Published: Jul 31, 2012 06:00 PM
Modified: Jul 30, 2012 03:31 PM
CARY - Some say Cary elected a black leader in the heart of the Jim Crow era, but the town may never know for sure. The remarkable story of Arch Arrington, true or not, is draped across a huge gap in Cary’s official history.
Municipal records stop short in 1939, more than 60 years after Cary was incorporated. Lost are the ledgers, the meeting minutes, even the lists of elected officials that could settle the question. In the breach, passed-down lore sketches the details.
Ella Arrington Williams-Vinson, now in her 80s, recalls a powerful family story of her grandfather’s election to the town’s board of commissioners, and possibly to the mayor’s office.
“My aunt said when he was elected, he ran against a white man,” Vinson recalled. “The white man left Cary, because he said he would never live in a town where a black man … could live over a white man.”
Arrington was one of a community of black landowners in the first decades of the 20th century. His granddaughter wrote that his barber and cobbler shop was the first black-owned business in downtown, she writes.
His great-grandson says Arrington was a light-skinned blue eyed man. His obituary in The News & Observer, just a few paragraphs long, says he was a prominent “negro.” His gravestone tells little.
And the town records for the time simply don’t exist.
Some town officials say reams of municipal documents burned in a fire, though details are scant. Other years might have been lost to poor record-keeping, wrote Tom Byrd, author of one of the town’s broadest histories.
According to the historian’s research, the town’s board told Commissioner W.D. Jones in 1927 to inventory valuable papers. His family later found “a mass of rat-eaten paper in an old house,” Jones wrote in “Around and About Cary.”
“We believe they were the town records,” former town clerk Annie Jones told Byrd. The result now is a footnote on Cary history, a big asterick that says “we’re not sure.”
Byrd didn’t find a mention of Arrington as an elected official during his sweeps through high school yearbooks, newspaper articles and other correspondence. But without a unified town record, he can’t say whether his list of early elected officials is complete.
“There were parts of the history that I could not reconstruct,” he explained.
Ella Williams-Vinson wants to see the stories of her grandfather borne out. It would be another measure of acknowledgement, she said, to the community that established the downtown neighborhood now known as Kingswood, whose residents are now considering a mass land sale.
“People had no concept that was a black community,” Arrington-Vinson said. “It had been hidden from Cary as a black community.”
Cary’s early municipal records are likely gone forever, but more of the town’s history may yet return. The Page-Walker Arts & History Center still receives records from the early 1900s, including a recent addition: a June 12, 1913, edition of the Cary-based The Farmers Journal, which was packed with ads for banks, odd clothing contraptions, and wagons.
There’s no mention of Arrington, but Kris Carmichael, the museum’s supervisor, hopes to find more copies of the early newspaper.
“One looks at a wide variety of resources,” she said. “Everything.”