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History in the remaking: Proposed Benbow Road district takes first steps forward

History in the remaking: Proposed Benbow Road district takes first steps forward

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Editor's note: This installment is part of a series of stories following the grassroots effort to document the South Benbow Road area as a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places.

GREENSBORO — A project to nominate the South Benbow Road area as a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places is underway and recently got a boost from state officials.

The tentatively-titled Benbow Road Historic District is an important part of Greensboro's fabric, filled with homes designed by noteworthy African-American architects and occupied by Black residents whose pioneering accomplishments have made their mark on the city, state and country. 

For a time, the area was prominent Black people's answer to prominent, and white, Irving Park during segregation.

Benbow Road, though, is more than a road. It's a reference, too. A catch-all term encompassing many of the neighborhoods off the main road.

The grassroots project has sparked interest, according to North Carolina historical preservation officials, as people learn more about the homes and their occupants past and present. They include Henry Frye, the first African-American chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.

The late civil rights attorney Kenneth Lee lived there as well. Inside his Broad Avenue home, he talked strategy with the likes of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Alvin Blount, who lived on East Side Drive, was among the Greensboro doctors who asked courts to integrate Moses Cone Hospital, leading to hospitals across the country having to do the same.

Wayne Muhammad lives in a house formerly occupied by William Streat, one of the state's first Black architects.

"When we first moved into the house we heard a little bit about the history of the neighborhood and the house in particular," said Muhammad, a charter school principal. "Words cannot describe the sense of pride that I felt, along with a deep sense of honor, to live in a house with so much rich history built by such a trailblazer and prominent figure in Greensboro African-American history.

"As a former history teacher, the irony did not escape me either that I was now neighbors with the same N.C. Supreme Court chief justice that I taught my former middle school students about on so many occasions.

"What an amazing twist."

The state's National Register Advisory Committee voted unanimously during a virtual meeting earlier this month to move the project forward with the condition that additional research includes more of the people who live in the communities and involvement from Bennett College and N.C. A&T historians.

Many of the Black architects who designed houses were proteges of Edward Lowenstein, whose white architectural firm in Greensboro was the first in the state to hire Black professionals. They include Edward “Blue” Jenkins, who designed Dudley High School’s gymnasium and was the third licensed Black architect in the state.

The next step for organizers is to hire a consultant to do a house-by-house inventory of the area and put together the city's nomination.

During the virtual meeting, Heather Slane of Durham-based HMW Preservation told the group that the project already has an energy that's buoyed by residents.

"The city really feels like this is the first step in something that’s long overdue," Slane said. 

Historian David C. Dennard questioned how involved residents in the historically African-American community might be in the project.

"I know from an African-American historian perspective that we have been studied … by people who didn’t necessarily understand us," said Dennard, who has worked extensively with museums and historic sites in North Carolina. "It didn’t mean they were malicious, but they didn’t understand us and we’ve been working to change that."

Much of the information gathering about the venerable area was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Slane and others had plans to go through the archives at nearby Bennett College and A&T, and coordinated oral interviews with the Greensboro Historical Museum.

"The oral history part is what we really missed out on because of COVID," Slane said.

The idea to get recognition from the National Register of Historic Places grew out of the curiosity of Eric Woodard, a newcomer to the city drawn to the mid-modern homes and later awed by the fascinating stories behind them. As with segregated areas at the time, the range of Black economic classes was often separated by just blocks, but could be found among the same church pews during Sunday morning services.

Woodard, a member of Preservation Greensboro, got a few friends interested in finding a way to tell the area’s story — and his research caught on.

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

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