Unsung heroes on display

Mural at George Moses Horton Middle School to honor Black trailblazers of Chatham


PITTSBORO — The sheriff. The nurse. The teacher. The grocery store owner. 

Their jobs may be commonplace, but the Black people in Chatham County who broke barriers and first held these positions were anything but ordinary. Now, their accomplishments as trailblazers of the county will be memorialized in a mural displayed at George Moses Horton Middle School in Pittsboro.

The 18-by-26-foot glass-printed mural is full of color and life. It depicts seven Black figures from Pittsboro who made an impact, each one in a different vibrant color. Around the figures are images of schoolhouses, farmers, armed services members and other images critical to Black life in Pittsboro during the Reconstruction era.

At the bottom, underneath the figures, several children walk hand in hand toward a banner that depicts the central theme of the piece: “Truth. Justice. Reconciliation,” in large black lettering.

The mural was designed and printed by Durham-based muralist David Wilson. His previous work includes honoring Raleigh’s Black history through a mural at the Chavis Community Center.

“I was really on board with it,” Wilson told the News + Record. “Depicting Black history is right down my lane. Then to connect this art to a history right in my backyard seemed like an ideal chance for me.” 

The muralist added that it’s been rewarding for him to work on a project with layers of history, story and message for the future. This mural will combine digital mixed media, large printing and glass to depict the colorful symbols of Chatham’s Black life.

Wilson was contacted to make the mural come to life by the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham (CRC-C), which aims to honor Chatham’s Black history and work toward reconciliation in the county. 

Since the mural was officially approved by the Chatham Board of Education in August, Wilson has met with the CRC-C team monthly. He also coordinated a workshop with students at George Moses Horton Middle School (GMHMS) to teach them about the history depicted in the mural, and how to create historical art of their own.

“It was important to me for the kids to have a connection with the art, and with me as the artist,” Wilson said.

GMHMS seemed a fitting place for the mural given its namesake. Horton was, in his own right, a Black trailblazer in the county. The African American poet was the first ex-slave in the South to get his work published after teaching himself to read and write.

The school honoring his legacy has now been a staple next to downtown Pittsboro for generations since it opened its doors in 1935, producing alumni who have gone on to be doctors, teachers, lawyers and served in every branch of the U.S. military.

This week, we talk to several members of CRC-C about the new mural, which will be unveiled at the school grounds in the coming weeks (date still to be determined) about the reason honoring these seven figures was so important, and their hopes for its impact on viewers. 

Responses were provided by the following CRC-C members: Jo Corro, E.H. Dark, Rev. Corey Little, Mary Nettles and Bob Pearson. 

There are seven Black trailblazers depicted in the mural. Who are they and why are they important to the history of Chatham County?

The mural features Rev. Rufus V. Horton, a minister, owner of a grocery store and author of “Can These Bones Live.” He was also part owner of a funeral home and blood relative of George Moses Horton. 

Cordie Glover Leake, better known as Mama Cordie. She was a midwife who delivered babies throughout Pittsboro and Hickory Mountain for 42 years. Many Black ancestors still in the county today were born by way of her skills as a midwife.

Edgar Bland was the first African American to join the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department. He was effective in ensuring justice in the county, including in the African American community.

Geraldine DeGraffenreidt was known throughout town as a leader with energy. She was committed to making sure there was a proper Black History Program for the county, which was held annually at the former Horton Middle School. 

Lillie Rodgers, a teacher, is included to represent the importance of Black educators. She started the daycare at Mt. Sinai and Mitchell Chapel. She was also known for providing clothing for anyone in need. 

Charlie Baldwin Sr. was a well-known farmer and political leader. He boarded teachers for Horton High School and was one of the leaders to start the Chatham County Fair in 1950. That is why you will also see a Ferris wheel in the upper left corner of the mural, to honor his contributions to the fair. Baldwin was also one of the leaders instrumental in starting the Chatham Community NAACP Branch July 15, 1957. His contributions also led to the start of the Chatham County Council on Aging July 8, 1974. Both of these organizations are still around and thriving today, largely thanks to Baldwin’s contributions.

Finally, the mural depicts Isaiah Taylor who was a principal at Horton High School and the first Black Pittsboro Commissioner. 

How did you select which people would be included in the mural?

The trailblazers were chosen by several residents from east Chatham County who knew this group personally and the contributions they made to the Black community. The selected individuals opened the doors for more achievements by Black residents and are the shoulders many people from Chatham County stand on today. These individuals, of course, represented only a portion of the great leaders from the local Black community. 

What inspired the creation of this mural?

The Chatham Black community wanted a mural to show their indispensable contribution to the county’s history and culture. The white history was well known, and the Black history unknown. The mural makes clear how much Chatham’s life has been enriched by the Black community, churches, organizations and daily life. Being proud of the Black history for all to learn from and understand inspires all of Chatham’s citizens to keep moving toward equal justice in all aspects of our lives together. 

What message do you hope the public walks away with after seeing the mural and learning the stories of those recognized on the mural?

The mural is the product of a powerful process that combined the experiences of African American natives of Chatham County alongside the views and voices of non-African-American community members in solidarity to convey an overarching message that appreciates the value of all people. 

We hope that the public takes away multiple positive messages. Firstly, such a mural serves as a powerful reminder of the valuable contributions that African Americans have made to this community, despite facing discrimination and exclusion for many years. There is a proud and prolific legacy of educational institutions that propelled Black people into significant cultural growth supported by military service persons, churches and hard-working families. 

Secondly, it helps to counteract the negative stereotypes and prejudices that can often be associated with Black culture. We hope that others see a permanent piece of media that perpetually passes on a positive historical image of the African American community. 

Thirdly, it highlights the importance of diversity and inclusion in our communities and encourages us to celebrate and embrace cultural differences. Although the mural depicts prominent African American people, an intentional anchor for the image is a multicultural group of youth whose hands are joined embracing the past and embodying the future where that cooperative community can be fully realized. 

Finally, it serves as an inspiration to future generations, demonstrating the resilience and strength of African American culture and providing a vision for a more equitable society that promotes truth, justice and reconciliation. 

Did CRC-C work with outside organizations to make this mural happen?

Members of both the East Chatham and the West Chatham NAACPs and CRC-C participated in a committee for about two years to develop this mural. Funding came from the Chatham Arts Council, Duke Energy Foundation, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and the Triangle Community Foundation.

David Wilson and others who helped develop the mural spent time with students and teachers at the George Moses Horton Middle School. Why was it important to you all to connect this mural with the school community?

We want the mural to be more than just a picture on the school wall. We want students to learn more about the Black experience in Chatham County and be outstanding contributing members of the community. In the future, we hope to develop a curriculum to accompany the mural. 

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com  or on Twitter @b_rappaport

CRC-C, George Moses Horton Middle School, mural, Black history