When Prenetta Evans saw the truck coming down her driveway carrying a baby casket, she fell apart. The three-man crew cranked up their construction equipment and the trees beside her house began to fall. Under those trees lay the remains of her baby, Courtney, who died in 1974 only a week after her premature birth.
“At the time, my husband and I didn’t really have the money to buy a casket and have a proper burial,” she says. “So we put her in a nice blanket, and put her in a box and buried her out in the yard.”
It was peaceful under the pines, oaks and dogwoods on the three acres her husband, John Lee Evans, had inherited from his father. The neighborhood was rural then, a place where people grew their own crops and raised chickens and pigs on their land. Neighbors left their doors unlocked, and kids played in the street and picked wild pears and blackberries in the woods. The couple had built their house togethershe helped hang drywall and mix mortarthe year before Courtney’s death. Over the years, as their two sons grew, she often stared out the window at the plain stone that marked her daughter’s grave.
Now a widow, Prenetta Evans watched a grave relocation crew attempt to excavate her baby’s remains.
With a backhoe.
“She was just hysterical the whole time,” recalls Charles Rainey, pastor of Cary First Christian Church. “I kept trying to get her to go inside the house, and she wouldn’t do it. I guess she was just waiting to see what they dug up.”
Yulonda Moore also witnessed the event. Moore works for the Town of Cary, which hired the contractor. “Yulonda, she was very nice,” Rainey says. “She was about to cry, too. I told her, ‘I’m sure none of us understood that this was what they were going to do.’”
Using eminent domain, the Town of Cary had taken a portion of Evans’ property as part of a $6.4 million road-widening project. Once a dirt path off Highway 54 that dead-ended in the woods, Evans Road is now a busy connector between Morrisville and Cary. The .87-mile stretch between Thorpe Drive and Maynard Road is being widened from two lanes to five, with sidewalks and gutters, extending the right-of-way by 30 feet.
The project has affected 55 properties, though perhaps none quite as drastically as Prenetta Evans’. Though her house sits more than 150 feet from the road, town engineers deemed it necessary to move her driveway and tear down many of her trees to create a drainage ditch along the length of her property.
After several months of negotiations, Evans and town officials failed to agree on a settlement, so the town invoked eminent domain. She and five of her neighborsincluding the pastor himself, on behalf of the churchare suing for what they consider fair compensation for the property affected by the road-widening.
“People probably go through here, up and down this roadI’m sure they probably do not have a clue the fight that has been going on in the past year,” says Rainey, as he points out the most affected houses from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck. “I guess people always expect there to be changes over the process of time. But you know, as a retired soldier, the first time I heard about eminent domain, I thought, is this really American? Once you get land, you kind of think you’re going to own land the rest of your life and that no one can just take your land and say, well, it’s for the good of the city or the community.”
Many people view Cary as the epitome of white, upper-middle-class suburbia, a place that seemed to sprout up in the early 1990s as a “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees,” as the local joke goes. The town National Geographic described in 2001 as “a futuristic Pleasantville” isn’t known for its history, let alone a rich African-American history. But before the high-tech boom in Research Triangle Park caused Cary’s population to double each decade since the 1950s, this was a small-town stop at the railroad junction, with farms, pine forests and rural homesteads on the perimeter of a vibrant downtown populated, in part, by a thriving community of land-owning African Americans. (See sidebar at end of article.)
Now, as the town grapples with a burgeoning population and their cars, one of its founding families is being squeezed out. The widening of Evans Road has displaced a neighborhood of mostly elderly African Americans, many of whom belong to the Evans family, which originally settled in Chatham and western Wake counties in the late 19th century.
Clyde and Vermel Evans bought 100 acres here in 1937 for $1,000. A pulp and timber man by trade, Clyde gave each of his nine children a share of the land. The rest he sold to other African-American families, many of them sharecroppers, allowing them to escape poverty by doing what then seemed impossible: building their own houses on their own land.
In Just a Horse-Stopping Place: An Oral History of Cary, North Carolina, historian Peggy Van Scoyoc quotes Clyde Evans Jr. summing up his father’s ambition: “My father [was a] great land lover. Land was his first love. Daddy wanted to build him a town for people not fortunate enough to have any land to build on.”
Clyde and Vermel Evans donated the land for Cary First Christian Church, and in 1968, members of the congregationone a carpenter, one a plumber, and so onbuilt it, from the cinderblock walls to the hardwood altar. James Lovelace Evans, the first to settle on this road, sold some of his land to the Wake County School system for what is now West Cary Middle School. Down the road, Clyde Evans Jr. hosted a ’50s juke joint in his home, which drew African-American patrons from across Wake County. In the early 1960s, Jeanette Evans petitioned the state to pave what was then a dirt road at the edge of town.
A few members of the Evans family have cashed in on Cary’s growth. They’ve sold their land to real estate developers, including George Bailey, one of Clyde and Vermel’s grandchildren. George Bailey and his brothers have built several subdivisions in Wake County. And 10 years ago, the log house that belonged to Clyde and Vermel Evans and their children was torn down to make way for Evans Estates, a 14-acre Bailey brothers project of modern split-level single-family homes that sell in the $200,000-$300,000 range. George Bailey lives there in a home he built for himself and his wife. Several other family members also have houses there.
George Bailey is the go-to guy in the neighborhood, a successful businessman with the means (and at age 57, the relatively youthful energy) to help his elderly neighbors. When Prenetta Evans’ car got stuck in mud from the construction, he rescued her in his four-wheel-drive so she could attend church. And it was he, along with Pastor Rainey, who decided to organize Evans Road residents to ask for more money for their land than the Town of Cary was offering.
Rainey has encouraged church members who feel they’ve been treated unfairly to challenge the town in court; the condemnations might be unavoidable, but how much the town pays them is the point of contention. “It’s not a matter that people are greedy,” Rainey says. “They just expect fair compensation.”
He pulls up beside the home of Lawrence and Ruby Leslie, whose home sits far below the road’s new edgea car that sped off the asphalt could almost land on their roof. The town offered the Leslies $50,000; they refused to settle and are suing for more. Rainey says the couple couldn’t sell the house if they decided to leave. “I really feel for them. The right thing to me to do is to say, ‘You know what, we have effectively condemned your house for living, so we’re going to find you a place in Carywhere you grew upand we’re going to pay for it.’”
The church’s complaints with the town date back to 2001, before the road-widening started, when the town extended a street beside the church to connect it to Evans Road. That required an easement on church property. Town officials presented the church with construction plans and a financial offer. George Bailey, who was on the church’s board of trustees, says he felt immediately that something was wrong.
He says the schematics the town presented didn’t make sense. For instance, the slope of the new parking lot was impossibly steep. In general George Bailey felt that the town has tried to shrug off obligations that a private developer might be expected to make. “We recognized then the difficulty we would face,” he says. “The communication was broken then and it continued to be broken as they started to widen the road.”
Tim Bailey (no relation to the Bailey brothers or the Evans family), the town’s director of engineering, says he is unaware of complaints about the 2001 project. He says the town often floats plans to gauge residents’ reactions, and then adjusts those plans based on feedback. The church and the town eventually reached a settlement in which the city provided sewer service, and Herbert Bailey, George’s brother, won the contract to build the parking lot.
The road-widening removed a gentle slope that once led from the road to the church’s front door; there’s now a raw cliff of red clay. Rainey is concerned that children playing on the grassy lawn beside the church could fall off that cliff. He also worries that a hearse can no longer access the front door.
Engineers working for the town initially designed a new paved driveway from the road to the front door, but the slope was too steep, Rainey says; he envisioned pallbearers dropping a casket as they tried to carry it up the hill. He says that when he told a town representative about this problem, the response was, “‘Well, how often do you do funerals?’ And I said, ‘I hope we don’t do them very often,’ but I said, ‘one funeral is very, very important to that family so we hope we do it right the first time.’”
The current plan is for hearses to drive through the parking lot at the back of the church and across the grass lawn, approaching the front entrance from the side. Cary First hasn’t held a funeral since construction started, so the plan hasn’t been tried. Rainey says the town didn’t consider the loss of parking and green space in its offer, and that’s why the church hired a lawyer.
Tim Bailey says Cary engineers have suggested several proposals, but none have satisfied Rainey. “My personal opinion is they want a lot of money to build their brand new church,” he says.
“My concern is more so for the elderly than the church,” Rainey says. “It’s just about impossible for the elderly to deal with this situation. They take it very, very hard, because they have lived here 40-plus years. They’ve seen their children grow up and grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up in this area. The church will get by. There will always be someplace that we gather. But for the elderly family members, they have no place to go.”
Evans Road residents first learned about the road-widening project in 2001 when letters from the town arrived in their mailboxes. The first public hearing soon followed. In 2005, town representatives started negotiating with individual property owners. During that time, George Bailey says he called about six meetings with the residents to try to help them understand the project’s implications.
When the town’s offers came in, George Bailey was incensed. He felt residents like his 82-year-old mother and 92-year-old aunt were being lowballed. He urged his neighbors to refuse the offers, and to get independent appraisals to make counter offers. Not everyone could afford the appraisals, which cost roughly $2,000 to $4,000, so George Bailey shared information about existing appraisals with neighbors who owned similar properties.
“We stayed together as a community and communicated with each other,” he says. Though he has profited from the development of family land, he says he didn’t gain financially by helping his neighbors cope with the road-widening. At times, he has wondered if his outspoken advocacy for the neighborhood might jeopardize his development proposal to expand Evans Estates, currently before the town council.
“He was an advocate for the community,” Rainey says of George Bailey. “We met here many times and he advised them on how to negotiate. The elderly, they didn’t have a clue. And a lot of them were quite intimated to even ask. So in many situations George negotiated for them. Some of the families asked him to do that.”
This strategy worked temporarily. The town came back with offers two, three, five, even eight times more than the originals. But the discrepancies between the original offers and the final settlements further infuriated Bailey. He saw it as proof that the town had intended to take advantage of his elderly kin.
The town’s negotiators, Mary Beth McRainey and Patrick Lee, had the uncomfortable job of meeting with residents to iron out a deal. Both have since left their jobs as real estate specialists with the Town of Cary’s engineering department. (Lee retired last September; McRainey went to work for Progress Energy.)
McRainey says many aspects of the Evans Road project were like other road-widening projects she had worked on: The town hired independent appraisers to recommend a fair market value for the land that would be taken for construction, right-of-way and drainage easements. Then she met with residents one-on-one, sitting in their living rooms and listening to their concerns, instructing them to estimate what it would cost to replace their flower beds and trees. Some residents were satisfied with what the town was offering; others were not.
Several residents yelled at her, McRainey says, but she didn’t take it personally. “Every road-widening project was like that,” she says. “You always get property owners that don’t feel that they’re fairly treated, and as long as they can come up with a just reason, you know, usually the town is really good about working with them.”
But in some ways, she says, “Evans Road was a unique situation. Everybody is related out there. Because they were related, you had certain people that were more of a spokesperson for everybody. On other road-widening projects, everybody kind of does their own thing, but Evans Road was more of a family community type thing.”
The other difference was the number of elderly residents. “You know they didn’t want to move. They were established. I think I probably felt a little more compassionate because it wasn’t a main road when they bought.”
Many Evans Road residents say McRainey was very sympatheticso sympathetic, they believe she had a crisis of conscience over her role, and that she either quit or was fired because she approved settlements higher than what the town had expected. The town has spent roughly $1.5 million so far in compensation, and that does not include engineering changes that are part of the negotiations.
“She had told us personally sitting right in there at that table that she didn’t understand why the Town of Cary was doing some of the people on Evans Road the way that they were,” says Gloria Jean Evans, whose 77-year-old mother Jeanette is suing the town. “They were not offering us the same amount of money, and this area is worth just as much as another area.”
McRainey says she never felt pressure from higher-ups over the settlements she approved. She says she left because her new employer made her “an offer I couldn’t refuse,” and that she hadn’t been looking for a new job.
However, McRainey says in some cases, she told residents that the appraisals were low. “Some, I felt they might have missed some things that were picked up when [residents] got their appraisers. But when you’re doing so many appraisals, you’re bound to miss something. I mean, I understand exactly where these people are coming from. If it were my property I would have felt the same way. You just try to do what you feel is fair to the town, fair to them, that would be in their best interest.”
Tim Bailey, the town’s engineering chief, says Cary wants to be judicious with taxpayers’ money, so it has an interest in buying properties “at the lowest reasonable price we can.” Nonetheless, he acknowledges, “My gut instinct out there is that a few of those appraisals were off-base a little.” Though the law doesn’t require it, the Town of Cary always hires independent appraisers. “And the appraisers may or may not do that great of a job,” he says.
He points out that this is just one of many road widenings under construction all over town. Cary spends $30 million a year on road improvements. “I think if we weren’t doing a project along Evans Road, we may be criticized for not placing money in that part of town.”
As the months wore on, negotiations over money and construction woes became tense. Often outspoken and demanding, residents left angry messages with town staff.
Engineers made 23 changes to their plans to accommodate residents’ requests. In some cases, construction disrupted wells and septic systems, so the town paid to connect residents to city water and sewer. It instructed the crew to build and rebuild retaining walls, widen driveways and flatten steep slopes.
But engineers didn’t find a way to avoid digging up Prenetta Evans’ child’s grave, though McRainey asked them to try. In an e-mail engineer Kyle Hubert sent to Yulonda Moore, McRainey’s successor, he explained that Evans and her husband had filled in a “natural drainage feature” on the land in violation of Neuse River buffer rules. The new drainage ditch was designed according to N.C. Department of Transportation and N.C. Division of Water Quality standards.
“In addition, it should be noted, the Town has incurred additional permitting, construction and maintenance costs due the actions of this property owner,” the e-mail read. Hubert told Moore to consider this when negotiating compensation.
One resident of Evans Estates found himself in a particularly awkward position. Nels Roseland, then a member of Town Council, fielded many of his neighbors’ complaints. Roseland did not return calls from the Indy seeking comment, but e-mails filed with the town clerk show he tried to broker communication with town engineers, and encouraged residents to get independent appraisals, telling them it was “the most effective way to negotiate a better offer if the town’s offer does not provide fair value.” When those appraisals didn’t leverage satisfactory offers, residents wanted Roseland to do more. They wanted him to be their advocate; in the end, they felt he failed them.
At the time, the Town Council was facing a difficult decision: Should the government condemn the properties of elderly African Americans who already felt the town was mistreating them? Minutes from a closed session note that councilors Marla Dorrell and Julie Robison suggested a group mediation session. Robison also lives near Evans Road and says she has visited many times with the residents, sitting on the porch swing with Jeanette Evans, listening to family historiesand sometimes bitter memories.
She said she knew the residents’ outrage was about more than money. “The communication was such that the residents I don’t think ever felt like they got a fair shake, so the accumulation of the lack of fair shakes contributed to this sense of injustice.”
Eventually, George Bailey and the pastor called a community meeting with town representatives at the church. On Feb. 21, 2006, Lee, McRainey and Tim Bailey came to present a “panel discussion” mediated by a UNC School of Government faculty member. Roseland was there, too. The town’s goal was to show how the road widening would work and why it was being done. Among the topics on the agenda was “Eminent domainwhat does it mean?”
The residents arrived with their own agenda. They presented a protest in the form of a cardboard display, with graphs showing the discrepancy between the town’s initial offer and the final settling price of 10 properties, which in one case was 1,000 percent higher. “Do you call this fair?” the sign above it read. “Would you stand in court and say the same thing?”
From the town’s viewpoint, the meeting was a turning point, according to engineering chief Tim Bailey. “I’d say that was the climax of our problems. Ultimately after that, we started to understand the problems and issues a little better.” Soon after the meeting, he says, the town was able to settle with all but eight of 30 property owners.
But not with the church. From Rainey’s perspective, the meeting ended in stalemate. “Maybe the town felt very good about just coming out,” Rainey says, “and it was good that they came out, but I left with the feeling that, you know, it really is a done deal.”
In an e-mail to then-Mayor Ernie McAlister and Town Manager Bill Coleman, Roseland tried to set up a meeting with George Bailey and Rainey. Roseland urged the mayor to do his homework beforehand. The church itself “is probably the most sensitive site/parcel” of the entire Evans Road project, Roseland wrote in March 2006. “Having the church leaders decide to force us to condemn this in a public process could become quite ugly if we do not handle this tactfully.”
Church members were upset, Roseland explained, about the discrepancy between the town’s initially low offers and the final settlement amounts. “For about 15 properties we have settled to date, there was a 350 percent average variance between first offers and final resolution, with several property owners very concerned that the Town was purposely lowballing these folks.
“In summary,” Roseland wrote, “I would recommend that we do all we can to resolve any town differences with the church offline because of these racial and economic sensitivities.”
The mayor never met with Rainey, George Bailey or the residents. The Cary Town Council voted three months later to condemn the outstanding properties under eminent domain.
“At this point, I don’t begrudge my council colleagues because a decision was made and the majority ruled,” says Robison, who cast the lone vote against condemnation. “But I felt like we should have done a better job working with this community.”
As the road-widening project began in June 2007, elderly residents sat on their porches and watched construction equipment destroy their front yards. They’d been told what would happen, but the experience proved to be more stressful than most of them imagined. Herbert Allen Evans, 82, had early-stage Alzheimer’s. His condition deteriorated rapidly, according to his wife Jeanette, who moved him to a nursing home five months after construction began.
Their daughter Gloria Jean Evans called the police twice when her elderly mother couldn’t get into her driveway; the women wanted a police report to register their complaint. (It did little good, she says, as the driveway has been inaccessible since November.)
In August, Samuel James Farrar died suddenly of a heart attack at age 80. He and his wife had moved to Evans Road in 1957, escaping the backbreaking work of farming for white landowners’ profit. They settled with the town for more than twice its original offer. “They gave us what we asked for,” says his 79-year-old widow Leonia Farrar. “We don’t have no regrets.”
But she believes the experience of watching their property be demolished accelerated her husband’s demise. “He was already a sick man. And as he kept walking real slow, watching everything they was doing, I believe that’s the reason, what carried him on away that quick. It took us 30 years to get what we got, and it took them only 30 minutes to tear down what we put together and accomplished.”
She says the construction crew has treated her well, and that they’ve carefully reconstructed the brick walls around their house just the way her husband had built them. “They’re trying to fix things back the way he desired, to satisfy me,” she says. They help her carry the trash bins down the steep driveway, too. She’s not sure how she’ll manage that chore once they’ve gone.
“We are slowly losing our inheritance over here on Evans Road,” says Eva Jones, who owns two houses on the road. “I was hoping and praying that I would have something to leave to my kids. I don’t know, but I feel like it’s being taken from me.” Her uncle, James Lovelace Evans, gave Jones three acres upon his death. Tall pines used to shelter her house from the road; now those trees are gone, and she says vibrations from the earth movers have knocked items off her walls and cracked her foundation. Even if Jones’ lawsuit brings her closer to the $68,400 her appraisal valued her lossinstead of the $6,470 the town paid hershe dreads the traffic that will come when the road is complete.
“I really don’t want to move,” Jones says. “I love where I am.” Her son lives down the road, and her church, Cary First Christian, is the gathering place for neighbors and relatives she grew up with. It’s also the local polling place. She and her friend Prenetta Evans regularly volunteer there on Election Day. They were thrilled to see Roseland and McAlister lose their re-election bids last October.
Jones says she has high hopes for Cary’s new mayor, Harold Weinbrecht, who she believes will slow down Cary’s rapid growth rate. “I’m so happy he made it,” Jones says. “I campaigned for him as much as I could. I called him up and congratulated him before he even won. They always say, claim it and it’s yours, so I claimed him. I’m claiming the money for my trees out here and hoping that will make it come, ’cause I can use that money to pay some bills.”
Prenetta Evans is more resigned. Her new driveway is so steep, she says, she can’t see traffic coming until she’s on the road. Her husband died four years ago, and living alone is hard. “Sometimes I’m just walking around in a daze, with all the stuff that’s going on,” she says. “You get to the point where you’re just mentally drained.” At age 66, she’s thinking about moving, like some of her old friends already have, leaving behind their empty houses. “This was a very close-knit community, if anybody was in trouble, if anybody needed anything. And what’s left, we still are. But you have the missing links, you know. It’s hard.”
No human remains were found in the mix of dirt and tree roots the contractor unearthed on Prenetta Evans’ property. Moore says that Sutton didn’t bill the town for the grave relocation because he “didn’t feel right.”
“I’m sure they dug it up,” Prenetta says through tears. “Naturally with a backhoe you’re probably going to miss it. Even when they dig for dinosaurs, they use a shovel or a hand tool.”
She believes her daughter’s body lies somewhere under the asphalt of her new driveway.
On Oct. 9, 2007, a gravestone for Courtney Lajon Evans was placed at the Turner-Evans cemeteryanother piece of family land. McRainey and Moore were both there that day to emotionally support Evans, even though McRainey hadn’t worked for the town for more than a year.
“If you’re a mom,” McRainey says, “you would understand.”
The Town of Cary paid for the headstone.
Corrections (Feb. 22, 2008): James Lovelace Evans sold, not donated, some of his land to the Wake County School system. Jeanette Evans’ father-in-law, not father, was one of the original owners of the land that became the Evans Road community.
Cary’s history, in black and white
In her books, Both Sides of the Tracks: A Profile of the Colored Community, Cary, North Carolina (1996) and Both Sides of the Tracks II: Recollections of Cary, North Carolina 1860-2000 (2001), Cary native Ella Arrington Williams-Vinson describes how the town’s diverse and lively black community interconnected with the white community. In the early 20th century, Cary’s African Americans attended segregated schools and had to visit the town doctor’s office through a separate entrance. Yet even under segregation, black residents lived prosperous, independent lives. Because they owned land, they were more apt to be in a position of contributing to the town than of needing a hand.
Prominent black familiesthe Reaves, the Turners, the Rogers, the Hicks and the Stroudsdid business and volunteered in the community with the Pages and the Ashworths, though the latter are better represented in most town histories.
“You see, all of this history’s lost in the history of Cary,” Williams-Vinson complains. Newcomers to town, she says, “are of the opinion that there weren’t any black people in Cary. I’m serious! That’s the reason I wrote the books.” The title refers to her observation that white and black families lived on both sides of the railroad lines that cross downtownin her day, there was no proverbial “wrong side” of the tracks.
Cary has not one but three historically black neighborhoods, as she describes them: Evans Road, south Cary (around the intersection of Kildaire Farm Road and Cornwall Road) and the larger community downtown (near the intersection of North Academy and Johnson streets) where most of the African-American leaders lived.
Williams-Vinson’s great-grandfather Alfred Arrington moved with his family to Cary in the late 1860s. And while official town records don’t confirm it (the town clerk’s archive goes back only to 1946), she contends that her grandfather, Arch Arrington, became the town’s first mayor in the 1920s.
Williams-Vinson recalls that Clyde Evans set out to help other black families become self-sufficient by selling them land and promoting education. “Mr. Evans strongly believed, he told me, always have a trade for yourself.” She taught many of the Evans’ descendants at the town’s first elementary school for black children. “Be independent, self-sufficient, and that was the entire colored neighborhood in Cary. My family, everybody was self-sufficient.”
But today, Williams-Vinson says, the trend on Evans Road reflects a decline in black land ownership throughout Cary as descendents cash outor losetheir inheritance. “You might ask, well, what happened? Well, the people when they went off to college, they did not come back to Cary. People were using the land for farming and pulpwood and they wanted to do more than that. Some of the old people died and they did not have children, and the white man got the land. Some couldn’t pay their taxes, and the white man got the land. Some of them became rich from black land. So Cary really has a story now.”
A Cary woman recalls how owning land rescued her family from sharecropping
One day, Leonia and Samuel James Farrar saw their chance and took it.
“We had just sold a barn of tobacco in Durham at the warehouse, and we struck lucky so Farrar said, let’s get off the farm right now,” Leonia recalls.
Both had grown up in sharecropping families in Apex. Life wasn’t so bad when they were children; there was always plenty of food on the table. But the work was backbreaking, and the white landowners were mean. “I didn’t never think I was going to be in a home of our own because the white people back then did not want blacks to have any land, didn’t want us to have anything. They took everything we made, tell you the truth, until then.”
Leonia had gone to school with a woman who’d bought land in Cary from the Evans family. So she suggested to her husband that they visit her and see if they could buy a plot of their own. “So we came here on Evans Road and kept looking until we found this place here. It was just beautiful, this spot. It was all woods. Great big old oak trees. It was just waiting for me.”
They bought six acres for $288 from Tildon Evans, a brother of Clyde Evans, who owned most of the property in the area. “The Lord saw fit to just bless us right then. I guess the Lord told us, it’s time for you to go, just like he told the Israelites,” she says with a laugh.
It was winter of 1957. Farrar recalls wrapping her 3-month-old son in blankets and placing him in a box so she could help her husband and two other boys, ages 9 and 7, tote cinderblocks to build their six-room house. Her husband got a job with a construction company in Raleigh and taught himself cabinet-making at home. He wanted to help his two brothers get off the farm, too, and they did. All three branches of the Farrar family still live on Evans Road today.
Samuel James and his brother C.T. Farrar both became preachers in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Meanwhile, Leonia worked for many years cleaning and cooking in the homes of white people, but she says became tired of working on her knees and getting paid in hand-me-down dresses. She went to beauty school in Raleigh in 1971 and ran a salon out of her home for 34 years. She also worked as a social worker for the Wake County School System. Thought she’s now retired, she runs a food bank out of her storage shed; she calls it her “missionary work.”
The Farrars’ original homewhich they expanded to 14 roomsburned down in 1985, but they rebuilt. Framed pictures of the original house fill the walls, along with snapshots of their eight children and 38 grandchildren. Samuel James’ hand-made wooden cabinets fill the kitchen.
Much has changed since Leonia took long walks with her children through the woods at the dead-end dirt path that Evans Road used to be. “We used to just ramble, to see what we could find. Oak trees, pine trees, pear trees down in the woods. The children climbed that pear tree and just got pears off the tree. There was just no houses, no nothing.”
Samuel James died last August at age 80, shortly after the Evans Road widening project began. Construction took most of the couple’s front yard, but Leonia says she’s pleased with the work the crew has done. Now 79, she says she’s eager for the construction crew to finish. “It’s progress. I don’t regret that. ‘Cause you can’t stop it.”