicants with a college degree, but for those with a "good attitude." The officials made no guarantees of more jobs, but instead encouraged the group to tell their neighbors to "treat their applications as a serious piece of work." Most of the meeting consisted of a plant tour and the showing of a promotional film.

Plant manager Ron Gratz says the company intends to choose the rest of its projected 1,000 workers from its "hiring area," which he describes as the "counties surrounding us, I don't know their names." When asked about the company's affirmative action policy, Gratz at first said, "I'm not sure I want to tell you that," and then stated that the proportion of blacks in the work force "mirrored the racial make-up of the area," though could not say what that percentage is.

Roberson, who is now active in several different citizen's groups, filled out a Consolidated Diesel application herself in hopes of getting off workfare. Her application was rejected as were dozens of others from Bloomer Hill. She says the community wants to know why. "We want to know, if they're doing all this training, why aren't they training us? I feel like they could train some of our older people who're responsible and want to learn. I think I could learn it, but how can I learn it if they never give me a chance."

After years of questions, Roberson and her neighbors now know how to go about getting some answers. "There's a realization that we can do something about things we had written off before," says Ida Cooper as she looks back over the struggles of the past three years. "Before, the community just sat back and said, 'That's out of our control'; now people are willing to come and speak out and see what can be done."