I was born May 4, 1963 in Wadesboro, North Carolina, in Anson County. My father was born there and so was his father and his father before him. My mother’s people settled in Anson County for about a hundred years before moving to points west in the late 1800s. I say all of that to show that I’m a product of the small towns that make up rural North Carolina.
When I was born, Wadesboro wasn’t much different than when my father had grown up there. A downtown with three streets running north to south were crossed by three streets running east to west. Shops, banks, pharmacies, dime stores and department stores filled the buildings that lined those streets. The town supported two newspapers and churches separated the business district from neighborhoods.
Just beyond downtown, cotton mills kept people working. Out in the county, farmers grew cotton, soy beans, sorghum and assorted other crops. The long metal turkey barns that would reshape the rural landscape were still a few years away.
The schools were still segregated when I was born. Places like the City Café still had a White side and a Black side, a custom that remained in place until I was in my teens. The doctor’s office had a White waiting room and Colored waiting room. Each race had its own drinking fountain. In the movie theater, Blacks sat in the balcony while Whites sat down below, another tradition that continued long past the period of integration. Doors on restrooms read “White men” or “White women,” a relic that could be seen in certain places until much later in the century.
The violence that would mar the county as the schools ended segregation was still years away. The Klan was active, though, and a couple of years later would march through downtown. I remember Klan flyers showing up in our driveway, often displaying demeaning caricatures of Black people along side the symbols of Christianity. We learned to distrust those who wore their religion on their sleeves.
I lived through dramatic changes. I entered first grade the first year our schools were fully integrated. I remember the new doctors’ office with the waiting room that served both Black and White families. There was only one water fountain. The back door at the City Café may have only been used by Black men, but the front door was used by people of all races. The Klan may have still had some supporters but they were living in the shadows, not the open.
A decade or so after I left, the mills did, too, done in by NAFTA and new technology. The downtown where I sold newspapers as a boy lost most of its retail stores. The dime stores and department stores were killed off by the Walmart that sprouted up in a strip mall on the east edge of town along highway 74, the road that carried people from Charlotte to the beaches of North and South Carolina. Many of the proud houses that surrounded downtown fell into disrepair and, as if a final insulting blow, the drug store on the town square burned down and was never rebuilt leaving a hole in the middle of town.
For decades, Wadesboro appeared to be dying. More people left than moved into town. Businesses shuttered and few replaced them. Attempts to attract big employers never seemed to work.
Then, hints of life crept back into the town. The theater that hadn’t shown a movie in years was renovated and started hosting plays. A top-notch restaurant and bar opened in downtown and survived the pandemic. The local hardware store seems to be thriving instead of dying. People from out of state are moving back into those old houses that need more than just a little TLC. And the Catholic Church looks to be as busy as ever.
A new bypass around Monroe makes Charlotte just an hour’s drive again. Another new road just across the river bridge in Richmond County will connect U.S. 74, the main thoroughfare in the county, to the new east-west interstate highway that crosses both I-95 and I-40. Instead of sitting on the edge of a precipice, the town feels like it’s part of a budding revitalization.
At 58, I now live in another small town, just a few blocks from where my children walked to elementary school. The downtown stores are full. We have a locally owned hardware where the people greet me by name when I enter. We have a locally owned grocery store, a bike shop, and a well-stocked thrift store. The farmers market is a thriving center of commerce and social activity.
The pressures we feel come from growth. People want to move here, driving up housing prices and traffic levels. The town is attempting to stay ahead of infrastructure problems, building round-abouts that keep traffic moving and expanding bike lanes to keep people moving that way, too. Instead of being the weird side of Chapel Hill, Carrboro is now an established municipality that feels more like a suburb than an artists’ haven.
Small towns have been my passion. I’ve watched them struggle and change. I want to know both my neighbors and my local leaders. I want them to be more inclusive than they were when I was born. I hope they welcome the newcomers who bring different customs and cultures but who seek the same kind of community that people in small towns and villages seek across the country. They mostly want the comfort of a manageable society in a chaotic world. At least that’s what I want.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Mills spent 20 years as a political and public affairs consultant.