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Everyday people were civil rights heroes, too. This is the story of one town's fight

OXFORD, NC - OCTOBER 13TH, 2022: A view of downtown Oxford, North Carolina near main street. (Cornell Watson for NPR)
OXFORD, NC - OCTOBER 13TH, 2022: A view of downtown Oxford, North Carolina near main street. (Cornell Watson for NPR)

Earlier this year, when I first started throwing around the idea of profiling members of the civil rights generation, I had no idea that I would end up telling the story of my own family.

I'm used to being a voice for others and giving them a platform, but not turning the spotlight on my own loved ones.

The more I thought about it, though, it made sense to look a little closer to home. My mom, Phyllis Jones, and uncle, Ben Thorpe, lived through the tumultuous desegregation of my family's hometown. They're not in any history books. Their stories are not unique. But, in a country that still struggles mightily over race and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, stories like theirs show that the past is not dead. It's living and breathing and close.

It's what made me want to start profiling members of the "civil rights generation." Those names you know like Fred Gray, an attorney for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. And those you don't, like my mom, Phyllis, and my uncle, who I call Uncle Anthony.

Regular people lived through extraordinary times. And we should never forget.

When change came, it came painfully slow

While interviewing my mom and uncle, I realized there was so much even I didn't know about their experiences.

They grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in the small rural town of Oxford, N.C. About 30 miles from Durham, even now Oxford looks a bit like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show, with a picturesque downtown and lots of fields and farm animals on the outskirts. Back in the day, tobacco was the cash crop.

After the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruling segregation in public schools unconstitutional, and after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, laws in a lot of the country were changing. But Oxford was not.

The tentacles of racism and segregation showed up in my mom and her siblings' lives in the most mundane interactions. For instance, for a while they lived next door to a poor white family.

"The house next to us – that was the white family, and [the kids] played with us. But they wouldn't play with us in public. They only played with us at home because we were Black, so they couldn't show openly that we were really good friends," my mom said. "If we were out, they didn't know us."

Until we spoke for this story, I never knew my mom went through that.

Not only that, but the very act of going to the store with my grandmother was an ordeal.

"I always remember us going to the 5- and 10-cent store. Mama would give us the lecture. She would tell us not to move," my mom remembered. "She would tell us not to move, stand still. And we had to wait in the back in the corner, and then the waitress would take her time, and we [had] to go back to the car and eat the food."

She said she remembers wondering why the white people could sit down, but they couldn't.

"But because of the way my mama raised us, we didn't question it."

My uncle Anthony added: "I think that that's why my mother, when she went shopping, she would leave us in front of the church. And my mom would park under these shady trees and leave us there while she would go shopping in town. It was very rare in our younger years that she would let us go with her in town because she was so afraid. She was so afraid something would happen."

The murder of a Black man would change everything

In 1970 something did happen in Oxford – right across from where my great grandfather lived.

A young Black man, Henry "Dickie" Marrow, was brutally murdered outside a local store by the white shop owners who accused him of saying something they didn't like to a white woman.

Thanks to another Oxford native, Ben Chavis, that murder changed the town forever.

Unlike my mom and uncle, you will read about Chavis in the history books. He's a civil rights leader. He was a card-carrying member of the NAACP by age 12 and would go on to become president of the organization.

By 14, Chavis was a youth coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. So, when Marrow was killed, Chavis, in his early 20s, was already a seasoned organizer.

After an all-white jury acquitted the men who shot Marrow, Chavis decided it was time for action.

"We led a march from Oxford to Raleigh, which is about 45 miles, and we started out with maybe around a couple hundred people marching. By the time we got to Raleigh, we had over 3,000 people in the march. It just grew," Chavis said.

At that time Black people had to shop at white-owned businesses in Oxford. So, Chavis and others decided to hit the white people in town where it hurt: their pocketbooks.

"People knew that something needed to be done or else it's going to happen again. And we figured that why spend our money with people who don't respect us? Why spend our money in a municipality that refuses to hire?" Chavis said.

My mom and uncle were around 12 and 10 years old at this point. My grandparents didn't talk with them about the murder, but they remember the boycott and having to shop in nearby Roxboro.

It was also a time of unrest. Protesters burned white-owned businesses and tobacco crops. In response, town officials instituted a curfew. It was a scary time for my family because my grandfather, who was an orderly, worked late at the local hospital.

"We stayed awake until my father came home because we knew he was going - he'd either get stopped by the state troopers, or he would get stopped by the local cop or even by the FBI," uncle Anthony said.

Thankfully, my grandfather always made it home safe. And after months of the boycott, change did finally come to Oxford.

"A lot of our demands were met," Chavis said. "People got jobs downtown, lots for the first time in their life. And they're still working there. So, we desegregated a lot of the city. A lot of the stores that refused to desegregate closed. Like, the theater, rather than desegregate, just closed."

Change came to the schools, but Black children still faced bomb threats

And change came to the segregated schools, as well. In the midst of all of this, in the fall of 1970, uncle Anthony was part of a test group of Black children sent to a white school. He was in third grade. He remembers being scared getting on the school bus.

"Now we were on a bus with mixed races. We didn't know anything about that," uncle Anthony said. "This is what they did. They assigned seats. So, they put us all together."

So, even while taking steps to "desegregate," kids were still separated by race on the bus. And the tensions didn't stop there.

"Every day we had bomb threats," he said. "A lot of individuals in the community did not want us at the all-white school."

This was something else that I didn't know – my uncle, at 10, facing bomb threats just for going to school.

These are stories that shaped the history of our family and, ultimately, the history of this country.

My grandparents didn't talk openly about these things with their kids. They did that to protect them. My mom and her siblings just want people to know the truth.

"I wanted my children to know things that happened so you guys could tell it to your children and so on," my mom said. "But also, I wanted them to know the story so that they could pursue an even better life than what our parents or our grandparents had. If you know your history, then you understand things much better."

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