Mt. Gilead, Part 2: Julius Chambers

Last year, I wrote about a family trip to Montgomery County, NC, and I promised to follow up on a few “mysteries” of the little town Mt. Gilead. Better late than never, right? Today, I’m writing about one of the faces painted on a mural in Mt. Gilead: Julius L. Chambers.

Photo taken by me in 2021 in Mount Gilead, NC.

Obviously, Mr. Chambers was an important person in the town of Mount Gilead — but why? Well, it turns out that he made a huge impact on the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina (and beyond). He was born in Mt. Gilead in 1936, the third child of William and Mathilda Braton Chambers (they would have four children, all of whom attended college and graduate school). His father owned an auto-repair/general store in Mount Gilead.

Education was extremely important to the Chambers family, and Julius’ older siblings attended the Laurinburg Institute, a private Black preparatory school (its history is another story in itself!). However, Julius didn’t have this advantage because of an incident that happened around 1948, when a white customer refused to pay his father for service.

“But one April day, fighting back tears, William Chambers told his son that the $2,000 he’d saved to send him to school was gone, thanks to a white customer whose 18-wheeler Chambers had maintained and repaired for months, buying parts out of his own pocket. That morning, the man had refused to pay the bill and jeered as he drove off with the rig. William Chambers spent the afternoon going door to door, asking for help from the few white lawyers in town. They all turned him away. That was the day Julius Chambers vowed to study law.” (Article by Dannye Romine Powell and David Perlmutt, The Charlotte Observer)

Julius Chambers in 1975 (photo from blackpast.org)

So, Chambers attended the public Black high school in nearby Troy — as well as having no library, “students had to kill and cut up hogs on the principal’s farm” (The Charlotte Observer). Julius joined a Book of the Month club to make up for gaps in the school’s curriculum, but still wasn’t as prepared for college as his older siblings, who’d attended the much better Laurinburg Institute. (As a side note, that’s not to say that Black teachers were lacking. Malcolm Gladwell has a great podcast, Revisionist History, where he talks in great detail about this. Check it out!)

Despite the odds, Chambers powered forward and earned admission to “North Carolina College” in Durham (now N.C. Central University), where he became student body president and graduated “summa cum laude.” He went on to earn a Master of Arts in European history at the University of Michigan, followed by a law degree at the UNC Chapel hill, newly integrated only eight years earlier. At UNC, he became the first Black editor-in-chief of the North Carolina Law Review and ranked first in his class of 100 upon graduating.

“Although he graduated first in his law school class of 1962, he could not attend the school’s celebratory banquet because of its location at a segregated country club.” (blackpast.org)

But Chambers didn’t let this incident derail him. In 1964, he worked toward his second Master’s degree from Columbia University Law School and began interning for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall himself selected Chambers for the position, which was the start of a long and historic career in civil rights.

After finishing up at Columbia, Chambers moved back to North Carolina and opened a civil rights law practice in Charlotte. The first lawyer he recruited was white — Adam Stein from Washington, D.C., — marking the first time a Black and white lawyer had joined forces in the South (not just in NC). With the recruitment of more lawyers, the firm became “Chambers, Stein, Ferguson, & Atkins” and took on hundreds of civil rights cases, challenging everything from discrimination in public hospitals to saving the jobs of Black teachers unfairly dismissed during integration. One of his most famous cases was Swann V. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education:

“Together with lawyers of the LDF, they helped shape civil rights law by winning benchmark United States Supreme Court rulings such as the famous decision of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), which led to federally mandated busing, helping integrate public schools across the country.” (https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/julius-chambers-39)

Julius Chambers’s office in Charlotte was firebombed in 1971. (Charlotte Observer File Photo)

In retaliation for shaking up a system that had always favored them, disgruntled White people used violence to try to intimidate Chambers. It didn’t work. In 1965, after Chambers sued to integrate the “Shrine Bowl,” an annual all-star football game held in Charlotte, his home and the homes of three other Charlotte civil rights leaders were blown up. Chambers and his wife, Vivian Giles Chambers, had been in bed when the sticks of dynamite were thrown into their home.

“I threw up next to the house. I was angry,” he told the Observer recently. “I didn’t know who did it. I didn’t know why they would do it. I had my ideas. We knew getting with the Shrine Bowl was going to cause a lot of problems. And it did.” Chambers told the Observer he felt the Shrine Bowl lawsuit was one of his most important civil rights cases. “We were able to reach a lot of parents, teachers, principals, who played very important roles in black and white communities,” he said. (Charlotte Observer)

Chambers’ office and his car were also firebombed. But he kept on.

“The animosity toward him and his positions was just heavy and real. You could feel it,” said C.D. Spangler, former UNC president, who came on the school board in 1972 after Chambers had sued that board and won. “But he never let that change him personally.… He didn’t hate the people who hated him.” (Charlotte Observer)

Chambers’ is described as a “quiet” and “softspoken” person, which makes me think of the saying, “Still waters run deep.” His opponents underestimated him, it’s clear, and he used this to his advantage in the courtroom.

“A lot of people were surprised to see Chambers in court,” said his partner James Ferguson. “Some people expected him to be bombastic and always on the attack. Chambers never raised his voice. He was always very low key and very calm, and because of this approach, he disarmed the witness.” John Gresham, a former law partner, said Chambers had a habit of playing with string or a rubber band, often making a cat’s cradle, while interrogating a witness – lulling the witness into a false sense of security. Another tactic, Gresham said, was to start out asking innocuous questions that appeared to be aimed at finding out very simple things about the company’s policies. “You could see the witness relaxing and thinking, ‘This guy doesn’t even know how we operate.’ Then Chambers would very carefully draw a circle around what he wanted to know, and as soon as he had the loop closed, he would bore in, and you could see the witness thinking, ‘Oh, my God!’” (Charlotte Observer)

The second half of Chambers’s life was no less active — from serving the NAACP-LDF as their third director-counsel and successfully defending affirmative action and other civil rights laws to leading North Carolina Central University as the chancellor. It is impossible to capture all of Chambers’ accomplishments and struggles in one blog post, but at least we have a small understanding now why Mt. Gilead is so proud to call Julius Chambers one of their own. Mr. Chambers died in 2013 and the age of 76 in Charlotte, NC, survived by his two children Derrick and Judy, and three grandchildren. Among many honors, a statue, high school, and highway now bear his name.

In 2018, NC Governor Roy Cooper and Julius Chambers’s family dedicated a section of Interstate highway in Charlotte to his memory. (https://countynews4you.com/highway_dedicated_to_julius_chambers.htmlhttps://countynews4you.com/highway_dedicated_to_julius_chambers.html)

Sources/For more information:

Reading, Writing, and Race: The Desegregation of the Charlotte Schools, by Davison M. Douglas

https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article116679528.html

https://www.thestate.com/news/local/civil-rights/article14438921.html

https://web.archive.org/web/20040918083340/http://www.unctv.org/biocon/jchambers/timeline.html

Explore the mysteries of Mt. Gilead, North Carolina

On a family trip to Lake Tillery this week, we traveled into Mt. Gilead one afternoon to check out a coffee shop. As we got out of the car, the North Carolina August heat rippled up from the sidewalk and silence wrapped us in a blissful blanket of quiet — no constant roar of engines or music blaring from car speakers. A stately red brick Methodist church stood across the street, and a colorful “Welcome to Historic Downtown Mount Gilead” mural hung from a facing wall.

I love murals and street art (check out my Las Vegas post), so I was immediately curious about the town we had stumbled upon.

The first mural …

Next, I saw an old-timey Coca-Cola ad painted on the side of a building. Then, an R.C. Cola one:

We passed a sewing shop, a frame and gift shop, and when we got to the next cross-street, we saw a historical-looking mural:

And opposite this mural, another important-looking one:

A fifth mural up ahead displayed an image of a Native American man. Who were these men, and who commissioned and painted all these murals? We walked back the way we came, crossing the street at the coffee shop, which I later found out had once been a doctor’s office building. I took a photo outside as a record:

Who was Dr. P.R. Rankin? I’m so curious!

Kyle and Myra Poplin own Speckled Paw Coffee and were more than happy to tell us how they started the coffee shop, which is much more than a coffee-and-ice-cream shop. It’s a community center, a place for people to gather and chat. Mt. Gilead didn’t really have a place like that until 2018, when the Poplins bought the old building, which had stood empty for two decades. The Poplins took out the office walls of the main room but kept the original windows (and all the glass except for one pane, which had to be replaced.) Now, it’s an airy, open space with lots of light flowing in.

Guess who Speckled Paw Coffee is named for?

I love mysteries, and Mt. Gilead is full of them. The town is tiny — only about 1000 people — but it has the feel of a place much bigger. The Poplins had the wherewithal to start an online community newsletter to replace the defunct local newspaper, and everyone has jumped on board. Elderly readers often get their children to print out the newsletter so they can read it more easily, Myra says.

The owners of Thistle Ridge Soap just down the street from Speckled Paw, rely on their Internet sales, as well as ones from their brick-and-mortar store. A husband-and-wife team, they make their own soap and sell crafts by local artisans.

Less than 10 miles away stands Town Creek Indian Mound, a State Historic Site. I’ve lived in NC for more than 20 years and have hardly heard anything about this archeological site of the Pee Dee people, other than that it exists. Why? I want to learn more — we arrived about 15 minutes before closing and didn’t have much time to look at the displays inside the museum — so I will need to research this.

Just ten minutes down the road from Mt. Gilead is a North Carolina State Historical Site, the Town Creek Indian Mound. This is the view from atop the mound.

Unlike other places I’ve visited (and lived in), Mt. Gilead seems to peacefully embrace its history and the modern, digital reality forced upon it. The residents I met are friendly and optimistic, proud of the past but also excited about the future. This feels like a healthy place to be!

What’s different about this little town, located near the geographical center of the state, next to the Uwharrie National Forest? Nearby, the bigger towns of Troy and Albemarle get more traffic (and more press), but Mt. Gilead has mysteries to uncover. I’ll be following up with answers to my questions in upcoming posts. If you want to visit Mt. Gilead (and Speckled Paw Coffee), it’s about 90 minutes south of Greensboro, in Montgomery County. And if you live in Mt. Gilead, or know more about this town, please share in the comments!

New book release…finally!

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my middle-grade fictional book, The Rain Catcher! It’s been changed since I posted the earlier snippets of it, but the general idea is the same. The story is set in Scotland and follows 13-year-old Katy as she visits her estranged other for the first time in 10 years!

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My book started off as a diary-format novella for adults, then morphed into a more complicated (3 points of view!) novel for adults, then just a plain (1 point of view) novel for adults. And now…it is a short chapter book for kids aged 11 and up! Phew!

So, all those adages about writing taking time, blah blah…well, they’re true! The idea for my story came after I took a trip to Scotland with my mum in 2006, so you can count back to see how many years it took me to get to this point!

If you have a young person in your life who likes to read, please give The Rain Catcher a try. It’s got some mild bad language, and there is definitely a dark side to it, but nothing worse than most kids see on the nightly news. If he or she likes adventure and is curious about traveling to another country, this might be a good fit for him or her. I’m going to be setting up a kid-friendly page on this website soon, so stay tuned!

Freedom on Freemont Street

A couple of weeks ago I visited Las Vegas with my husband. It was my third or fourth trip, and I always approach the city with mixed feelings. On the one hand, you can’t beat the place for glitzy distraction — who can feel anxious or annoyed when watching strings of water shoot through the air in time to “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” at the fountain in front of the Bellagio Hotel? Who can’t feel a certain weird admiration at the giant slot machine on Freemont Street and its attached zip lines high above where people fly through the air like super heroes?

IMG_7745On the other hand, the discrepancy between the ridiculous wealth on “The Strip” and the bone-crushing poverty in other areas of the city, such as the streets surrounding Freemont (the “old” strip) is pretty hard to take. While tourists dine at the all-you-can-eat lobster buffet at Caesar’s Palace, Vietnam Veterans make roses out of palm leafs to sell for around $2. I felt really depressed as we drove down one downtown street, where abandoned motels stood gated and decrepit, their windows boarded with ply wood or painted black. Every now and then someone pushing a shopping cart full of clothes and blankets would appear at an intersection, waiting to cross the street. “You get the feeling that people really struggle in Vegas,” said my husband.

But when I visited Container Park, which is just down the road from Freemont, I felt a little bit more hopefull. Created from repurposed shipping containers and locally-made “Xtreme Cubes,” the shopping center is only about two years old. I went into “Art Box,” a store selling creations by local artists, and bought a Dr. Who-inspired necklace for my mum made by the owner’s wife (Kellie Kroplinski).

Outside Container Park is a metal heart covered with locks (likely inspired by the Paris bridge) by artist Nova May.

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And in front of Container Park is a giant praying mantis that can shoot fire:

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And in the surrounding streets, I discovered a bunch of really interesting murals. I haven’t been able to find out much about who painted them or why, but I believe they are part of the Las Vegas Centennial celebration of 2005, which invited public and private businesses to host murals throughout the city. Here are a few of my favorites…

Las Vegas mural     Las Vegas mural

Las Vegas mural     Las Vegas mural

These murals and Container Park really saved Vegas for me, adding another layer to an otherwise pretty obvious city. If Las Vegas can create art as beautiful and wacky as the murals and a place as unique as Art Box, it must have something pretty special going for it!

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