Local historian who preserved black history dies at 82

aramos@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2013 

Ella A. Williams-Vinson, who documented the history of the African-American community in Cary, worked with school children at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. Williams-Vinson died June 21 at the age of 82.

COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF HISTORY — COURTESY OF NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF HISTORY

— In the summer of 1968, Ella Williams-Vinson was one of three women who traveled dusty Cary roads in hopes of convincing parents of black children to join a new pre-school.

The first pre-school in town for African-American children opened that fall with 13 students at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

Education was important to Williams-Vinson, a Cary native and lifelong resident who dedicated her life to teaching at Wake County public schools and preserving the history of the local black community. She died June 21 at the age of 82.

Williams-Vinson fought to ensure that black families in Cary were not portrayed as poor and uneducated. Instead, she wanted to show them as a group of prominent landowners who owned their own businesses, were elected to public office and engaged in civic activities.

She chronicled the local African-American community in her book, “Both Sides of the Tracks: A Profile of the Colored Community, Cary, NC ”. The first edition was published in 1996.

After Cary’s centennial celebration in 1971, Williams-Vinson noted the lack of information about the black community. She wrote in her book: “Instead it is much easier to portray colored people as domestics, servants, or ignorant people. Colored people fitting the latter descriptions were the minority in Cary as far back at the 1840s. ... We cannot continue to ignore the fact Cary’s early colored settlers were just as productive as many in the white population.”

Lyman Collins, Cary’s cultural arts manager, said Williams-Vinson opened his eyes to the black community’s rich history in Cary.

“It was very middle class. African-Americans were landowners, not sharecroppers,” Collins said. “Most people, when they hear of the post-Civil War South, think they were sharecroppers. Ella was very clear that she came from a family who owned land and who were civic-minded. That was a valuable lesson for me.”

Williams-Vinson’s grandfather, Arch Arrington Sr., was Cary’s first elected black mayor. Her father, Arch Arrington Jr., helped raise money to build a new Cary Colored School after the original building burned to the ground in 1935.

Williams-Vinson graduated from the school and returned there as a teacher in the 1950s. She also taught at Briarcliff, Farmington Woods and Apex elementary schools.

Collins worked with Williams-Vinson to collect photographs of graduates of the Cary Colored School to put in the Cary Arts Center, alongside photos of graduates of the all-white Cary High School.

“Ella was so forceful and dynamic,” Collins said. “She could walk into a room and take it over.”

Williams-Vinson also had a hand in exhibits at the Page-Walker Arts & History Center in Cary and the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.

A school slate used by her great-grandmother, Sallie Blake Arrington, from 1866 is on display at the state museum, said Debra Nichols, a volunteer coordinator with the museum.

Williams-Vinson served as a docent for the museum from 1991 to 1999.

When her husband, Bob, passed away, the museum started a memorial fund in his name. The money was used to buy artifacts for an exhibit.

“She was just so friendly and outgoing,” Nichols said of Williams-Vinson. “She had this bubbly personality. The kids just loved her.”

Ramos: 919-460-2609

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