The history of the civil rights movement in the town of Enfield is being recognized by the state of North Carolina.
Historical markers recognizing the Halifax County Voters Movement, a grassroots civil rights organization based in the town, and Johnson v. Branch, a federal appeals court case that protected African American teachers in the South who were involved in civil rights activities, were approved by the N.C. African American Heritage Commission earlier this month.
The markers are part of the commission’s Civil Rights Trail initiative, which will place 50 markers across the state between 2021 and 2023 to acknowledge well-known and unsung civil rights efforts.
Ten of the markers will be placed in Hometown Strong counties like Halifax.
Rodney D. Pierce, a middle school social studies teacher in Nash County who lives in Roanoke Rapids, applied for the markers earlier this year.
In the gallery: Cofield and Pierce
“Enfield was the epicenter of the civil rights movement in Halifax County,” Pierce said. “I am elated these markers have been approved by the commission and I look forward to working on more to recognize the African American history of Northeastern North Carolina.”
Pierce thanked the town of Enfield, particularly commissioners Bobby Whitaker and Kenneth Ward and Town Administrator Tyree Davis. He also extended gratitude to Thomas Hardaway and Karla Solomon, who both own the properties the markers will be placed on.
The Halifax County Voters Movement was a multi-racial advocacy group whose efforts – amidst local Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement intimidation – sought to increase voter registration of the county’s Black and Native American populations, have Blacks serve on county juries and in public office, and end Jim Crow policies in local public facilities, including schools.
The HCVM organized demonstrations, boycotts, marches, and worked with other civil rights organizations like the Southern Conference Educational Fund and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in holding voter registration drives.
The movement spawned another federal lawsuit – Alston v. Butts – that ordered the county’s White registrars to speed up their delayed registration process that involved Blacks who wished to register to vote.
“I feel like this further affirms the rightness of our fight for our recognition as American citizens,” Enfield native and HCVM founder Willa Cofield said of the recognition.
Johnson v. Branch involved Cofield, then Willa Cofield Johnson, when she was a veteran English teacher at the then segregated Thomas S. Inborden High School in the Halifax County Schools District.
Johnson, her husband Reed Johnson, and her family were all involved in the local civil rights movement, which made her a target.
She was terminated in June 1964 as her contract was not renewed by the all-White school board. The Branch portion of the lawsuit was named for fellow Enfield native and future state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Branch, the board’s attorney
Cofield filed a federal lawsuit later that month which she initially lost in June 1965. A year later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found in her favor.
Cofield was supported in her lawsuit by the HCVM, SCEF and the National Education Association, which said that her victory saved the jobs of thousands of Black teachers throughout the South.
“It really affirmed the right of teachers to participate in political demonstrations and movements,” Cofield said.
While these two markers are part of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission’s Civil Rights Trail program, Pierce has had two markers unanimously approved by the state’s Highway Historical Marker Commission: the Louis Austin marker in Enfield was approved in 2018; and the Keys v. Carolina Coach Company marker was approved in 2019. The Austin marker was dedicated in June 2019 and the Sarah Keys Evans marker will be dedicated on Roanoke Avenue at 2 p.m. on Saturday, January 15.