Signature Events in Rocky Mount
Stith Talbert Park
729 Pennsylvania Avenue, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Every June, Rocky Mount celebrates Juneteenth at StithTalbert Park, a 28 acre park that borders the Tar River. In addition to commemorating the famous announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, the event also celebrates African American history and culture, through speeches, performances by bands, choirs, and step teams, and family activities.
Harambee Square, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Rocky Mount/Edgecombe Community Development Corporation
Every summer, on varying dates, Rocky Mount hosts the Harambee Festival, at Harambee Square in the Douglas Block neighborhood. This celebration of the cultures of the African diaspora features music, dance, food, and costumes. Local artists, including George Higgs, Luther Barnes, and the Winston Band have performed here, as has T.S. Monk, son of Thelonious Monk. Part of the annual event is the Thelonious Monk Evening of Jazz Concert.
North Carolina Fall Gospel Classic
Luther Barnes Song Ministries
627 Cleveland Avenue, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Luther Barnes hosts the North Carolina Fall Gospel Classic every October. The event draws gospel music fans, artists, and industry professionals from around the country for a three day convention. Activities focus on ministry and worship, especially through music, and also include worship services, concerts, showcases, album releases, and seminars.
Rocky Mount Places to visit
The Douglas Block
Along Northeast Main Street, bounded by Route 301/Church Street, Goldleaf Street, Albemarle Avenue, and Business 64/Sunset Avenue, Rocky Mount
For earlier generations in Rocky Mount, the Douglas Block neighborhood, on the north side of downtown, was the main commercial and entertainment district for African Americans. The backbone of Douglas Block is Northeast Main Street, with one lane on either side of the railroad track. In recent years, the district has undergone extensive renovation after a long period of decline. It is emerging once again as an active place for commerce and community activities.
Red Budd Holy Church
1108 Luper Street, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Red Budd Holy Church is the home church of gospel music’s Barnes family.
Booker T. Theater
170 East Thomas Street, Rocky Mount, N.C.
After renovation, the 1920s Booker T. Theater reopened in 2011. Events for this classic venue are now booked by the city Department of Parks and Recreation.
Martin Luther King Jr. Park
800 East Virginia Street, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Booker T. Washington Community Center
727 Pennsylvania Avenue, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Booker T. Washington Community Center are located adjacent to each other, near the Tar River north of downtown.
The Community Center, which offers cultural and educational opportunities throughout the year, is the former Booker T. Washington High School. A historic marker outside commemorates the visit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rocky Mount in November of 1962. He delivered a speech here that is recognized as a precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington the next year. A monument in the park next to the Community Center memorializes Dr. Kingand his well-remembered visit to Rocky Mount. The 28-acre park also has walking paths, including an informational heritage trail about Dr. King, in addition to playing fields and picnic spots.
Imperial Center for the Arts and Sciences
270 Gay Street, Rocky Mount, N.C.
252-972-1163, Arts Center
252-972-1266, Rocky Mount Community Theater Company
Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
Another hub of activity in downtown Rocky Mount is the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences. The complex is located in the re-stored early 1900s Imperial Tobacco Company factory, and adjoining historic Braswell Library. Renovated and repurposed, while maintaining their architectural beauty, the buildings now house the Arts Center at the Imperial Centre and the Children’s Museum and Science Center.
The Arts Center occupies a large, sleek space with open galleries. The center has an impressive permanent collection of the work of regional artists, and also hosts changing exhibitions. In addition, the Arts Center has a theater, home stage of the half century-old Rocky Mount Community Theater company.
North Carolina Wesleyan College, Rocky Mount, N.C.
North Carolina Wesleyan College is the site of cultural events for the region as well as students and alumni.
On campus is the Dunn Center for the Performing Arts, which houses several galleries, performing arts classroom space, and a 1,200-seat theater, Minges Auditorium. The Dunn Center hosts concerts by the Tar River Orchestra and Chorus, and performances by visiting and area artists in the Wesleyan Season Series.
The Lynch Collection of Outsider Art
Pearsall Building, N.C. Wesleyan College Campus
3400 N. Wesleyan Blvd., Rocky Mount, N.C.
9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday
Minutes off I-95 and an hour’s drive from Raleigh. All exhibitions are free to the public. The Gallery is open one hour before performances; and by appointment with the curator.
Historical Markers in Rocky Mount and Vicinity
Notable people, places, and events from the Rocky Mount region are recognized in highway markers. More detail about this history is at www.ncmarkers.com.
US 64 Business/East Thomas Street at North Washington Street,
Rocky Mount, N.C.
Rocky Mount’s newest marker commemorates Thelonious Monk’s Rocky Mount origins. The sign is located about one mile north of Monk’s birthplace.
Rocky Mount Mills
N.C. Highway 43/48 (Falls Road), Rocky Mount, N.C.
Along the Tar River is a sign marking the site of Rocky Mount Mills. It is one of two Rocky Mount historical markers that commemorate sites and events important in African American labor history. The cotton mill, built in 1818, was the second such operation in North Carolina, a state with a dynamic textile industry.
At Rocky Mount Mills, the original workforce was African American— possibly all enslaved, but it may have included free people of color. In the 1850s, the black workforce would be replaced by white women and children, and eventually by white men as well. The mill remained in operation until 1996—except when it twice burned down in the 1860s, once at the hands of Union troops. When it closed in 1996, it was the longest-operating cotton mill in the South.
US 301 Business/Franklin Street and McDonald Street, Rocky Mount, N.C.
North Carolina’s other leading industry for generations was the tobacco industry. Among the most arduous work in the process of making cigarettes and other tobacco products was the job of the leaf house worker, who spent long shifts in factories removing stems and otherwise preparing raw tobacco leaves.
At Rocky Mount’s China American Tobacco Company, as at many plants, the workforce was entirely African American, and overwhelmingly female. Here at the China American Tobacco Factory, workers cast a pro-union vote in the summer of 1946, part of a regional unionization campaign known as Operation Dixie, for the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America, and the Tobacco Workers International Union. Many of the women had never before voiced their wills through voting. The 1946 union drive confronted segregation and racism in the plants, and other unfair workplace conditions. The nearly 10,000 leaf house workers of Operation Dixie, through their labor activism, also helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement in North Carolina.
Nash Arts Council
100 East Washington Street, Nashville, N.C.
Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Weekends during scheduled events
The town of Nashville is the county seat of Nash County, to the west of Rocky Mount. The Nash County Arts Council is based here in a 1914 Baptist church that now serves as the Nash Arts Center. Throughout the year the Arts Center hosts performances, exhibitions, and classes in many genres and subjects.
Princeville Museum/Welcome Center
310 Mutual Boulevard, Princeville, N.C.
252-823-8500; Open by appointment
The Princeville Museum/Welcome Center occupies one of the structures that survived the floods of 1999, a historic school building on the National Register of Historic Places built in the style of the Rosenwald schools as the Princeville Colored Graded School. The structure later served as the town hall.
Exhibitions, events, and information about the past, present, and future of the community originally known as Freedom Hill are presented here. Outside the museum, a historical marker also gives a good overview of the community’s history, featuring historic photographs of Princeville’s business district.
Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church
Abraham Wooten Memorial
Intersection of Suggs and Church Streets, Princeville, N.C.
Before the floods of 1999, Princeville had six churches. After the waters receded, five of those churches had to be razed. The remaining pre-flood church is the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, at the corner of Suggs and Church Streets. One of the oldest African American churches in North Carolina, the church was built in 1895.
In the film This Side of the River, Reverend Cleveland Purvis and the congregation of Mount Zion sing unaccompanied hymns in an Old Baptist style in which the minister or song leader “lines out” a hymn, chanting a line for the congregation which they then repeat singing the hymn tune. This form of congregational singing, once common, is deeply traditional, but it is rarely heard in African American churches today.
In front of Mount Zion Church is a plaque in memory of Abraham Wooten. Wooten, an African American entrepreneur and educator who, according to local oral history, also served in the Union Army, was one of the founders of Princeville. John Prince, a carpenter and Wooten’s contemporary, is the town’s other primary founder—and it is for him that Princeville is named.
Near Highway 258 and Shiloh Farm Road, Princeville, N.C.
Edgecombe County Center, N.C. Cooperative Extension
On the outskirts of town, a steep path leads down to the banks of the Tar River. This is Shiloh Landing, a place that once served as a boat landing for the nearby plantation. Enslaved African Americans and Africans, probably brought by water from Richmond, disembarked here from slave traders’ boats.
Brought for sale to North Carolina planters, some of these men and women were purchased by local whites, and became the ancestors of African American families living in the area today. The late Tarboro native Rudolph Knight, a prominent local historian, counted some of his ancestors among the people who first set foot in Edgecombe County at Shiloh Landing.
Places to Visit in Tarboro
130 Bridgers Street, Tarboro, N.C.
Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
In downtown Tarboro, Edgecombe ARTS, the county’s arts council, occupies the 1808 Blount-Bridgers House. The council operates the Hobson Pittman Memorial Gallery, hosting six changing exhibitions over the course of the year, as well as the house’s permanent collection of Edgecombe County craft. Surrounding the house, the Blount-Bridgers Gardens are planted with species that are native to the Tar-Pamlico region or that were cultivated here in the first half of the 19th century.
East Tarboro Historic District
Self-guided driving tour
Set GPS for 99 Main Street, Tarboro, N.C.
Leaving Princeville and crossing the Highway 33 bridge over the Tar River, you will enter the historically African American neighborhood of East Tarboro. The first building on the right after you cross the river, at 99 Main Street, is the Quigless Clinic and Hospital.
Dr. Milton Quigless and his wife Lazinka arrived in Tarboro in 1936, and found a town with one hospital—white-only—and whose previous black doctor had passed away. Dr. Quigless set-up a clinic in a former fish market, and in 1946 replaced it with the current building—a dedicated hospital designed by a black architect from Washington, D.C., John Bunyon Holloway. Quigless insisted that the front door, facing Main Street, be the primary entrance through which all patients would enter, because blacks were forbidden to use the front entrances of so many other public buildings. Quigless practiced medicine here for many years, treating patients of all ages, performing surgeries, dispensing prescriptions, while also serving as the administrator for the whole hospital.
In time, white patients also began coming to him for treatment; they entered through the same doors and waited in the same waiting room as the black patients. The clinic remained in operation until 1974, when Edgecombe County General Hospital asked Dr. Quigless to join the doctors there.
At the clinic, if you turn right on Granville Street, you will pass several large, early 20th-century houses, still private residences, which were the homes of some of Tarboro’s early black professionals. Among the residents of this neighborhood were Dr. and Mrs. Quigless, and Franklin Dancy, who was Tarboro’s first black mayor in 1882.
St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church
100 St. Patrick Street, Tarboro, N.C.
St. Stephen was organized in 1883, as indicated on the cornerstone of the frame Gothic Revival church. The building was constructed here in part because of the proximity of the lot to the Tar River, where baptisms were conducted in all seasons of the year.
One block over, in an open field at the corner of Granville and St. David Streets, a stone obelisk commemorates the church that once stood here, St. Paul AME Zion. The congregation organized in 1866, and constructed their church here in 1869. Among the members over the years were Dr. Quigless and Mayor Dancy. The structure was destroyed by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and a new church was constructed on another site. The congregation erected the monument here in memory of the old church and its early members.
The homes of two late 19th-century civic leaders are identified by markers in the Historic District. The home of John C. Dancy, an important figure in North Carolina’s late 19th-century Republican Party, stood three blocks from the marker at Main and St. James Streets. Dancy was born free in Tarboro in 1857. After attending Howard University in the early 1870s, Dancy returned home to North Carolina, and soon thereafter entered politics, rising quickly to prominence in the state Republican Party. In the 1890s, he served as the customs collector for the port of Wilmington—the highest-paying federal job in North Carolina. In 1901 he moved to Washington, D.C., when President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him recorder of records for that city, in which capacity he served for nearly a decade. Influential in religion and education, as well as in government, Dancy was the longtime editor of the AME Zion church newspaper, Star of Zion, and a trustee of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, a college founded by the AME Zion church.
The marker at Main and Granville Streets is two blocks from the home of Bladen County native and Tarboro resident George Henry White, the fourth African American to represent North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1872, a large swath of eastern North Carolina was incorporated into the Second Congressional District. This early example of racial gerrymandering was intended to contain the impact of the African American and Republican vote by isolating several black-majority areas into a single congressional district. Though their electoral clout was lessened, the voters of the “Black Second” nevertheless made history, sending four black representatives to Washington in the last quarter of the 19th century.
By the time he was elected, in 1896, and again in 1898, White was the only African American in Congress. He was responsible for the introduction before Congress of the first anti-lynching bill, and appointed black North Carolinians to federal offices. In 1902, an amendment to the state constitution stripped voting rights from non-literate North Carolinians—but made an exception for many non-literate whites whose vote was protected by a clause grandfathering in the descendants of pre-1868 voters. Knowing that a large number of African Americans, denied education under slavery, would lose their right to vote, Representative White left Congress when his term ended, and left North Carolina. In his farewell speech to the House of Representatives, which he called “perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress,” he predicted that the African American “phoenix-like . . . will rise up some day and come again”
A full generation later, the next black representative in Congress was the Chicagoan Oscar DePriest, sworn into office in 1928. It would be 72 years before another African American southerner served in Congress, and 91 years before Mel Watt and Eva Clayton became the first black North Carolinians elected to Congress in the 20th century, in 1992.
Intersection of Wake Street and the 900 block of N. Raleigh Street, Rocky Mount, N.C.
The historical marker at this intersection identifies the home of Representative Dred Wimberly, a man who rose from slavery to prominence in North Carolina’s Republican Party in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the age of 30, in 1879, he first served in the State House of Representatives; after another term in 1887 he served in the State Senate beginning in 1889.
His voting record shows him to have been an advocate for education and infrastructure in North Carolina. Wimberly attended the Republican convention as a North Carolina delegate in 1902, the year that the party renominated President William McKinley. He spent the latter years of his life with his large family in his native Rocky Mount, and passed away in 1937.
Anna Easter Brown
East Grand Avenue (NC 43) at Holly Street, Rocky Mount, N.C.
A quarter-mile from this historical marker is the grave of the New Jersey- born educator Anna Easter Brown. The graduate of Howard and Columbia Universities began her teaching career at the Brick School, a highly regarded school for African American students in rural Edgecombe County. She soon accepted a position at Lincoln High School in Rocky Mount, and then at nearby Booker T. Washington High School, where she taught black history, social sciences, and Latin until 1952. She died in 1957.
Brown’s career had a national reach, through such organizations as the National Urban League—for whose publication, Opportunity, she wrote in the 1920s—and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., of which she was a cofounder during her senior year at Howard University. Brown described the mission of AKA, the nations’ first black Greek letter sorority, as “lift[ing] the status of Negro womanhood.” In 2008, AKA placed a memorial bench at Anna Easter Brown’s gravesite in Rocky Mount’s Unity Cemetery.
US 301 at Bricks, north of Rocky Mount, N.C.
The community of Bricks lies in far northern Edgecombe County between Whitakers and Enfield. This was the location of a school for African Americans from 1895 until 1933. Established by the American Missionary Association (AMA) with land and money donated by the New York philanthropist Julia Elma Brewster Brick, the school was first called the Joseph Keasbey Brick Agricultural, Industrial and Normal School, and was led by Thomas Inborden, of the AMA, who was educated at Oberlin and Fisk. The school was co-educational, and grew from an original enrollment of 95 students to more than 450. Its curriculum had a dual focus on academic and occupational training, and in 1926, it became a junior college until it closed during the Depression.