Driving down North Graham Hopedale Road in Burlington, Seneca Rogers passes by the former Western Electric Company-Tarheel Army Missile Plant. Rogers, who is currently running for Alamance Board of Education, hopes that the area can one day turn into something else — a Black community space.
The lifelong Burlington resident observed community hubs, such as the Mayco Bigelow Community Center at North Park and the CityGate Dream Center, serving as a meeting place for the many Black community members as he grew up and still does today.
But those spaces aren’t enough.
According to Rogers, the need for more meeting spaces throughout Burlington has been a goal for many members of the Black community. These spaces can be used for civic engagement, meetings with personal agendas and, most importantly, a place to express voices. During the start of his Board of Education campaign, Rogers said local parents and other Black community members expressed concerns over not having a voice in the community. These future spaces can hopefully combat that issue.
“You have these parents who might not be able to show up to a board meeting, or show up to an actual meeting at the school because of the fact that they're having to work or they're having to take care of a family member,” Rogers said. “It just seems like nobody cares because we're not the ones loud and yelling at the school board meeting.”
The goal for more spaces is to also educate Black community members about politics in Alamance County — one thing Dreama Caldwell wishes she had before running for Alamance County Commissioner in 2020. Caldwell said her personal experience in a county race is one she hopes others will never have to go through.
“I was fighting in two fights, of not just running and trying to get parts of the community that are not engaged, engaged, but I also was having to deal with these dog whistles and the other stuff coming from the other side,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell faced threats over social media and other in-person issues as she ran. She hopes these Black spaces will help prevent any challenges for other future Black candidates.
“There isn't a pipeline of Black candidates to reach out to, to have experience to talk about,” Caldwell said. “One of the things I try to do now is when I hear that Black candidates are going to run, I have conversations and say, ‘OK, these are some things you may want to do. These are some things you need to consider.’”
As the executive co-director of Down Home North Carolina, a nonprofit organization created to build multi-racial power for working people in the state’s small towns and rural regions, Caldwell hopes to use the organization’s space to bring more Black leaders together in the meantime.
Informing community members beyond politics is also a goal for these spaces, especially about Black history, according to Donna Vanhook — the first Black woman to run for mayor of Burlington in 2021. In a study published in February 2022 by the Pew Research Center on Black Americans and where they get their of information, nearly nine in every 10 Black Americans said they are at least somewhat informed about Black History — 51% say they are very or extremely informed, 37% said they are somewhat informed and 11% said they are a little or not informed at all. Vanhook said these Black spaces will educate others more about Black history.
“Historically, Black spaces have been limited,” Vanhook said. “It’s not a feeling we have a lot — having that Black space feeling safe.”
Rogers said the next steps to creating these safe spaces is to push future candidates running in races in Burlington and surrounding counties to go into neighborhoods more, especially east Burlington.
The idea of turning the former Western Electric property into a community center with classrooms, computer labs, recreation areas, meeting spaces and more, is one area that can bring more Black voices to the table, according to Rogers.
“Some people might not feel comfortable showing up to central office for a board meeting, but if there's a community center, or somewhere right there in their neighborhood, they might be comfortable there because they're around everybody who they live around, and they're fine with talking about the issues that they have,” Rogers said.
And while more areas are needed for more civic engagement, they’re also needed to simply uplift the Alamance County Black community.
“Black safe spaces are very important,” Caldwell said. “It’s so heavy in Alamance, you need a space for Black joy because there’s so much going on, so much trauma circulating, and there has to be a space where you can have some Black joy.”
As the Black community continues to engage with each other about future meeting spaces, 2022 will also be a year that will seek voter engagement, racial justice and promote Black and minority businesses. Many of these events begin with finding things that bring the community together.
“The goal is to continually find things to hold this community together to do things,” Caldwell said. “We want to be a space that can continue to grow. And as we listen to the community, this is a space of shared power.”