Rocky Mount Is Dead. Long Live Rocky Mount
A deeply divided city has banked on a renaissance fueled by outside investment and historic preservation. But can its reinvention take place without reconciliation?
It was a mill town, a tobacco town, and a railroad town. But as the new millennium loomed, it was a dying town.
“The severe textile slump has done what the Yankee soldiers could not: forced the closing of the South’s oldest textile company,” wrote The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A grand building on the banks of the Tar River, Rocky Mount Mills had been twice burned down and twice rebuilt. But by 1996, it closed—a casualty, some claimed, of NAFTA.
The tobacco companies were next. In 1998, the industry that had made the town a city 100 years earlier finally heard its death knell as a group of major tobacco companies surrendered to the throng of state attorney generals and entered into the Master Settlement Agreement, which obligated the companies to pay over $200 billion in damages.
Then in 1999, there was Hurricane Floyd. The storm tore through a region still recovering from a tropical storm that had hit just 10 days prior, flooding the Tar River and submerging the city. According to some estimates, 4,000 housing units were destroyed. Dozens died.
The industrial exoskeleton of the city barely remained intact.
“The main business corridors in Rocky Mount soaked for days in several feet of brown water,” reported one newspaper, a year after the storm. “Decades of work spent building the communities were washed away in a single event.”
That was then. To read about Rocky Mount today is to read about a city on the eve of its debutante, with tire manufacturers, freight companies, and even the DMV all flocking to the city and committing to new manufacturing plants, cargo terminals, or headquarters there.
In 2019, Forbes listed the city as one of the best “small places” to do business. Last year, PBS NC profiled its historic preservation and revitalization. WRAL-TV lauded the city’s craft brewery incubator and tiny-home hotel.
The 82-acre Rocky Mount Mills complex opened in 2019 with space for breweries, restaurants, and apartments, a mile northwest from Rocky Mount's downtown // Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn
When the Goodmon family-run Capitol Broadcasting Company purchased Rocky Mount Mills to repurpose it as a mixed-use complex, the Urban Land Institute wrote that the investment would turn the city “into a destination for millennials ... ultimately shifting the fortunes of the eastern North Carolina town of Rocky Mount."
It’s a familiar story for CBC, whose massive investment in Durham’s American Tobacco Campus helped convert the vestiges of the city’s industrial economy into a charming and nostalgic backdrop for trendy, modern living.
Some might call this revitalization. Others might call it gentrification. What cannot be denied is that Rocky Mount—a city Forbes listed just 12 years ago as among the country’s 10 most impoverished––is now the center of a well-financed campaign for its revival.
This would be a relatively straightforward story about a resurgent city finding its stride. But Rocky Mount isn’t a city united. Two Main Streets run downtown, separated by railroad tracks that divide the city and demarcate the boundary between its twin counties. To the west, majority-white Nash County and to the east, majority-Black Edgecombe County.
A fall from prosperity, the potential of a renaissance, all on a foundation of deep racial divisions––that’s the challenge ahead for Rocky Mount. And on the ground, there are widely different views about just how insurmountable those difficulties are.
A Main Street Divided
John Jesso, a former downtown development manager for the city, rolled his eyes when I asked about the railroad tracks and what they might say about the relationship between the counties. “I mean, yes, the county line by definition is a separating device,” he said over a cup of coffee on the Rocky Mount Mills campus. “But can we not say the railroad tracks are the zipper that binds Nash and Edgecombe together? It’s just a problem of perception, not racism.”
I asked the same question of James Gailliard, pastor of the Word Tabernacle megachurch and one of the state representatives for Rocky Mount, when I met with him, masked, in his office.
“I am the product of interracial marriage,” he said. “My parents were married when anti-miscegenation laws still existed. In the 1970s, I was literally part of a group of students desegregating magnet schools in Philadelphia. I spent time in post-apartheid South Africa doing leadership development. And despite all of those experiences, I have never lived in a more racially divided community than Rocky Mount, North Carolina.”
In 2011, when Gailliard’s church, the Word Tabernacle, applied for a loan to purchase a shuttered Home Depot building, they were rejected by every bank in eastern North Carolina. Only the Black-owned Mechanics and Farmer in Durham granted them a mortgage.
“Our church is a great example of the fact that redlining is still real,” Gailliard said. “People get upset when I say this, but if the wealthiest Black organization, with the most money in the bank and audited financials, can’t get approval in eastern North Carolina, who can?”
When he ran for office in 2018, a white man approached him outside of a grocery store, a gun visible in a holster on his hip.
“He told me, ‘I hope you lose. I would leave Rocky Mount before I lived in a community where a Black man could beat a white man,’” Gailliard recounted.
Gailliard later became the first Black man elected to represent House District 25 despite losing in nearly every white precinct.
Nash and Edgecombe counties are far from racially homogenous. The area’s segregation is more like a checkerboard than a clean separation of white and Black communities.
Still, the county divide is real, with real political and economic consequences. Three different administrations—a city council and two county commissioner boards—all have a hand in city governance, arguably working more in tension than in coordination. And that’s especially true when investment is involved.
“When jobs are landing, when companies are coming, the lion’s share of them are coming into Nash County,” Gailliard said. “When you look at new housing developments and subdivisions popping up, they generally are going to be in Nash County.”
That has begun to change in recent years, as new investments flow to Edgecombe’s side of downtown. It’s a promising—though disruptive—shift that leaves Gailliard hopeful that the railroad tracks could be cast in a new light.
“I think downtown development is the best shot we’ve got at dismantling all that racism,” he said.
(Left) Senior Pastor and State Representative James D. Galliard poses for a portrait inside the Word Tabernacle Church; (Right) Housed in a former Home Depot in downtown Rocky Mount, the Word Tabernacle Church is one of the fastest growing churches in the United States // Photos by Hanna Wondmagegn
The economic change is a result of hard-fought political change over the last 40 years, says Sue Perry Cole, president and CEO of the North Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations.
Cole moved to Rocky Mount to provide legal aid for a 1983 voting-rights lawsuit that led to a new ward system and racially balanced city representation. It took another 15 years for Black officials to win a majority of the seats on the city council—despite the fact that in the city of Rocky Mount itself, the Black population outnumbers the white population two to one.
“By the time the Black majority leadership got in place, they inherited a system that had economically bottomed out,” Cole said. “You already had an erosion of the traditional economic drivers of the region from tobacco, textiles, and manufacturing. ... The challenge for them was how to make their political empowerment manifest in the lives of the people.”
Today, four of the seven city council seats are held by Black representatives. That majority has led the rehabilitation of Douglas Block, a historically Black business hub, and the construction of the new Rocky Mount Event Center—both on the east side of downtown.
The Rocky Mount Event Center sits next to the train tracks in downtown Rocky Mount // Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn
“The Black majority on the city council made it clear that they were not going to follow the rules and tip the table in favor of Nash County,” Cole said. “And the Nash County people resisted this, even though they had benefited from an imbalance in investment into their side of town for decades, centuries even.”
That resistance was intense. Groups of locals packed city meetings, formed Facebook groups, wrote blog posts, called in to local TV talk shows, and sent out mailers accusing Black city leaders of corruption. Among the allegations: leaders hired their friends, overspent taxpayer dollars, and did nothing worthwhile in the revitalization efforts.
“Should you need further evidence of what this so-called leadership has accomplished, go, and look at the shameful decline in the neighborhoods,” wrote Stepheny Houghtlin in her Main Street Rocky Mount blog. “It is obvious that nothing comes from nothing. It is new investment that is saving Main Street.”
The scrutiny peaked in May 2020, when State Auditor Beth Wood released a report on the city. Wood said that the audit had come in response to hundreds of phone calls to their hotline that “questioned the appropriateness of operational and management decisions.”
The auditor’s office summarized the findings, which extended over nearly two decades, as follows:
"Multiple City of Rocky Mount officials prevented the Business Services Center from adhering to its utility Customer Service Policy resulting in a $47,704 write-off of a City council member’s utility account. City of Rocky Mount Downtown Development Managers failed to follow program guidelines for the downtown roof replacement and building assistance programs resulting in uncollected loan payments of $32,452 and inappropriately awarded grants totaling $28,000. The City of Rocky Mount Engineering Division violated the City’s Code of Ordinances by not collecting on a letter of credit as required after two years resulting in potential costs of $31,000 to complete subdivision improvements. The City Manager failed to comply with the City of Rocky Mount’s travel policy resulting in $1,575 in unallowable travel expenses. The City of Rocky Mount failed to designate an American with Disabilities Act coordinator since 2010 as required by federal law."
The report recommends better oversight and compliance, as well as repayment by the city manager of her $1,575 in unallowable travel expenses. There have been no criminal charges on any of these counts.
To some, the small scale of the findings—$140,000 involving a half-dozen employees over nearly two decades—confirmed that the entire process was retaliation.
“They have hurled all kinds of innuendos and charges and half-truths against the City Manager and the Black majority to erode and undercut their leadership, because they do not support the shift in investment patterns,” Cole said.
For others, the findings were proof of systemic unethical behavior on the part of the city officials.
“It doesn’t matter your color, age, gender, or religious affiliation; all these acts are wrong, unethical, and took advantage of everyone who lives in Rocky Mount,” said Mayor Sandy Roberson.
The question—investment patterns aside—remains the same as it often is in Rocky Mount: What role did race play?
“There appears to be a pattern of individual assassination of black individuals’ character and a personal attack made on black leadership,” wrote Shelly Willingham, Rocky Mount’s second Black state representative alongside Gailliard, in a statement. “One can only ascertain that there is a single reason behind this audit—to attack and discredit people of color.”
White officials and residents adamantly denied in interviews with me that any criticism toward Black officials was based on race. From their perspective, Black leaders were the ones who made it about race—often at the expense of white people.
Jesso, who had played a key role in downtown development—including on the Edgecombe side—filed a lawsuit against the city in 2018, alleging discrimination, disparagement, and unfair termination of his downtown development job.
“Part of the perception that was being painted of me is that I was not a friend of people that didn’t look like me,” Jesso said. “But if you looked at my track record, when I was the downtown manager, I recruited, expanded, or retained more minorities in businesses in downtown than [those] before me or after me.”
He saw the consistent focus on race as an obstacle to downtown development.
“I mean, why do they have to call it a Black business district?” he asked. “It should just be a business district.”
In 2019, the city settled with Jesso, admitting no wrongdoing and paying him $40,000 in workers’ compensation. In Wood’s audit a year later, Jesso was the only white official cited for misconduct.
“There are individuals in leadership here who want to continue perpetuating [that] perception of the struggle,” Jesso told me. “I think they want to perpetuate that perception because it gives them territory. They want to use race as an opportunity to profit.”
Moving Borders, Sowing Division
Rocky Mount was not always a divided city.
During Reconstruction, Black political power grew in Edgecombe County. Home to one of the largest populations of formerly enslaved people in the state, the county began to exert its influence and elect Black officials.
So the North Carolina General Assembly acted. In 1871, the legislature moved the border between Nash and Edgecombe counties from the Tar River to its present-day location along Main Street.
The shift incorporated more Black residents into Nash County, dampened their growing political power in Edgecombe, and moved both the lucrative Rocky Mount Mills and half of Rocky Mount’s bustling downtown and railroad profits into Nash County.
Over the decades to come, the divided town became a cultural and economic hub, its fortunes rising alongside the tobacco industry. Segregation became entrenched in both the working and social lives of the residents.
Beginning in the 1880s, the June German, an annual debutante ball, lit up the tobacco warehouses during the off-season. The black-tie affair for white residents attracted visitors from across the country, earning it national coverage in The New York Times and Life magazine.
The Monday after, Black citizens held their own “colored June German” dance in the same space. Its crowd rivaled and outnumbered that of its white counterpart and featured performers like Buddy Johnson, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. This was the city, after all, that raised Thelonious Monk.
Rose Fox Hunter was among the last generation to celebrate the June Germans. Her older sister debuted there in the 1950s, but the festival ended before Hunter could participate herself. Hunter grew up in Cross Town, a Black neighborhood near downtown on the Edgecombe side. For her, growing up in Cross Town felt like growing up in a Black utopia.
Rose Fox Hunter poses for a portrait in the historical Walter “Buck” Leonard home // Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn
“You had your barber shops, your beauticians, your dentists, your doctors, your lawyers, your funeral homes, your restaurants,” she remembered. “We would’ve stayed in this community … if we could have had everything that we needed.”
But over the succeeding years, investments flowed to white communities, and neighborhoods like Cross Town fell behind.
“Rocky Mount shows progress” read one headline from 1917, hailing a bond that paved streets, installed sewers, and extended street lighting—the “most remarkable advancement,” and almost exclusively in white neighborhoods. It was infrastructure targeted at the middle class and its business interests—but far too often, “middle class” and “business interests” were euphemisms for whiteness.
Local administrators prevented Black residents from benefiting from New Deal work-relief programs and War on Poverty initiatives in the region in order to keep the labor market segregated and unequal. And when the Black community of Rocky Mount did secure economic victories, they were hard-won.
Rank-and-file organizing among the city’s tobacco workers won them wage increases and vacation time in the 1940s, but an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, initiated by the local congressman, weakened the union.
In the summer of 1978, the sanitation workers of Rocky Mount organized a strike and boycott of downtown businesses after one of their workers was accused by a white resident of theft because he took a suit out of a trash can. The Black community sustained the campaign until the worker was found not guilty two months later.
Worker organizing laid the groundwork for civil-rights organizing, culminating in the 1983 voting-rights lawsuit that, as Sue Perry Cole noted, ushered in Black-majority leadership at the city level. The milestone came nearly five decades after the city began to integrate.
“Integration was both a blessing and a curse,” Hunter said. “There was an older generation that always wanted to make sure there was peace. I think that some were so grateful to be a part of the greater community, they had no vision about what that might look like. Are you getting equality here, or are you just getting something that resembles equality?”
Hunter watched as institutions of her Cross Town neighborhood—schools, doctor’s offices, clothing boutiques—declined in competition with their white counterparts. Her neighbors began to move north for more and better opportunities. Gradually, her beloved neighborhood seemed to disappear.
“We know we can’t go back to that period and make things as they were, but what can we do to make sure that the Black community doesn’t disappear in Rocky Mount again?” Hunter said. “What can we do to preserve that history? Between downtown Douglas Block, the Cross Town community, so many people lived their lives here ... a lot of history is in these homes, in these properties, in these places.”
When I visited Rocky Mount, Hunter showed me the former house of Buck Leonard, a National Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman who played in the Negro Leagues and lived in Rocky Mount. Plaques and miniature exhibitions on his life populated the house, preserved by Hunter in its original state.
The Walter “Buck” Leonard historical home honors Leonard’s childhood, career and late life as a role model in sports and in the community. The home will soon be open to the public // Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn
Rose Fox Hunter holds up a photo of her mother, Lugenia Fox, and her husband, Walter “Buck” Leonard // Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn
Photos and awards of Walter “Buck” Leonard’s achievements hang in his baseball room in his home // Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn
Hunter is considered a community historian and advocate around town. She collects and reads hundreds of children’s books on Black history as part of a regular Facebook Live series, runs a sports league for kids in her neighborhood, and advocates for the historic preservation of notable homes in her Cross Town neighborhood. She can point to any house on the street and describe the people who lived there: the first person to integrate a medical school, the first Black person to teach at an integrated high school, a notable illustrator, an accomplished athlete.
“What we’re trying to do here is, house-by-house, save a house, and at the same time, tell a story,” Hunter said. “Every time you see a story in the Black community, it goes back to the same thing: You either lost somebody, lost money, lost property, [or] lost pride. All that everybody had, they lost—and they still lose.”
“We can identify with everything about our history, because we all lived it,” she continued. “Yet still, we are a resilient people. We never stop rising.”
Unreliable Partners, Inconsistent Planning
“IMAGINE What Could Be Here,” read signs posted throughout downtown—on the former post-office building, in the window of an empty corner storefront, on a miniature billboard in an undeveloped lot.
A sign stands outside a church in downtown Rocky Mount // Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn
What is there is an eclectic mix. Boxy modern designs neighbor turn-of-the-century architecture. Colorful murals overlook a coterie of adaptive reuse, historic preservation, and new construction projects.
Today, Rocky Mount is a federal “Main Street America Affiliate” and a state-level “Main Street Community.” The city has committed to revitalizing its historic downtown, and in return it receives sizable public grants to advance “preservation-based economic development,” alongside private investment.
“Anytime you want to do downtown development, you are really cobbling together an enormous number of sources,” said community developer Lea Henry. The Department of Transportation might give money for streetscape improvements, she explained, while Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency might give money for redevelopment.
“You’re basically conceptualizing what you want to do, and then working backward to figure out where to get all the pieces of money,” Henry said.
Henry first visited Rocky Mount in 2000, just six months after Hurricane Floyd, as a regional housing recovery manager for the state. Years later, she moved to the city to work as a community development administrator, a position she held for four years.
In interviews, Black residents of Rocky Mount frequently said that Henry had “purple blood,” referring to her dual degrees from Columbia and Harvard. Henry was also on a roster of three recurring names of Black residents that white residents would cite to me as proof that they were not racially exclusive—after all, how could they be if they got along with her?
As a transplant to Rocky Mount, Henry is admittedly sensitive to the dynamics undergirding her relationships across the city.
“I have two Ivy League degrees and I’m a Black woman in Eastern North Carolina,” she said. “That allows me to move around a lot of white people here in a different way than a lot of Black people would be able to.”
Lea Henry poses for a portrait at Sunset Park in Rocky Mount // Photo by Hanna Wondmagegn
One country-club holiday party stands out to her in this connection. When she walked in with her mother, she quickly realized they were the only Black people in attendance.
“People were standing around with their cocktails, talking about how much better Rocky Mount was 40 years ago,” Henry recalled. “You can live a whole life in one quadrant of Rocky Mount where your whole orientation is to Raleigh or the beach, and you would have no idea what was going on in the rest of the city.”
In the years after the 2008 recession, Henry found herself facilitating a sizable working group to develop a strategic plan for the city of Rocky Mount, along with Nash and Edgecombe counties. The goal: develop a strategy to leverage recession-recovery funds.
“We spent several years on this,” Henry said. “We enlisted hundreds of people to participate in these study circles through their church or school or job ... [asking], what are the priority areas that the community actually needs, based on the community’s actual input?”
From that work, the group developed the Twin Counties Vision and Strategic Plan, urging an alignment of regional leadership and a coordination of development efforts.
When it came time to officially endorse the plan, Rocky Mount adopted it, as did Edgecombe County. Nash County refused to do the same––despite actively participating in the planning process for almost three years.
“It’s almost hard to read,” Henry said, as her eyes scanned across the report in front of her. (It had been years since she had looked at the report.)
“The Twin Counties will tell a new story that celebrates the assets and culture of the community, leverages the diverse array of present-day achievements, and articulates its aspirations for the future.”
She read the line out loud to herself again, then sighed.
“A lot of this conflict between Nash and Edgecombe seems really unnecessary,” she reflected. “But I do think that there’s a lot of race and class conflict that’s simmering and unexamined.”
In recent years, Nash County has also left a regional public-private partnership, Carolinas Gateway Partnership, and has played a central role in a heated debate over the city’s school districts.
“Is downtown a metaphor for Rocky Mount and the Twin Counties?” Henry asked. “It seems too easy. Maybe the metaphor for the city is a wound that is infected, but we just keep covering it, over and over again, and it never actually heals.”
Just blaming Nash County, though, may be too simplistic as well. In Henry’s opinion, the city itself routinely drops the ball on the nuts and bolts of governance.
“The city is not enforcing the laws that already exist, completely or consistently,” Henry said. “We’ve got a huge delinquent real-estate tax problem.”
Henry acknowledged that city leadership argues that they don’t want “low-income little old ladies to be pushed out of their house because they can’t afford their taxes,” but she worried that the boogeyman of gentrification and accompanying displacement was preventing the city from building the kind of neighborhoods that could both support and be supported by downtown development.
“I’ve heard, ‘We want economic development, but we don’t want people to be displaced.’ ‘We want new people, but we don’t want neighborhoods to change.’ ‘We want things to look and feel better, but we don’t want anything to cost any more,’” Henry said. “That’s magical thinking. You can’t actually get all of those all at once, but you can try to balance it with a plan—but there has been no plan.”
Today, Henry leads both a housing and revitalization initiative and a real-estate development group, each focused on bringing investment to eastern North Carolina. She has a front-row seat on neighboring cities like Franklinton and Wilmington, where similar revitalization efforts are underway—arguably with greater success than in Rocky Mount.
“To me, the question [for Rocky Mount] has been, will downtown development even really happen?” she asked.
Works in Progress
Earlier this year, Rocky Mount graced yet another celebratory list: co-living company Common named it one of the best places to work from home. The list was part of a marketing push by the company to develop “remote work hubs” across the country.
Evan Covington Chavez, the development manager for Rocky Mount Mills, applied on behalf of the project. The promotional designation stuck, and the Mills appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg CityLab.
(Left) Charles “Verb” Roberson in his downtown studio. Roberson and others are working to reimagine a section of downtown Rocky Mount as space for arts, start-ups, and community; (Right) A historic downtown area, activists and entrepreneurs see Howard Street as a potential "arts district” for the city // Photos by Hanna Wondmagegn
The arrival of new industries and investment in Rocky Mount can read like a series of hagiographies for the city’s would-be saviors. This is common in the siloed world of business media, but the multimillion-dollar Mills project from Capitol Broadcasting seems to exert its own narrative gravitational pull. It’s a compelling story: A historic complex, once a stronghold of a region’s industry, transformed into new economic opportunity—all while maintaining the architectural integrity of the building.
The Mills is collaborating with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop to build a publicly available community archive on the mill’s history and complicity in the institution of slavery—but these efforts can feel less like grappling with a complicated past and more like a preemptive strike against allegations of gentrification.
“We have to imagine how the story of Rocky Mount will be told if all that you lift up as the ‘historic perspective’ is Rocky Mount Mills,” said Sue Perry Cole. “The story of [Black] people will be rewritten, and it will not be the true history if we don’t right now stand up and say some of this has to be valued and preserved.”
Blanche’s Bistro, sits in downtown Rocky Mount. The restaurant is owned by councilmen Andre Knight and Reuben Blackwell // Photos by Hanna Wondmagegn
Cooper Blackwell, a member of the Rocky Mount Black Action Committee and the son of councilman Reuben Blackwell, poses for a portrait in Blanche’s Bistro // Photos by Hanna Wondmagegn
Photos hang on the walls of Blanche’s Bistro. The jazz-themed restaurant works to celebrate Black history through music, food and community // Photos by Hanna Wondmagegn
How do you sift through the chorus of headlines to filter the brute force of marketing from the on-the-ground reality?
“My honest response to all these different lists is, where did this data come from?” Gailliard said. “I love Rocky Mount. I love Eastern North Carolina. But I don’t think that those of us who live here believe this is an accurate assessment of our community at this point.”
This year, Gailliard said Word Tabernacle installed Wi-Fi in the church’s parking lot after he heard stories of families parking outside of businesses to borrow Wi-Fi for virtual schooling because their own homes lacked broadband. At home in a luxury apartment, the city may be a “remote work hub”—but less so in the passenger seat of a parked car.
Still, Gailliard himself has been at the center of similar glowing coverage.
In 2019, Business North Carolina featured Gailliard in a hard hat on its October cover. The words “preacher, politician, power broker,” printed below his visage, read like a Homeric epithet. The article cites “Gailliard’s influence” and “the church’s dual role as economic and spiritual developer” as factoring into the development of the new DMV headquarters, the CCX terminal, and even Rocky Mount Mills.
“I'm not anti-outside investors,” Gailliard said. “But we do have to be really cautious that as we’re creating pathways for one group of people, we’re also out boarding and creating pathways for a different group of people.”
As the city emerges from yet another economic blow with the COVID-19 pandemic, he hopes that recovery will go beyond name-brand projects and include investments in affordable housing, broadband access, and widespread job growth.
But to do so, Gailliard knows that a city that has long been divided will have to find a way to work together.
“I do think that Rocky Mount has a tremendous amount of potential,” he said. “But I also think that we are probably our own worst enemy.”