What’s been lost? ‘Everything was community back then’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 27, 2014

SALISBURY — Let’s call it West End’s “lost” generation.
Lost are important leaders, role models, schools, businesses, and events that once filled the West End community with pride.
You can probably say this about many sections of many cities, especially if you’re talking to someone older who cherishes their youthful days, seen now through the filters of age.
When I met recently with a group of people who remember the West End from the ’50s, ’60s and even ’70s, the memories flooded back of a different time, a lost time — elements of which would be nice to have back.
At Eleanor Qadirah’s urging, I met with her, John Mackey, Kay Frances Woods, Jimmy Phillips and Floyd Kerr at the old Price High School one morning last week.
We talked in the library for quite awhile before Qadirah and I drove a couple of blocks to meet with Shirley McLaughlin and her brother, John, at their grocery store on Monroe Street, just across from the edge of the Livingstone College campus.
Qadirah said so much negative stuff has been in the newspaper recently about the West End — crime, discontent with the city, code violations at Livingstone and a mini-controversy over the proposed police presence at the Memorial Day carnival — that “I know a lot of us remember some good times, too.”
If I could paint a picture of the old West End based on our conversations, it’s mostly a neighborhood before integration. Along with the college, Price High School and the Monroe Street School were important anchors then, despite the shackles of segregation.
The teachers and professors were part of a community network. People knew other people’s business, and that was OK back then, especially when it came to looking after the kids.
“When we were coming up,” Phillips said, “we were taught respect. If you went out and did something, it (the news of what happened) would beat you home.”
And parents or grandparents were waiting there to dish out some discipline.
The McLaughlins spoke of how people made do with what they had. Many of the West End streets weren’t paved yet. Kids found creative ways to play. Neighbor depended on neighbor, and at school, teachers instilled in students that they had to be twice as good to make it in a segregated future.
The neighborhood was filled with minority-owned businesses. I apologize if I’m not exact with the names and locations, but I heard of places such as the Varsity Inn at Partee and Bank; Payton Cleaners; The Ritz movie theater on West Horah Street; Randall’s Barber Shop; a pool room; Cook’s store; Miss Bert’s; Mitchell & Fair Funeral Service, which is still in business on Craige Street; and Frankie’s Chicken Shack off Old Wilkesboro Road.
“The Shack — that’s what we called it,” Mackey said.
With the deaths of many old-timers from the West End, “a lot of history has been lost,” Shirley McLaughlin said.
The men and women spoke of the community having active organizations such as the American Legion post, an Elks Club, Livingstone College fraternities, Masons, the Mud Turtles social club and lots of women’s clubs.
The big churches were Moore’s Chapel AME Zion, Trinity Presbyterian and Gethsemane Baptist.
“Everything was community back then,” Kerr said.
The more important streets, which had many of the finer homes and community leaders, included Institute, West Horah and especially West Monroe, going past the college.
The West End looked to leaders such as Wiley Lash, who would become Salisbury’s first African-American mayor; Principals O.C. and L.H. Hall; and families such as the Lancasters, Kelseys and Butlers.
Kids played in a Grants Creek swimming hole and on ball fields where the projects are today. They relished church field days and May Days. They looked forward to summer night dances at Monroe Street School and summer recreation programs at Hall Gym or the Miller Center.
Summer playground programs on the East End would compete at times vs. the playgrounds on the West End, Mackey recalled. He was the East End champion in table tennis, until he met Johnny Kincaid of the West End.
Qadirah said there would be house parties for the kids, Friday night dances at Price, jazz concerts at Livingstone and neighborhood fashion shows.
Events always had adult chaperones and “you had to be home by a certain time,” she said, adding, “When we had parties, there wasn’t any shooting.”
The Memorial Day carnival was at least three times the size it is now, and May 30th, well, “that’s what we looked forward to every year,” Shirley McLaughlin said.
The African-American community annually held a Memorial Day parade from the National Cemetery to the Price American Legion Post, where the carnival is still held. Schools closed. And thousands of people came from everywhere, including excursion trains from Washington, D.C.
Food vendors would line up along the streets. “It was an event,” Kerr said, describing how a fish sandwich just tasted better on Memorial Day.
The people I interviewed had different theories as to what changed in the West End. The schools closed, of course, and as good and necessary as integration was, those losses left a big void.
During those days, too, plenty of Price High and Livingstone College graduates left for places such as New York, Washington and Atlanta, where the prospects of finding good jobs were better.
They never came back, except to visit family or for school reunions.
Kerr, who used to work for the city recreation department, said there just aren’t enough programs available to kids at Hall Gym or Miller Recreation Center.
“They’ve been going backwards,” he said. “Our kids were sort of pushed into the streets.”
Others blamed absentee landlords and the loss of all those role models from the old days.
If they could have a wish list for West End, I said at one point, what kinds of things would they like to include.
In no particular order, they said make better use of the facilities such as Price High School and the old Monroe Street School. In addition to Hall Gym, Price High has a fairly big auditorium. Why couldn’t it be used for more cultural events, Qadirah asked.
They would love to see Monroe and Horah streets return to their former glory, with attention paid to the architecturally strong but often neglected inventory of homes.
They think police officers should be more involved with residents, doing things like coaching youth teams.
The West End needs more minority-owned businesses, and residents could simply pay more attention to what’s going on around them and be willing to get involved.
“I think there are enough of us to sit on porches and be a safe refuge (for youth),” Qadirah said. “They just need to know who cares for them when they get off the bus.”
The McLaughlins said absentee landlords are a problem, and residents tend to take better care of where they are living when they own the property. Maybe the housing projects would improve if tenants were given a chance to own the units, Shirley McLaughlin said.
The West End seems to forever need more sidewalks, and Livingstone College has to be more involved with its neighbors. John McLaughlin said schools had truant officers in his day who made sure kids were in class. Why can’t that happen today?
Above all, I kept hearing or reading between the lines how looking after one another and treating people with respect have disappeared.
The McLaughlins have a sign posted outside the grocery’s front door that says. “No sagging pants inside of store.”
The challenges facing the West End go way beyond sagging pants, but tackling things, step by step, might lead to finding what’s been lost.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.