To understand the institutional racism which WERA is fighting against today, one must look back at the past, specifically what happened 151 years ago. In 1870, during the aftermath of the Civil War, a man named Wyatt Outlaw became the first Black appointed official in Alamance County. He was appointed by Governor William W. Holden who was also born in Alamance. Unfortunately, his tenure as an appointed official was short because, on the night of February 26th 1870, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan lynched Outlaw. Outlaw’s murder and other high-profile lynchings motivated Governor Holden to form a small army. The army was lead by a former Union Army colonel named George Washington Kirk. This conflict has been historically referred to as “The Kirk-Holden War.” Skirmishes ensued in nearby Caswell and Chatham Counties, and, eventually, white outrage reached such a fever-pitch that Governor Holden was impeached and forced out of office. He remains the only state governor in American history to be successfully impeached and removed from office. The legacy of these events can still be felt in Alamance County today since a Confederate monument stands in front of the county courthouse in Graham, watching over all those who walk up the courthouse steps.
Flash forward to 1994, Omega and Brenda Wilson, along with other community members, co-found the West End Revitalization Association (WERA). They looked around their home of the West End Community and saw a place that was ailing from a lack of public amenities and being threatened with demolition from the NC Department of Transportation (NCDOT). The 119 bypass and interstate project, a planned eight-lane interstate corridor, was projected to plow through West End and White Level, leaving homes, churches, and cemeteries destroyed and dozens of homeowners displaced. In 1999, WERA submitted a federal complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in reference to the Environmental Justice Executive Order of 1994 to the US Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ then directed six branches of the federal government to investigate the city of Mebane’s lack of oversight regarding civil rights and public health guidelines during the highway planning process that had been going on for 16 years without public input. For the next seventeen years, from 1999 to 2016, highway construction was placed on moratorium. In response to WERA’s DOJ complaint, the planned 119 bypass corridor was modified to save dozens of homes, a two-hundred-year-old community cemetery, and a historic African-American house of worship, Mebane First Presbyterian Church. This church had its first cornerstone laid right after slavery ended in 1865. Unfortunately, WERA was not able to save the original site of St. Luke’s Christian Church, which had an original cornerstone that was laid in 1893.
After WERA’s 1999 DOJ complaint was filed, WERA submitted other complaints that addressed issues under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The dual purpose of these other complaints was to combat environmental injustices as a whole and to insure Black, Indigenous, and Latinx residents in Alamance County and Orange County receive the basic amenities for which their tax dollars already pay. Basic amenities, also known as public health infrastructure, can be thought of as everything you get when you check into a hotel room (i.e. safe drinking water, safe and efficient sewer, and an affordable roof over your head) in addition to other common necessities like paved roads and sidewalks. The reason behind this lack of basic amenities can be attributed to institutional racism, something the DOJ referred to as “Revisionism.” Instead of allocating money toward the extension of sewer lines in People of Color communities, which have existed in tandem with the city for generations, Mebane continually gives money, at the expense of tax-paying residents, to wealthy corporations like Walmart and Lidl. With these tax-funded incentives, giant corporations build large facilities. These facilities bring new jobs. However, their planning and construction often create disparities for People of Color Communities which have existed for one-hundred-and-fifty years.
Fortunately, thanks to WERA’s activism, more than 100 homeowners, out of 500, have since had sewer lines installed for the first time and dirt streets paved with the support of federally-funded community development block grants (CDBG). Currently, similar injustices still occur. For example, the Mill Creek Golf & Country Club, a haven for white and affluent residents, threatens to engulf White Level and displace its predominantly Black population. City sewer and water lines still are not available to some Black, Indigenous, and Latinx residents of the historic community of White Level, despite many cases of water and sewer lines existing in the adjacent Mill Creek community. Similarly, Spectrum, the corporation which controls broadband internet access, regularly denies White Level residents internet access despite broadband lines existing across the street in the same area. Finally, a variety of industrial facilities, which all exist in close proximity to these People of Color Communities, emit diesel exhaust and other dangerous chemicals into the air, ground, and water. Fortunately, WERA is not going anywhere. They will continue seeking to reduce the impacts of institutional racism in the Mebane area and other parts of North Carolina. They will also continue their fight to give all residents of Mebane and its surrounding areas the basic amenities for which their tax dollars already pay.