A few weeks ago, I read a story in The Washington Post about a historic moment for my family: The bones of freedman Smith Price were returned to Asbury United Methodist Church, where my mother’s family attended for generations, my parents married, and I was christened. 

Price, who donated the land the church was built on, was freed in 1791 and established a village of freed people just outside of Annapolis, Maryland. 

But in the 1980s, like most historically Black neighborhoods, this community was seen as “blight” and crushed under the heel of urban renewal. Despite residents asking the city for an archaeological survey, officials were too thirsty for the luxury townhomes that would replace their modest homes. As construction crews began demolition, they ripped into a basement, exposing bones and coffins. 

Luckily, local archaeologist Wayne Clark was there the moment the cemetery was sliced in two. He moved quickly, gathering what remained and transferring it to a museum storage site. There it sat for thirty years, until Janice Hayes-Williams—an Asbury church member, historian, and family friend—came to a meeting at the museum. By chance, Hayes-Williams asked if there were any bones from Annapolis at the museum, and the first set she was shown was that of Smith Price and his son.

For me, this story is bittersweet because, while I’m thankful the priceless artifact was brought back into the prominence it deserves, I see the same struggle to preserve Black history right in front of me. Raleigh is in the midst of its own Smith Price saga, but the name is John Chavis. 

John Chavis Memorial Park has been a thorn in the Raleigh City Council’s side for decades. What was once a jewel in the flourishing South Park neighborhood at the height of the Jim Crow era—with a baseball field, gymnasium, and pool that attracted Black families from all over the state—was stripped of resources after integration and left to deteriorate.   

Chavis, a Revolutionary War hero,  never knew the chains of a master. A world-class teacher, he opened his first school in Raleigh in 1808, then opened more in surrounding counties. 

According to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Chavis Park was built near the sight of the first school. Local activist Lonnette Williams believes that Chavis’s school lies beneath the park, between the original carousel building and the playground. 

Williams has fought for many years for Chavis Park to be restored to its former glory. 

“Even if the school isn’t there, this location was the gathering hub for the entire park,” she says. “Who knows what priceless artifacts we will find if we take the time to look.” 

Like in Annapolis, it’s taken a long time for Raleigh to give the park its due. Much of Williams’s advocacy has involved convincing the council and city staffers that the long-ago features the community described in the park actually existed. 

The event that launched Williams into advocacy came in 2007, when she got word from then-council member Russ Stephenson that the city wanted to raze the park and turn it in an aquatic complex. Williams was appalled. The community was never asked—and residents didn’t want it. Since then, Williams has been deeply involved in plans for Chavis Park’s renovation. 

It’s been an uphill battle, but the city recently broke ground on phase one of the refit. Excavators and bulldozers are edging ever nearer to the area Williams believes is the site of the Chavis School. 

There are no plans in place for an archaeologist to be present. All I can think about are the thirty years it took for Smith Price’s bones to finally be returned to rest in Annapolis. 

Everyone has a right to see their heritage celebrated in the city in which they have sown their blood, sweat, and tears. Raleigh has memorialized plantations, enslavers, and Confederate soldiers. But when it comes to proudly recognizing the free Black people and their enslaved counterparts who built this city, it falls short. 

My life and my connection to my country is so much richer knowing the story of Smith Price. When I visit my aunts and cousins, I can drive to St. Anne’s cemetery and pay my respects to the man whose hard work and generosity provided the church that knit together a community and created my family. 

Imagine what the items potentially hidden beneath John Chavis Memorial Park could mean to the residents who created lifelong memories there. And imagine the soul-crushing pain of watching the powers-that-be drive a bulldozer through their connection to their heritage—our heritage. 

I hope for folks like Williams, folks who have given so much to Raleigh, that the city honors them by honoring their past.

COURTNEY NAPIER is a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins.

NEXT WEEK: BARRY SAUNDERS, a former News & Observer columnist.

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INDY Voices—a rotating column featuring some of the Triangle’s most compelling writers—is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club. Visit KeepItINDY.com for more information.