Q&A with Carol Caldwell: ‘My story is told for a lifetime, not just February’

By Kerria Weaver


Carol Caldwell knows the importance of recognizing Black voices in her Columbus County community. So she and some other residents created a committee that focuses on the preservation of African American culture. 

The Border Belt Independent spoke with Caldwell about her efforts.

Q. When did the Columbus County Committee for the Preservation of African American Culture start?

It actually started as a conversation with Joan McPherson (president of the Columbus County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism) last summer. We were talking about tourism, and I was telling her that we needed to make the African American presence known because we were a vital source. We decided to bring other people into the conversation and it just went from there.

Joan has become an invaluable ally. One thing I admire and love about her is that she is thirsty for knowledge. If she doesn’t know something, she doesn’t mind researching it to find out. She has been an invaluable asset to our quest and our journey.

Q. What was your reasoning behind creating this committee?

Initially, it did not start out as a committee. My first thoughts were that we needed to get the voices of African American people recorded, specifically the elders within the community while they’re still here because at some point they’re no longer going to be here. I want to have their stories told in their language, using their voices, and not have someone else tell their story for them. As I said to Joan, the history does not need to be whitewashed. She and I were on the same page with that. 

From there, we reached out to people we knew and those people have come on board and we have just organically grown. 

Q. What kind of events does the committee host? How did the book-signing event go? 

We’re just getting our feet on the ground. So right now, we don’t have anything else planned. 

The book-signing event was a collaborative effort. It started out with a post on Facebook. During the Christmas holiday, The News Reporter had highlighted Columbus County authors that people needed to read and buy and I don’t think they mentioned any African American authors except maybe one or two. Lola Troy, who is an author and from Columbus County, put a post on Facebook where she basically said that reporters should have done a better job in reaching out to the authors of color. When Joan saw the post, she reached out to Lola and they got the ball rolling. Lola’s mom, Evelyn Troy, reached out to several people by phone and by email, so it was just a collaborative effort. I think the database right now shows that 42 African American authors are from Columbus County. Some have more fame than others.

Everybody who attended the event said it was just a very spiritual, very moving program. People learned a lot. There was a lot of networking going on and a lot of support and love. I think the aspect of being recognized and validated from your home county, that meant a lot to people.

Q. How does the committee help the community, specifically the Black community in your area?

Our goal is to make people aware of the contributions of what the African American community has done in this county and those who have moved on to help on a larger scope in the world’s scheme. Basically our goal is to validate our existence because it seems as though there’s certain aspects of society that are trying to erase who we are and what we’ve done. 

This is my very small way of saying that’s not gonna happen, because it’s not right. It’s my way of fighting back and saying, “You got to listen to what we have to say” in our words, not in the words you’re going to use.

Joan and I were talking one day about the west side of Whiteville, how vibrant the community was during the 1950s and 1960s. Now you ride through the west side of Whiteville and you see a lot of vacant homes and it just looks like despair, but it hasn’t always been that way. This is why people need to know our story because they don’t know. 

We’re now in the process of actually videotaping a couple of senior citizens and getting their stories on tape. At some point, we want to have a permanent building where these stories can be looped and be shown on television screens where people can stand and listen to what these people had to say 100 years down the road. Listening to what life was like for these people when they were growing up. That’s what we want.

My generation basically was told ‘Y’all aren’t worth anything.’ During the Civil Rights era we were in the process of trying to erase that thinking, and then your generation came along and I thought, hoped, and prayed that mindset had been erased but it’s not, it’s still ongoing. 

Q. Have you received comments from the community about the committee, any praises or appreciation?

The community as a whole doesn’t know a whole lot about us right now. When the chamber had its annual meeting, Cynthia Ellis made comments about the formation of this committee. That’s the first time that the committee has been publicly announced that I’m aware of. I had a couple of people from that meeting come up and say that they want to know a little more about what our committee is doing. We’re hoping that as our efforts get out and are made known we will generate more conversation. 

Q. How do you see the committee improving or growing in the future?

I see our story being told. I see people recognizing the efforts of the African American community and not in a divisive way, but in a way to bring the community together. The vision is not something that I’m after, but as a whole, to be able to say yes, this is our community. This is what we have done. This is what we are proud of and we are a part of this Columbus County community and that no community is more important than the other, but we all work together for the good of one.

Carol Caldwell stands in the hallway of the George Henry White Community Memorial Center, circa 1903, in Bladen County. Caldwell has been instrumental in bringing African American cultural events and celebrations to Columbus and Bladen counties over the years, not just during Black History Month. The center currently has an extensive display of prominent Black inventors. Photo by High