Elizabeth Cook: ‘Faith is for everybody’ — every day

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 31, 2022

Remember when President George H.W. Bush came to the town of Faith on the Fourth of July?

The year was 1992, 30 years ago. Newspaper clippings from the time reflect the pride and enthusiasm that surrounded the commander-in-chief’s visit.

“Heady days for Faith,” one headline read. “Probably the most exciting thing ever.”

Yet a cloud appeared in the days leading up to the holiday, one that returned recently when a few sponsors pulled their support of Faith’s Fourth of July parade.

As Bush’s visit neared, media and civil rights activists pointed out that the town had no Black residents — a sign, they said, of Faith’s racist past. The town was accused of being a “sundown town,” where a sign reportedly warned Blacks not to stick around past sunset.

Critics speculated that Bush was sending a message to minorities; their concerns weren’t important to the president.

Town leaders refuted the unexpected reporting.

Judy Hampton, mayor at the time, said if Faith was racist, that was far in the past. “If my grandfather was a horse thief, does that make me a horse thief? We’re generations down the road.”

Has that road taken a U-turn?

This year’s Faith Fourth parade included three groups of Confederate re-enactors waving their battle flags. Confederate flag stickers were given to spectators. One of the groups fired blanks overhead to add to the atmosphere.

It doesn’t take much of a leap of logic to tie that Confederate presence to the racist reputation that haunts Faith. Re-enactors may be interested in “heritage, not hate,” but they must know the message this celebration of the Confederacy sends. What they embrace as a symbol of pride reminds others of slavery, racism and intimidation.

As a result, parade sponsors are sending a message, too.

Novant Health pulled out first and issued a statement: “We remain committed to supporting and investing in Rowan County with activities that more closely align with our values and celebrate the diversity of our communities.”

Duke Energy and Sheetz soon followed.

Parade organizers’ all-American celebration is being overshadowed by people who want to venerate a narrow part of the past.

Does Faith want to be known for that?

Back to 1992

The parade — which Bush did not attend — was as glorious as ever. The controversy had evaporated. According to the Post, the biggest cheers went to American Legion members, as well as soldiers manning a Humvee and the East Rowan Marching Band.

The town of 553 people played host to a crowd somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 for the Fourth. (The town now has about 1,000 residents, some 2.5 percent of whom are Black.)

Those in the right place at the right time saw Barbara Bush sip a Cheerwine. And they watched as the president played ball with Faith native Bill Williams, who reminded Bush that they’d met in a Duke vs. Yale matchup in 1948.

Small world

The president’s people made it sound as though his visit to Faith was virtual happenstance. He wanted to make a quick stop after the Daytona stock car race, and Gov. Jim Martin suggested Faith, they said. Demographics never entered into it.

In the Jim Crow era, thousands of communities around the country did everything in their power to exclude Black people from living within their city limits. Some of those towns hung signs. Most were more subtle.

Everyone that Post reporters asked about Faith’s sundown sign said they’d never seen it. Volunteer Donnie Moose said not even his 79-year-old mother remembered seeing such a sign.

He described the message Faith wanted to send in 1992.

“On the Fourth of July and every day, Faith is for everybody,” Moose said. “Everybody’s invited to come in and celebrate and have a good time.”

In 2022, that’s a message parade sponsors could endorse, on the Fourth of July and every day.

Elizabeth Cook is former editor of the Salisbury Post.