Like most people when they get older , Frank Miller and John Hughes wish they’d listened more when elders talked about history. And they wish their elders had talked less and written more.
“In the black community, oral history is more prevalent than written history,” Hughes said .
Without a written history, little may remain soon as a reminder of Collins Grove, a small African American community in northwest Guilford County founded after the Civil War.
The community includes small houses along parts of Fleming and Lewiston roads. Next door is the Cardinal Country Club neighborhood.
Hughes and Miller, Collins Grove natives in their 70s and leaders in the Collins Grove United Methodist Church, see threats ahead to a community that already has lost much of its population during the past 40 years.
More are bound to leave once Bryan Boulevard is rerouted closer to Collins Grove and a new city expressway runs north from the boulevard to Horse Pen Creek Road.
If the fears of Hughes and Miller come true and Collins Grove vanishes, it will join other former black communities such as East White Oak, Retreat Street, Persimmon Grove, Warnersville and Woodyside, which either vanished or were reduced to skeleton s of what they were.
The expressway, Hughes and Miller believe, will divide Collins Grove, cutting off some residents from one another and the church.
The road projects also are expected to bring commercial and residential development along the expressway. Developers may buy from Collins Grove residents, who will move away.
Plans were announced in December for a 63-acre complex of shops, offices and homes in the area.
“You can almost guarantee that community is on a downward spiral at a very fast pace,” Miller said .
No one seems sure what brought black people in the mid-1860s to mid-1870s to what was then an isolated part of the county.
They farmed, built a church, a cemetery and a school, and they organized a baseball team, which played on a dirt field behind the church.
In 1962, the Greensboro Daily News described Collins Grove as “one of the most pitiful examples of rural Negro slums in North Carolina.” Photos showed shanties without plumbing.
Miller and Hughes say improvements soon followed.
Many residents quit small-time farming and took jobs in Greensboro. Some bought prefabricated homes, and others built modest homes.
Still, the Collins Grove population declined as Greensboro grew toward it. From 60 families in the 1960s, Hughes and Miller estimate that about 20 remain.
Collins Grove residents realized change had arrived when stray golf balls from the Cardinal course began landing in the church cemetery and the old baseball field.
For sure, some Collins Grove residents have benefited from the Cardinal and other new developments in the area. One resident sold the land for one of the Cardinal’s entrances. Others have sold land for developments and left the community.
“There was no real leadership in the community to maintain what was ours,” Miller said . “No one said, ‘Don’t sell your land.’ People would sell it for little or nothing.”
He fears they may do so again.
Highway officials think Hughes and Miller may be overreacting.
Mike Mills, lead engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation in Greensboro, says maps show the expressway skirting, not dividing, Collins Grove.
The church and most houses would be west of the expressway, about a half-mile from the church.
Highway projects require environmental impact statements to determine possible harm to wetlands and historic tracts. A study conducted in the 1990s for the northwest road projects now in the works didn’t mention Collins Grove.
Mills agrees that the expressway might make bordering land attractive to developers. Collins Grove residents may be tempted to sell.
Migration has dropped the church’s membership in the past 10 years from about 225 to 180 members. Some former Collins Grove residents return on Sundays, but others now worship elsewhere.
The church has sought to recruit black families living in the predominantly white Cardinal community, but without success.
Cardinal residents, black and white, are mostly middle class. Miller and Hughes think they view Collins Grove residents in their smaller houses as blue-collar.
The church has been the soul of Collins Grove since black residents began holding services under a brush arbor after the Civil War. The arbor gave way to a log cabin church, then a white clapboard building, and in more recent times two brick structures.
From the beginning until about 1942, the community had a school next to the church, first in a log cabin, then in another white, clapboard building with two teachers.
Tombstones in the church cemetery hint that some early residents may have been freed slaves who adopted names of their former masters. Some of those names belonged to some of Greensboro and Guilford County’s wealthiest white families: Gilmer, Lindsay and Morehead .
Hughes and Miller say another legend has the community being formed by slaves who traveled from afar to New Garden (now the Guilford College community) to board the Underground Railroad, a network of trails and hide-outs slaves used to flee to freedom.
With the Civil War winding down and the end of slavery near, the runaway slaves decided to establish a community about two miles northwest of New Garden.
Another theory has the community’s name connected to Eddie Collins, a former soldier who died in 1935 and is buried in the cemetery. He’s the only Collins in the cemetery.
A more likely theory is the community honors William R. Collins of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His name appears in an article written by Mary A. Browning in a 1990 issue of “The Guilford Genealogist.”
Browning identifies Collins as a trustee for the “land association for freedmen.” A deed dated July 20, 1874, with Collins’ signature, conveyed 1.78 acres for a Collins Grove school. The log cabin that housed the school may have doubled as the church.
Isolated black communities such as Collins Grove — once scattered all over Greensboro and Guilford — tended to be ignored until land was needed for new roads or redevelopment projects.
Retreat Street, a black community along Battleground Avenue near Lake Daniel Park, existed until the 1960s. It vanished as part of a project that rerouted Battleground and built Wendover Avenue over it.
Sometimes a mill brought about a black community, such as Cone Mill’s East White Oak , now virtually gone. Another was Terra Cotta, many of whose residents worked nearby at the Pomona Terra Cotta plant. The plant is gone, but bits of the community remain off Norwalk Street.
Collins Grove residents still aren’t sure what brought Dan Jeffers to the community in the late 1800s. He had light skin and seemed to have money. While others in the community got around in wood buggies pulled by mules, Hughes remembers the Jefferses rode in surreys pulled by high-stepping horses.
Jeffers acquired a large farm that he called Jeffers Plantation. He carried his money in a sugar sack that he kept knotted; once, he opened that sack and pulled out $100 to donate to the replacement of an old church building. He was 100 when he died in 1956.
Collins Grove residents aren’t the only northwest Guilford residents worried about change. Cardinal residents continue to wage war against a planned FedEx hub at nearby Piedmont Triad International Airport. They fear environmental damage, including noise from late-night cargo jets.
Miller and Hughes laugh at the notion of noise. Collins Grove residents have heard it and gotten used to it since the airport opened in the 1920s.
The two favor the Fed Ex hub. They’d like to see Collins Grove people stay and get good jobs with Fed Ex.
Yet they know the road projects and the later commercial and residential development will cause some residents to sell and leave.
The money the developers offer might be more generous this time.
But Miller said , “We are going to lose more than we’ll ever gain.”
Contact Jim Schlosser
at 373-7081 or jschlosser