The Trailblazers of Chatham

New mural honors Black voices of the past, looks to a unified future


PITTSBORO — As the sun rose on Saturday morning, over 130 residents, elected officials and local Civil Rights activists gathered behind George Moses Horton Middle School to commemorate the history of Chatham County’s Black community and celebrate a future of unity and equality. 

The Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham (CRC-C) unveiled its mural project — Truth, Justice and Reconciliation — on Saturday, June 17. According to the CRC-C webpage on the mural, the painting “shares the story of those who opened the doors for many to follow.”

The mural features seven notable Black Chatham residents who made meaningful contributions to their communities and beyond. Those seven people were Rev. Rufus Vassie Horton, Cordia Glover Leake, Louis Edgar Bland, Geraldine DeGraffenreidt, Lillie Rodgers, Charlie Baldwin Sr. and Isaiah Taylor. 

Family members of those depicted in the mural were present at the unveiling, representing multiple generations of Chatham County history and trailblazing advocacy for racial equity, according to CRC-C President Mary Nettles. 

“These trailblazers were chosen by several residents of East Chatham County communities who know these persons personally, and the contributions they made to the Black community,” Nettles told the crowd on Saturday. “The selected individuals opened the doors for more achievements to come … These are our ancestors who came before and sacrificed and paved the way through in East Chatham County.”

Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry also provided remarks at Saturday's event. She said as a long-time Chatham resident, she remembers a time when a painting like the one at George Moses Horton Middle wouldn’t have been approved. 

“I celebrate today with you for what has become a true community … and I welcome you to Pittsboro today to honor that reconciliation,” Perry said. “I want you to know that it is so important that we've gathered here together and honor the special people as our way for reconciliation, which will not only resolve the past and hopefully forgives the past, but it also creates a path forward.” 

It takes more than one artist to create a masterpiece such as the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation mural — It takes a village of diverse community members and a talented artist to capture their vision. 

Muralist David Wilson was the person to make the CRC-C’s vision a reality. According to the biography provided by CRC-C on Wilson, he “collaborated with the Mural Committee to employ his background in design, sculpture and public art, to create this mural to memorialize the social, historical and functional context of Black History in Chatham County.”

Wilson spoke to the crowd on Saturday, where he expressed how much the project meant to him as a professional artist. 

“My main takeaways from this project are not just to learn more about history in my own backyard, down the road in Durham, but to also have an understanding of this rich cultural history that's here in Chatham County,” he said. “I'm very thankful to the project team and being patient with me and us working together to achieve understanding on what was needed to be placed in the mural to make the message of truth, justice and reconciliation, visually impactful and engaging, and inspirational.”

The painting features several Chatham-centric Easter eggs, including two rabbits and the Chatham County Fair Ferris wheel, just to name a few. However, there are other references scattered throughout the mural relevant to Black history, one of the most prominent is the outline of Africa faded in the background with ships sailing away from it, symbolizing how many Chatham County Black residents’ ancestors came to the U.S.: the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

While the mural addresses Chatham County’s tainted history with racial equity, it also serves as a reminder of how far the community has evolved since those times and as a beacon of hope for the future. Pastor Rev. Corey Little said the painting’s message was derived from the voices of both Chatham’s Black natives and non-Black residents who “stand in solidarity.”

“Despite facing discrimination and exclusion for many years, there was a proud and prolific legacy of educational institutions that helped propel Black people into significant cultural growth, supported by military service persons, churches and hard-working families,” Little said. “It helps us to counteract negative stereotypes and prejudices that often are 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. It highlights the importance of diversity and inclusion in our community and encourages us to celebrate and embrace cultural differences.”

CRC-C member Bob Pearson also spoke during the unveiling on Saturday. He said during his time as an international diplomat for the U.S., he shared what he said are the “values of American life.”

“We've been in places where we saw dictators, we've been in places where we saw rampant racism, and I can say in representing those values, we are very delighted to be here today to represent to you, us Americans, the same values and the same hope that we will go where we want to go, where life is leading us to truth, justice and equality,” Pearson said. “ I can tell you that there never was a day, as proud as I am today, that this represents America. This represents who we can be, who we will be and what we want.”

Pearson said injustices such as discrimination and racism can’t be addressed by a single person — The community has to come together to reach “the doorstep of reconciliation.” He said it’s in those moments of unity progress can be made to work toward a just and equitable future. 

“You're on the doorstep of looking every other person in the eye and respecting them … looking at every other person in the eye, knowing that they have something to contribute,” he said. “But behind us on this beautiful mural is our children — They're holding hands. They're walking into the future, whatever the race, whatever the color, whatever the faith. That is the future.”

Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson provided closing remarks at the unveiling ceremony on Saturday. He said the mural provides an opportunity for Chatham County’s students to have s “physical and very visual demonstration and depiction of history.”

However, there was one thing Jackson said was important about the mural that none of the other speakers had brought up: its location. 

“But it did not escape me that the very back of this mural is anchored by a school,” he said. “ I believe that moving forward we have a responsibility to be models and mentors — to help our children be better because of your commitment to ensuring that they understand their history and giving them the capacity to embrace the mystery that will be the future.”

Jackson said the diverse, multi-racial group of children depicted at the center of the mural represents the goals he has for Chatham County’s public schools: uniting and uplifting students and preparing them for what their future may bring. 

“The other piece that was very, very compelling to me, are the kids down here at the bottom,” he said. “I want you to embrace the fact that the kids are watching — The kids see us through the history. I celebrate the opportunity to help prepare those kids for their future when they do the one thing that we work very hard for them to do every day. And that's turn around and embrace the mystery of the future.”