Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Sidney Bowen was killed in 2015. He was killed in 1990.
By Ivey Schofield
When news broke last fall that the former Columbus County sheriff made racist comments about Black deputies, Curtis Hill found himself at the center of a larger debate about race in this southeastern North Carolina community.
“We could tell people about what was going on, but they thought we were exaggerating,” said Hill, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. “Clearly, we have a racial issue in Columbus County.”
Jody Greene, who was initially elected in 2018 as the county’s first Republican sheriff, resigned in late October and won re-election the following month. He resigned again in January, days after he was sworn in for a second term, as he faced a growing list of accusations that included racially profiling deputies and engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a female detective.
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As the story gained national attention, Hill, 41, became a de facto spokesman for Black residents, who account for about 30% of the county’s population, and a critic of systemic racism within the community.
Related: After sheriff resigns, Black residents say racism is a part of life
Hill became a target of the vitriol that played out on social media, but he avoided personal attacks on Greene – a decision that garnered support in the community.
“Curtis Hill led a heroic effort,” said the Rev. Andy Anderson, who works with Hill at Disability Rights North Carolina and is an active member of the local NAACP.
“He showed reason after reason why Jody Greene disqualified himself for the job, but he didn’t talk about him as a person. He just talked about how he wasn’t right for leadership.”
Hill became president of the NAACP chapter three years ago when long-time president Amon McKenzie, a former county commissioner, retired. But he’s been working behind the scenes since 2018, when Greene beat the Black incumbent sheriff by 37 votes in a controversial election in which some residents questioned whether Greene actually lived in Columbus County.
The State Board of Elections investigated and ultimately ruled in Greene’s favor, allowing him to take office.
But, Hill said, “Even when people didn’t come to meetings, wheels were turning.”
The NAACP chapter invited Laura Flanders, a New York-based journalist and host of “The Laura Flanders Show” that airs on public radio and television, to Columbus County. She agreed, producing a story last summer about white supremacy that included details about Greene’s decision shortly after the 2020 death of George Floyd to acquire $3.8 million in surplus military equipment.
The death of Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, sparked protests across the country calling for police reform.
Related: After sheriff resigns, Black residents say racism is a part of life
Hill also spoke out in June against the Columbus County Board of Education’s decision to reassign the district’s only two Black principals to assistant principals. Half of the district’s students are white, data shows, but the school board is made up entirely of white men.
The problem in Columbus County, Hill said, is bigger than Greene.
“It’s about the system we created to bring about these folks,” he said.
Now, Hill wants to focus on the future.
Bill Rogers, who was appointed sheriff in January to serve the remainder of Greene’s four-year term, recently created a position dedicated to ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion at the sheriff’s office. He says the office has also hired an auditor to comb through 17,500 pieces of evidence.
“Columbus County is at a pivotal moment,” Hill said. “Since the whole world knows the problem, now it’s time for us to move forward and try to understand people that are different from us.”
Some people say Hill is the man for the job.
Hill was 18 months old when he was adopted by Nancy Hill, the first Black postmaster in southeastern North Carolina and the first Black person to serve as a commissioner in the Columbus County town of Brunswick. She had wanted a girl, Hill said, but she was captivated by his story.
Hill was born several months early with cerebral palsy, a motor disability disorder that impacts one in 345 children. The disorder affected his ability to move and maintain balance, and doctors said he would never be able to walk.
But Curtis Hill proved them wrong, taking his first steps at the age of 3 after undergoing an exploratory surgery at Duke University Hospital.
Nancy Hill advocated for her son at school, insisting he attend mainstream classes and ride the bus while wearing a padded helmet.
“Curtis was just like any other child,” said Wayne Hill, his brother who is 20 years his senior. “My mother made sure.”
Nancy Hill was inspirational, said Paul Pope, who worked with her in the 1980s to establish a local chapter of Arc, a national organization that advocates for people with disabilities. They also worked to create the county’s first group home for adults with intellectual disabilities.
“When she recognized a community need or issue that should be addressed, she would become an important advocate and could round up community support,” Pope said. “And I think she inspired Curtis too.”
Growing up, Curtis Hill went with his mother everywhere – town commission meetings, church, NAACP meetings.
But he said he didn’t realize all the work his mother did in the community until a few years ago, when Duke University invited her to speak at a panel about unions. Nancy Hill had been a labor organizer at National Spinning in the 1960s, when textile manufacturing was a huge part of the local economy.
Many people say Curtis Hill is following in his mother’s footsteps.
“Curtis is my mother incarnate,” Wayne Hill said. “She is very present in him, and he has continued her legacy in politics and community involvement.”
Curtis Hill participated in his first march in 1990 after Sidney Bowen, the first Black mayor of the Columbus County town of Bolton, was shot five times and killed by a state Highway Patrol trooper.The trooper said he shot Bowen in self-defense after Bowen attacked him with his state-issued flashlight. Bowen’s family said he was shot while calling for help and running away.
Curtis Hill’s activism continued in college, where he fought for the tunnels on the N.C. State University campus to be more accessible for students with physical disabilities. He said he also revitalized the local NAACP chapter after someone told a Black student to “go back to Africa.”
“N.C. State had a lot of work to do,” he said. “It was an opportunity to grow, learn from it and move the place forward.”
After graduating with a degree in political science, he returned to Columbus County and worked as a computer technician and helped out with local political campaigns.
In 2018, Curtis Hill and his mother were part of a group of residents who established Columbus County Forum, a nonpartisan organization aimed at encouraging residents to vote.
“We needed an opportunity to really think about the issues and try to come up with a strategic way to deal with them,” Curtis Hill said. “It was a safe place to tell you what’s going on.”
The same year, Hurricane Florence devastated Columbus County. He said he helped organize an effort to air drop supplies to residents stranded by floodwaters.
“The hurricane doesn’t choose what neighborhood it will flood,” he said. “If I have a lot of money, it’s easy for me to recover. But we have people who don’t have anything, and they’ve lost everything they’ve worked for.”
Last spring, Curtis Hill replaced his mother on the Brunswick town board. She died a few weeks later after a long battle with lung cancer.
“I never had any inclinations of being an elected official,” Curtis Hill said, “but it happened.”
More to do
Curtis Hill began working at Disability Rights North Carolina in 2019. He helps people with disabilities apply for and access disaster relief.
“He stands for other people who can’t stand for themselves,” said Anderson, who wrote Hill’s letter of recommendation for the job and was later recruited by him to work for the organization.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, Curtis Hill spearheaded the organization’s efforts, organizing vaccine clinics and reassuring many Black residents who were wary of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“Those hesitancies are real,” Curtis Hill said, pointing to the Tuskegee syphilis study in the 1930s in which Black men who were denied treatment died or experienced severe health problems.
In early 2021, Columbus County had among the state’s fewest vaccine doses per resident, despite calls by the state for rural areas hardest hit by the virus to receive the earliest doses. Curtis Hill said he met several times with state leaders to help address the inequity.
“Equity shouldn’t be baked in on the back end of the program,” he said. “That should be baked in at the front end.”
In Columbus County, 47% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 67% across the state, according to data from the state.
Curtis Hill also encouraged Black residents to run for public office last year, said Barbara Powell, who has known Hill since he was in elementary school and works with him at Columbus Community Forum. The nonprofit also hosted candidate forums that allowed voters to ask questions.
One of 10 Black candidates won in local Columbus County races in November.
Related: Push to elect Black candidates to Columbus County school boards was rejected by voters
“We have a way to go,” Powell said. “But he’s gotten more people involved in the issues that are relative to all of us.”
Powell said she occasionally worries about everything on his plate.
“If a call comes from someone who needs him, he goes to their aid,” she said. “Sometimes I have to remind him to take a break.”
But it’s unlikely that Hill will stop any time soon, friends say.
Not only does Hill have ideas about equity and inclusion, he also has ideas for more affordable housing in the county and ways to address environmental issues, like the water contamination by Chemours.
Wayne Hill said he expects to see his younger brother in Raleigh and then in Washington, D.C., as an elected leader who speaks for all, no matter their race or ability.
“I think his impact has been great,” Wayne Hill said, “and I think he’s just beginning.”