Southern Pines is a resort town that tourists frequent for its golf course, quaint stores, and leisurely pace of life. Recently, however, Southern Pines’ neglected history has started to emerge—the story of the African Americans who lived on the town’s Westside, and whose labor enabled the upper-class lifestyles and hospital industry that popularized the town. Route 1 runs directly through the town, dividing it into two communities. The Eastside was historically populated by Scottish immigrants, while African Americans lived in the West. This dividing line extended beyond the highway. It ran throughout the entire town, signifying where African Americans worked, shopped, ate, and socialized. An online oral history project documents the experience of these residents, while telling the larger story of the Black experience in the Jim Crow era.
The Founding of Southern Pines
Southern Pines began in 1884, when John T. Patrick bought 675 acres of land for $1,265. The land was cheap for a reason: its sandy soil made it difficult to build upon. Patrick, however, saw the area’s balmy climate and pine-tree filled air as an opportunity to create a health resort. It did become a resort—just not solely focused on health. Instead, Southern Pines grew as a place for Northerners to escape the harsh winters, for golfers to hone their game, and for people like poet and author James Boyd to build historic estates.
Southern Pines’ Two Communities
The development on the town’s Eastside was matched with growth on the Westside, as African Americans moved in to find jobs in the town’s growing industry. They worked as golf caddies, maids, landscapers, carpenters, chauffeurs, or any skilled laborer positions that the town offered. They also worked to build a life for themselves and their family, creating community with their neighbors in order to support each other.
This type of solidarity was risky. In 1898, white supremacists destroyed the African American community in a town just 135 miles away. They called it the “Wilmington Coup,” because it overturned the community’s legitimately elected African American local government. In reality, it was a massacre: anywhere from 60 to 300 innocent men, women and children were killed for daring to establish a slice of sovereignty.
The Wilmington Coup is just one example of the daily realities that African Americans reckoned with. The Ku Klux Klan still loomed, and Jim Crow laws predominated. Indeed, some say that “Jim Town”—the unofficial nickname for West Southern Pines—referenced those laws. Despite the contrasts in safety, wealth, and potential between the town’s West and East sides, African Americans still united to build institutions for their community and to eventually self govern.
West Southern Pines’ Incorporation
In 1923, West Southern Pines became one of the first incorporated African American towns in North Carolina. Its residents could elect and be governed by their own mayor and city council. This governmental structure mirrored the resilience and self-sufficiency that the community demonstrated in its daily life. They earned money not just to survive, but to give their children a future and their own lives a deeper sense of connection. This solidarity is reflected in the recorded testimonials of its residents, who observed the strength of community continuing even after the town was annexed in 1931.
Take Dorothy Brower, who was born in St. Joseph Pines Hospital in 1951. “All of our needs were met and most of our wants,” says Dorothy (whose friends call her “Dot”). “We grew up with the self-confidence that what we can do, that we will do. Our parents never told us we were not as good as white folks. And we had the support of everybody in the community, everybody in the schools. We didn’t have to look outside our homes and communities for our heroes.”
After graduating from West Southern Pines High School in 1969, Dot went on to graduate from North Carolina Central University and start teaching at Durham Technical Community College. When she retired and returned to Southern Pines, the school established a scholarship in her honor. She came back to her hometown, she says, because the community needs “more folks like me who are active in helping to revive the sense of ‘community’ that I grew up with.”
Cynthia McDonald, a now-retired English professor who graduated from the same high school as Dot in 1956, also recalls the community’s emphasis on education. “We had exceptionally good educators,” she recalls. “I had one lady, Terry Watkins, who taught French, history, civics and Spanish, and made time to take us on a bus to see plays.”
West Southern Pines’ Annexation
Although West Southern Pines’ Black residents fought hard to give their children more opportunities, segregation and racism still disrupted their lives. African Americans had to use separate entrances for the town’s theatre, weren’t allowed to try on clothes in clothing stores before buying them, and were refused service at drugstores. In 1931, West Southern Pines was annexed, partially due to white business owners’ fear that headlines about delinquent African Americans would hurt their business. When the Route 1 bypass was constructed in the 1940s, it destroyed the residences of several Black families.
To this day, visitors to Southern Pines can see the difference made by these racial lines. On the East side of Route 1 stands handsome estates, well-groomed lawns, and tourist shops. On the Westside, you can find ruins like that of the R.C. Lawson Institute and homes built brick-by-brick by African American owners. While Route 1 is just a symbol of these divisions, it reminds us that despite our country’s progress in racial equality, not all lines can be quickly or easily erased.