After seeing a brochure which detailed an African American heritage trail while attending a tourism conference in Durham, Mona Padrick, then-president of the Jacksonville-Onslow Chamber of Commerce, decided Onslow county would benefit from making their own heritage trail throughout the county. One that the community can learn and grow from.
And so, less than a month later in 2010, the task to recognize and honor the rich African American heritage abound was given to Linda Richardson, the chamber’s part-time Minority Business Service Representative. Under the leadership of Million Heir-Williams, then-vice president of the Jacksonville-Onslow Chamber of Commerce and Minority Business Services Division Manager, the African American Heritage Trail was slated to begin.
It would be an endeavor Richardson would not see fully actualized before her sudden death that same year.
Beyond color, race or creed the African American Heritage Trail’s intent was specifically geared toward helping the community understand the hard work African Americans had put into shaping what we see, hear and experience today.
It was, as Heir-Williams said so beautifully, “an invitation to learn about the rich irreplaceable heritage we have surrounding us.”
And recently, my family and I traveled to each and every stop.
We followed, one by one, the string of crisp wooden white four post markers posted throughout Onslow County. Some were slightly weathered with time while others appeared brand new. It was an opportunity to teach my son about the community in which we have chosen to build our family in. And I had hoped others would be out doing the same. I had anticipated other families, visitors, and military transplants sharing and learning within the same space. But, we were joined by no one.
There were men sitting by outdoor picnic tables. Women rollerblading and others walking their dogs. Still, not a single one took time to stop by the markers. Did they know what they were? At one point, at the Jacksonville USO (one of the actual stops on the trail) someone asked if we were doing Pokemon Go.
My heart sank.
In 2011 the first marker -- a white four post sign slightly angled and protected by plexy glass -- was placed. It was a dedication to Richardson herself and the effort she had put forth for the Trail before her untimely death. Richardson is remembered for her expertise and outstanding communication skills. She helped create a liaison with the chamber to ensure all business leaders and small business owners had equal opportunity provided by the Chamber.
“The energy, the synergy, and momentum all began with Linda’s effort,” said Heir-Williams. “I don’t think the African-American Heritage Trail would have ever developed had it not been for Linda Richardson. With her level of expertise, communication and dialog that she had with Mona Padrick (as it relates to the minority business services department) — that was the stage that was set for things to come.”
And come they did after a beautiful unveiling. There were gospel choirs, guest speakers and luxury liner buses called FAM buses that took members of the community around to enjoy the dream both Padrick and Richardson dreamed of. The trail itself was to have four main points of interest categorized by parts: leaders, culture, community, and history.
“It was a day of pride, jubilee, excitement in the air and everyone had smiles on their faces across the room,” Williams said. There were also sporadic television commercials calling out to the community to do their own research and submit an application to the chamber for consideration of other maker locations. And from that first marker arrived others.
There’s the Sandy Run Missionary Baptist Church marker, the Verona Loop Cemetery, the marker at 36 Kerr Street noting the Voting Rights Task Force, Little Zion AMEZ Church, and the Hammock’s Beach State Park marker. And the marker that stunned my family the most, because it brought to life the pain, the sacrifice, and the resilience of our community: 228 Georgetown Road remembering Georgetown High School.
Where the trail fades away
In all, there listed were 18 individual markers on the trail. Each one provided a glimpse into history. And finding them felt much like an exciting scavenger hunt. “There’s one,” my cousin cried. “I found another one,” shouted my son. And then the unexpected happened, together we unexpectedly stumbled upon a marker: Louise Anderson’s, Master Storyteller.
Anderson’s marker shared the delight thousands across North Carolina took in her storytelling. She received critical acclaim for her excellent performance as Dark Sally in Tom Davenport’s children’s classic, “Ashpet: An American Cinderella.” Humor was paramount to Anderson and she is quoted as saying, “A nation that can’t laugh, can’t survive.”
There was also something wrong with Anderson’s marker. It wasn’t listed on the Heritage Trail brochure we picked up at the Chamber.
The number on the back to submit a site for consideration is also wrong. It reads to contact Million Heir-Williams but Williams hasn’t been in that role since July 2015.
“The brochures have not been reprinted because of funding issues,” explained Laurette Leagon, the current Jacksonville-Onslow Chamber of Commerce President. But, she said it was in the works. “We felt it was more important to take care of the aging signs than print a brochure.”
Accurate listings, she explained, were on the www.onlyinonslow.com website. “Our focus now is on replacing the aging signs.”
Still, Anderson’s marker and details are not listed. And instead of 19 trail markers, the website only lists 17. Missing, too, is the Jacksonville-Onslow Sports Hall of Fame, a marker that which celebrates our community’s African-American athletes and coaches, like UNC and NFL player Marcus Jones and boxer and coach Roosevelt Sanders.
Williams, also appointed in 2014 by former Governor Pat McCroy to serve on the NC Council for Women, in which she is still serving, reminds me of the point of the Heritage Trail and what its founders envisioned.
“I think the trail offers a sense of cohesiveness in the community. When we all expand our information and our knowledge and learn of other cultures it creates a place within us that again, creates gratitude at our core being,” she said.
Repaving the trail
“More advertisement needs to be done, number one.” Williams said of the marketing of the trail. “And you’ve got to have distribution points — sure the brochures are in the museum and the different churches on the trails have access to the brochures, but it needs to be more wide spread.”
But that is just the beginning.
“There is so much history that we haven’t touched on yet and that is why I say, so much is being lost and has been lost,” Arthine Thomas, a Richlands native, said. “There are African American businessmen and women, political notables, religious leaders, cultural heritage, etc. that haven’t been recognized yet. I understand we can’t put up a marker for everyone/everything, but I am proud of the start we have made in the Jacksonville-Onslow African-American Heritage Trail.”