Civil rights activist urges Blackmon Road residents to take action

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJanuary 7, 2013 

A Herald file photo about work to bring sewer and water lines into the area.

— About a dozen residents of the impoverished Blackmon Road community gathered Sunday night in a church – one of the few places around with electricity – and listened while a civil rights activist told them to stop being silent and “initiate action.”

Pastor James Hill’s “action,” which has included requests to Rock Hill and York County leaders for the last three decades to help bring water and sewer services to the community known as one of South Carolina’s poorest, has gone nowhere. He’s given up on A Place for Hope, the nonprofit resource center that offers services to the five dozen or so people living in blighted houses with dirt-patched yards and no indoor plumbing.

“I went through the whole nine yards with people making promises. It’s not easy to get past these people in authority,” said Hill, who pastors New Philippi Church of New Arising in Christ Ministries, where Sunday night’s meeting was held. “People disappeared” along with “all the promises.”

Ask John Barnett, founder of Charlotte-based civil rights group True Healing Under God, and the answer lies with rallies, demonstrations and lots of “screams.”

“If you scream loud enough,” he said, “things can change. There’s a pearl in Rock Hill, you’ve just got to scream loud enough to get it.”

Barnett first encountered Blackmon Road when Sonia Whitlock, a family member of 92-year-old Hope Whitlock – Blackmon Road’s oldest resident – told him about neighbors being locked out of the community wash house for three days. He sympathized with Hope Whitlock, in need of a new roof, and her neighbors, in need of paved roads and sanitation.

“They’re going to have McDonald’s up and running with flashing golden arches before they put a roof on Ms. Hope’s house,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, someone needs to shake Rock Hill up. We have to sound the alarm.”

That “alarm” might include residents drafting and submitting written requests to city leaders for improved services and demanding that Mary Hoppmann, A Place for Hope’s director, show them records detailing exactly how the organization’s services are funded.

For years, the city has refused to annex Blackmon Road, just outside city limits. In an interview with The Herald, Hoppmann said that all financial records are open and and available for public perusal near the entrance to the facility.

If city officials refuse to cooperate, Barnett urged residents to “go out and scream.”

Joe Dixon, a friend of the Whitlock family who doesn’t live in the Blackmon Road community, said people complain about expired food making its way through the area and residents feeling belittled by the people claiming to want to help them.

Barnett’s solution: “March...embarass them. The Blackmon community has to be very loud and very dramatic.”

York County Councilman Bump Roddey, who has advocated for the Blackmon Road community, said he’s spoken with Barnett and suggested he find grants to bring water and sewer services into the community.

“That’s the major project,” Roddey said. “Until that problem’s solved, other issues will come up. From a moral standpoint, you want everyone to access these services,” he said. “The county doesn’t want to foot the bill.”

Any money allocated to the community – “a drop in the bucket,” Roddey said – goes directly to A Place for Hope. In 2010, county leaders crafted a master plan aimed at erecting new housing units for residents as well as demolishing condemned houses and installing water, sewer and infrastructure to serve the new facilities.

The plan, estimated to cost at least $3 million to make it a reality, was "still on the table" when Roddey was reelected to County Council, he said. Those ideas, though, haven’t been discussed among the current council.

An "overwhelming percentage" of resident participation would be needed to move forward with the plan, he said, and people would have to be willing to move from their current dwellings to the apartment units that would be built toward the front end of the community on “better land” free of rocky soil, which has made it difficult to build water and sewer lines in the area.

“There’s really not a civil rights issue,” said Hoppmann, A Place for Hope’s director, who said most complaints stem from a handful of residents who want money given to A Place for Hope to be used for their personal needs. Donated money, Hoppmann said, isn’t for her to use as she wants.

“If someone gives me $50 and says, ‘I want you to use this money to buy snacks for the kids for the after-school program,’ then that’s what I have to do,” she said. Blanket donations without a designation help pay for A Place for Hope’s services for the community.

Hoppmann and Barnett both say they haven’t met after both cancelled appointments. Hoppmann didn’t know about Sunday’s meeting, she said.

Barnett said he has plans to meet with Hoppmann this week. Joining him will be James Welcome, who operates a wrongful termination support group in Dallas, N.C., and first journeyed to Blackmon Road Sunday night. His first impression, upon the tires of his car hitting the dirt road, wasn’t good, he said.

“Why is this section cut off here? This community is lost,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to see residents give up. “You’ve been quiet too long.”

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