Mary Norwood Jones, along with three others, will soon be remembered with a dedication at Chapel Hill’s Peace and Justice Plaza for her civil rights work in Chapel Hill. I knew her as the person who took care of Northside. When I first moved to Northside in 2002, I would often see Mrs. Jones out picking up cans, paper and other debris that littered the street our homes shared. I find myself following her example picking up trash as I walk through the neighborhood with my daughter. Mrs. Jones also had a beautiful yard with huge hydrangea bushes and a tidy lawn. It was again following her example that had me up on Saturday mornings pushing my lawn mower when I would rather be sleeping in and experimenting with what plants my brown thumb could keep alive in my front flower beds. While my yard still has far to go, I keep at it, thinking about the approving words she would give me if she found me kneeling in the dirt trying to beat back crabgrass to make room for some newly planted perennials. Along with planting tips, Mrs. Jones talked about the importance taking care of the young people and keeping the neighborhood looking nice.
It was difficult after Mrs. Jones had a stroke to watch her be walked up and down Whitaker Street by her caregiver. It was good to see her out but her stroke had impacted her ability to interact with this street and the neighborhood she loved so much. One day as they were taking their walk, Mrs. Jones started to struggle lifting her legs and I was able to offer my assistance to this woman who was such a large part of understanding the community I had joined.
It was very sad when Mrs. Jones finally passed. I was glad she got to rest after her many years of working and caring for others, but selfishly I would miss her physical presence in my world. After her death, I met her daughter who lived in Virginia and she spoke about coming to live in her mother’s house. The thought of continuing my relationship with Mrs. Jones through her daughter felt like a small gift. But recently it has become clear that gift is not going to come. There is a pile of boxes and furniture dumped on the drive of Mrs. Jones’ house that make me think of the innards of a gutted animal. The way her things have been tossed and piled makes me know the people who are clearing away these items did not know the woman to whom they belonged. Mrs. Jones would have wanted the useful things given to those who could still use them. Her piles of things that could not be used would be neat and contained, not spilling towards the street.
Changes are coming to Mrs. Jones’ house like they are coming to much of Northside. What scares me about this change and the new residents they bring is that they do not respect the care and sacrifice that Mrs. Jones and others like her have taken of this community – to both our homes and our people. These changes do not continue a history of children having multiple houses that they think of as home where doors are always open. These changes do not support a history of working hard, raising families, tidy lawns, and neighborly conversations over flower gardens. But what Mary Norwood Jones taught me (as well as so many others) is that when I bought my little house on Whitaker Street, I was moving not just into a house, I was moving into a community. This community would care for me but I would also have to care for it.
I will keep these lessons I have learned about community in mind as I try to share them with others and work to protect the things that make the Northside community so great.
Also published in the Chapel Hill News, 4/6/11.