Many of the residents fighting Rocky Mount’s forced annexation see their battle as one of absolutes: good versus evil, freedom versus oppression, right versus wrong.
But the unprecedented intensity and persistence of the Oak Level community’s fight has a few city leaders thinking in similarly rigid terms: white versus black.
In the highly publicized struggle that has raged for more than a year between the city of Rocky Mount and hundreds of residents bent against involuntary annexation, media coverage has stopped short of addressing a four-letter word some city leaders say is an underlying factor in much of the protest — race.
Residents in the cluster of Nash County neighborhoods that make up the Oak Level community scoffed at the notion last week. They say they are fighting for individual freedoms that are as American as the flags that wave above many of their porches and yards.
“This has nothing to do with race,” Ray Shamlin said, shaking his head as he leaned over a cup of coffee in his home in the Old Carriage Farm subdivision. “If this was about black versus white, I never would have moved where I did. This is about fighting for what’s right and fighting for personal freedoms and fighting to stay out of Rocky Mount.”
A number of city leaders don’t see it so plainly, instead arguing that the fierce and sometimes venomous opposition to the planned expansion of city boundaries is shaded — at least to some degree — by complicated issues of class, geography and race.
“This is a very complex issue,” said Reuben Blackwell, one of four black Rocky Mount City Council members who make up the board’s racial majority. “I don’t believe that race is the defining issue in all this, but I do believe it is an issue. I have heard some very racist comments demonstrating a degree of prejudice and ignorance during this annexation process.”
More than a few Oak Level residents expressed outrage when asked if they felt race has factored in their protest.
“The only people making this about race are on city council,” white Oak Level resident Gail Hale said. “We’ve been pretty straightforward with our argument, I think. It’s about freedom.”
Reading between the lines
The vast majority of the Nash County residents who have protested the annexation are white, but not exclusively. Shirley Whitaker, a 63-year-old black Oak Level resident, said she grows angry at accusations that her community’s opposition is somehow rooted in race.
“Where is the color?” Whitaker said. “I see a bunch of people upset because our rights are being violated. Do you see color? No. It’s a bunch of crock.”
The Oak Level Community Against Forced Annexation has made its position clear during the past 15 months, echoing many of the same arguments made over the years against North Carolina’s 50-year-old annexation law. Oak Level residents have spoken at numerous public hearings against forcing county property owners to pay thousands of dollars in new city taxes and fees without even allowing them a vote.
Protesters at the meetings have questioned the ethics of forced annexation and challenged the motives of city leaders who, for all intents and purposes, have voted to expand the local tax base at the expense of individual residents, many of whom pay bills on a fixed income.
Property owners have argued their neighborhoods are more rural than they are urban and repeatedly have told city staff they have no need for city services.
“What does any of that have to do with race?” asked Charlene Moore, a white woman and a vocal leader of the Oak Level protest. “It’s a diversion from the real issues.”
What concerns Blackwell and other city leaders, though, is what some annexation opponents seem to be saying between the lines of otherwise well-rationed arguments and what some Oak Level residents have been willing to say in certain company.
The day after one particularly heated public hearing in late 2008, a white annexation opponent opined to a Telegram reporter his theory that the entire annexation scheme was “a plan by the black majority city council” to redistribute white wealth to pay for “inner-city welfare programs” in Rocky Mount. Variations of that argument have been repeated to some city staff, officials said.
Another white member of the annexation protest group told a reporter her plans, once the annexation is defeated, to eradicate the local ward system because, “in some of these wards, there isn’t a single person qualified to be on city council,” she said. City ward maps are regulated by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act to protect against discrimination in local elections.
In public meetings, many of the Oak Level protesters have made clear their disdain for the city, often calling Rocky Mount a den of crime and deriding projects to redevelop downtown and the Douglas Block — a historic hub of the black community — as a “waste of money.”
In a Southern city with a majority-black population that only last decade elected its first black majority to city council and hired its first black police chief, Councilman and local NAACP President Andre Knight said he has been upset by the tone of the annexation debate.
At least five city department heads — both black and white — have spoken off the record with the Telegram in recent weeks about incidents in which they felt annexation opponents demonstrated a prejudice against black city leadership.
“I think there is more to it than this, but I do believe a lot of people in the Oak Level community don’t want to be part of a majority African-American city,” Knight said. “And they do not want to adhere to African-American leadership. That’s just the impression I’ve gotten from them.”
What is urban shall be city
Several city leaders agree that the Oak Level fight against annexation is the boldest and most brutal opposition to a city policy Rocky Mount has seen in decades, Assistant City Manager Peter Varney said.
But the process is nothing new. Every decade or so, Varney said, the city assesses new residential development and makes a plan to annex areas where dense clusters of development are crowding around the city.
That growth plan follows the spirit by which the state annexation law was written, Planning Director Ann Wall said, “That which is urban shall be municipal.”
“Even though we believe there to be an equal exchange between the city and residents, we’ve never done a forced annexation without some opposition,” Varney said. “But we have also never had this intense of an opposition. It’s hard to say exactly why that is.”
Shamlin and other annexation opponents say they find the city’s arguments for annexation disingenuous.
“The city isn’t interested in offering us services,” Shamlin said. “That’s a bunch of bull.”
Varney and Wall, who are both white, declined to speak on the record about the ramifications of race in the annexation controversy.
Varney and Wall did say, though, that geographic and demographic shifts during the past 20 years probably factor to some degree in the Oak Level annexation protest.
Managing a shifting population
Councilwoman Chris Miller said she believes those population shifts, more so than race, have factored in the sharp opposition to this annexation.
“I don’t know if there is a racial element,” said Miller, who is white. “I would not presume to ascribe motives to people. But what I do see is a county-versus-city divide that has shaded this debate in a lot of ways.”
Between 1990 and 2008, the number of white people living in Rocky Mount decreased by about 5,000 people, according to U.S. Census data, while during the same period, the number of black residents grew by nearly 10,000 people. Meanwhile, the data shows, the population of both black and white residents surrounding the city has grown at a steady rate.
It’s unclear what specific factors have led to the population shift, city officials said, but many of the people who live in the Oak Level community are former Rocky Mount residents who say they moved during the past 10 or 15 years to escape crime and other social ills they came to associate with the city.
“We didn’t want to live in the city anymore,” Debbie Smiley said. “(My husband and I) moved out here to the county to get away from high taxes and high utilities, and now they’re trying to pull us back in. This isn’t urban out here.”
A short drive through the Oak Level community gives credence to both sides of the debate. Hundreds of residents live on quarter- and half-acre lots in large subdivisions, some of which already are equipped with city water and sewer. But to get from neighborhood to neighborhood, you must drive past ranging farm land and wooded fields.
“We’re country people,” Gale Hale said while holding her grandson inside her home off Tanbark Drive. “We always have been country people. We moved here (23 years ago) from Enfield never thinking we would ever be a part of Rocky Mount.”
Shamlin, 66, and his wife weren’t always country people. They lived in Rocky Mount for several years in the 1980s and 1990s before, he said, crime grew out of control. Shamlin and several other annexation opponents said they believe if Rocky Mount succeeds in expanding its borders, the crime will seep into their tight-knit communities because, he said, the city police department is understaffed.
A region divided
Blackwell and other council members say, more than anything, they have been frustrated by the anti-Rocky Mount sentiment articulated throughout the protest.
When Forbes Magazine declared Rocky Mount one of the 10 most impoverished metropolitan areas in the nation, the Oak Level group rallied around the report, even though their community was included in the analysis.
“It’s like they don’t understand that the only reason their communities exist where they do is because of their proximity to the city,” Blackwell said. “You know, if Rocky Mount is so terrible, why did you park your car right outside city limits? Why didn’t you move to very rural Nash County or further down east where there are no metropolitans if you are so intent on hating the place where you live?”
Miller said she hopes the city and Oak Level will move beyond the conflict and work together toward achieving common goals of economic growth and prosperity.
But for now, the heated battle between Rocky Mount city leaders and residents of the Oak Level community doesn’t seem to be fading. Oak Level leaders are promising a long and expensive court battle with the hopes of tying up the annexation until laws are changed in Raleigh.
Not every family plans to stand their ground forever, though.
If the city succeeds in its bid to annex Oak Level on June 30, Mary Joyner and dozens of her neighbors already have committed to moving farther away from the city. Joyner, 80, and her 81-year-old husband, Edward, say they won’t be able to afford, on their fixed income, to pay city taxes and thousands of dollars to run sewer and water lines along their corner lot.
Joyner, who is white, agreed that race is a factor in the bitter annexation fight. She said “some black city council members” unjustly make everything about race.
“I don’t know what we’ll do if they get their annexation,” Joyner said. “But you know, this is the same thing Hitler did in World War II. He took all those little countries without even firing a shot. That’s exactly what this arrogant city council is doing.
“We eventually won the war against the Nazis, but back then we had artillery to fight back. We don’t have that luxury this time.”