Friday, September 18, 2009

Peace and protest, justice and injustice: marking Chapel Hill's sacred space

A little-known fact: grass used to grow around the flag pole in front of the old post office on Franklin Street. That's why those red brick pavers are there--as filler. It was only in latter times, probably since 1979 when the town purchased the property from the federal government, that the space was paved over.

Luckily for these four young men, it was grass during Holy Week in 1964 when they decided to fasten themselves to this place 24 hours a day, fasting in protest of the Town of Chapel Hill's refusal to pass a public accommodations ordinance.

Pat Cusick, LaVert Taylor, John Dunne, James Foushee (in the photo) and countless other activists will be remembered this Sunday at 3 p.m. as we unveil and formally dedicate the Peace and Justice tribute marker at the site we've named Peace and Justice Plaza.

Please join us for the celebration. Opening remarks by Mayor Kevin Foy, Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, and local NAACP chapter president Michelle Laws will be followed by brief tributes to the people honored on the marker. We will also recognize Yonni Chapman, historian, for his tireless work to ensure that past struggles for civil rights in Chapel Hill are remembered. Dan Pollitt, emeritus professor in the UNC School of Law, will conclude with some personal recollections of his own experiences on the front lines of local battles for civil rights and social justice.

The marker bears the names of nine people who devoted much of their lives to working for causes of peace and social justice in our community: Charlotte Adams, Hank Anderson, James Brittian, Joe Herzenberg, Mildred Ringwalt, Hubert Robinson, Joe Straley, Lucy Straley, and Gloria Williams.

At the top of the marker is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

True peace is not simply the absence of some negative force; it is the presence of justice.

The marker is a flat granite paver, flush to the ground, directly in front of the flag pole. It is designed so that other names can be added in the future.

What's been most remarkable lately, as town employees have worked to remove one section of the brick pavers and ready the space for the installation, has been an archaeological discovery. On the concrete base that was poured to stabilize the brick pavers when they were laid, someone etched a swastika. (Click on the photo for an enlarged view; it's in the lower corner.) Emily Cameron, landscape architect for the town, puts it beautifully in perspective: "We thought it was worth noting that we have removed an historic symbol of hate and racial prejudice that had been hidden at the foot of our nation’s flag to replace it with a marker to commemorate the struggle for equality, justice, and peace."

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Today is Tomato Day at the Carrboro Farmers Market. This essay was published in the "Tomato" issue of the Carrboro Free Press on July 8, 2009.

Overheard at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, mother to silent daughter: “The ugliest tomatoes are actually the ones that taste the best.” I wondered if this one-way conversation would take the obvious metaphorical turn, but it stayed straight on message. “Mommy is very picky about her tomatoes,” she continued as she examined a promising German Johnson.

Except for recognizing the inherent superiority of the home-grown varieties, I can’t claim to have ever been that picky about my tomatoes. Since I grew up in rural East Texas, my husband, bred in Charlotte, finds this to be curious.

Trips to the farmer’s market with Paul in high summer are quests for the ugliest, tastiest tomatoes. In reaction to the acidy Burpee’s Big Boys that he remembers from his father’s backyard garden, he’s after sweetness, with enough texture to stand up to the heat of the stovetop. Pink Girls, Cherokee Purples, all manner of lyrical names will join the reliable German Johnsons in soups and gumbos and biryanis and jamablayas of his own invention.

Assembling the tomatoes with other seasonal picks from the market, he’ll jump from cookbook to internet recipe to suggestions from his “tweeple” till he finds the magical combination of ingredients. He’ll put our son Tucker to work at the chopping board, encouraging all kinds of proper habits, not to mention the love of a good meal carefully prepared.

At 16, Tucker is ripe for embarrassment, though that’s not my aim in sharing the story behind one of his best works of art. Preschool age being the high point of abstract expressionism for so many, the daycare years brought out a talent in Tucker that he has since let languish.

On construction paper washed in pink he painted a fury of reds and greens, with a red center of gravity, random spokes of the red and green contributing energy and intensity. This creation of our young Jackson Pollock ended up on the coffee table next to a New York Times Sunday Magazine. The magazine happened to have a picture of a tomato splattered on its otherwise stark white cover. Tucker looked at the two, pointed to his own, and proclaimed, “Tomato!”

The topic of the cover story was politics: the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, symbolized by an iconic image of the tomato as hand grenade. Out of the mouths of babes, though. With that pleasurable cry of discovery—Tomato!—political symbol was reduced to its literal essence, while the abstract was translated into a piercing reality, a bright red tomato so juicy it could not be contained. Home grown, to be sure.