Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza’s groundbreaking ceremony took place Monday night at the corner of First and Greene Street in Greenville’s Town Common, where Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church once stood before burning down in 1969.
This site was home to Sycamore Hill Baptist Church which was the center of the “Downtown” neighborhood, a “self-built, close-knit African-American community that included homes, businesses, schools, and churches,” according to the project’s website.
The former “vibrant African American neighborhood” is now home to Greenville’s Town Common, with its memory left only by a small marker, the project’s website said.
“The goal of the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza is to transform the western edge of Town Common into the prominent entrance that it once was while commemorating the history and memory of the “Downtown” neighborhood,” the project’s website said.
District 1 City Council Member, Monica Daniels, said her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother are from the “downtown” neighborhood. She said six generations of her family have been able to stand on the land now known as Town Common.
After the urban renewal, which tore down houses in the “downtown” neighborhood to build the downtown Greenville we know today, families were forced to move to West Fifth Street or Carney Park behind South Greenville Elementary School.
Daniels said her family moved to Carney Park. She said her mother always told her stories about “when we grew up on Reade Street.”
“So it's actually an honor to be here, so now I get to give my grandkids a different story, I was city council, part of this, helping with this, so this is a very emotional day,” Daniels said.
Daniels said her mother was baptized in the original Sycamore Hill Baptist Church. She said there are pictures of her aunts and uncles at the church in the center of Sycamore Hill Baptist Church at its new location on Hooker Road.
Daniels said this means “everything” to her family. Daniels mother had forgotten the event was happening, and she cleared her schedule to attend the event when Daniels told her about it. One of her uncles, who is elderly and doesn’t leave the house often, attended the event because it was important to him as he grew up in “downtown.”
“I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. I don’t care how hot it was (or) if it was pouring down rain because this was our beginning,” Daniels said.
Alton Harris, a member of the Sycamore Hill Advisory Group (SHAG), grew up in the “downtown” and is a current member of the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church.
Harris was raised in the “downtown” community. He said the “downtown” community extended from Reade Street to Pitt Street and First Street to Fourth Street and that families lived on these streets. He said the kids in the community would walk to Fleming Street School, which is now Sadie Saulter Elementary school and C.M. Eppes High School.
Harris said many people don’t know there were African-American owned businesses in the “downtown” neighborhood. He said there were beauty shops, barber shops, a doctor, a dentist, a funeral home, an auto tire service and a grocery store.
“What used to be here, which was families, and in that project (Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza), on the walls, in there it’s gonna show the families where the families used to live and church members and it means a very lot,” Harris said.
Interim Pastor of Sycamore Hill Baptist Church, Kenneth Hammond, said the groundbreaking ceremony is an exciting time for the congregation of the church as this was the church’s former location.
This project has been in the works for 11 years and Hammond said it has taken a lot of “persistence” from those in the church. He said some members of the church served on the SHAG committee and “were vigilant in spite of challenges.”
“I think one thing we understand as people of faith is that our timing and God’s timing are not necessarily in sync but God's timing is always the best timing. So, I think this is the right time and so though it’s been a journey, it's been a good journey,” Hammond said.
He said this is a “time for reflection but also a time for renewal and revitalization, all of that wrapped up.” Hammond believes this project will stimulate conversation between generations about Sycamore Hill Baptist Church and the community and the community “forging the contributions of its history and Greenville at large.”
“This is an exciting and important time because it demonstrates the commitment of the city to remembering the legacy of the church and community and the importance it had for the broader community,” Hammond said.
Lathan E. Turner, associate director at East Carolina University’s Office of Student Transitions and SHAG member, said many people don’t know the history of Sycamore Hill Baptist Church and the former “downtown” community.
“If you to refuse to understand or accept the history of anything then you’re bound to repeat it and in some cases a negative way and we certainly don’t want that to happen, so this will stand as a moment in history to educate everybody who wants to know about what was here and the significance of this community,” Turner said.
Turner said the yellow and red glass, which will be incorporated into the design of the memorial, will reflect the stained glass that was in the church that burned down and is in the church now. The history of the church and pictures of the original church will also be included in the memorial.
Turner said the purpose of Gateway Plaza it to reflect upon Greenville’s past and remember that a church was once there but it burned down. He said the memorial is being built due to members of the community who brought this to the City Council 11 years ago because they wanted more than just the marker that says the church used to be here.
Dr. James Coker attended the event to support African American history. He is a member of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club Raleigh Chapter.
As a transplant to Greenville, Coker said he had never heard about the history of Town Common and the City of Greenville never talked about its history.
“So, when I found out about this, the history, what it really stood for myself and the motorcycle club I represent, we try to keep history of the accomplishments of African Americans alive and we felt like this was an important event for one of us to attend and I’m here in Greenville,” Coker said.
City Council Member Rick Smiley was also in attendance for the event. Smiley said this serves as a way to bring people into Town Common. He said this will serve as an entrance to the park that will also teach visitors about what used to be located there.
Smiley said he appreciates the city is acknowledging its past. He said the city is “refusing to turn a blind eye” and that the city “admit(s) that we wish the past was different but we’re going to make the future better.”
“It's important to remember some of the struggles the city’s been through. This church should still be here and we can’t undo the mistakes that made it go away, but it's really nice to be here where we can put something permanent here that will always evoke that church, and always evoke that community, and that's the part I like about it,” Smiley said.