Robeson County residents want to create a safer community. But how?

By Ben Rappaport 

It’s been 1,214 days since Stephanie Minnigan-Judd got a good night’s sleep.

Her son, Tahleel, was just 25 when he was shot and killed in Robeson County in December 2020. Nearly three and a half years later, the man charged in the case has not gone on trial. 

“The things that go on in this county are just unimaginable,” she said. “There’s nothing to ease the pain, it just gets worse.”

Minnigan-Judd was one of dozens of community members who gathered at the Southeastern Agricultural Center in Lumberton on Monday to share their stories of grief, loss and perseverance. Hosted by the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Governor’s Crime Commission, the meeting’s goal was to identify ways for Robeson County residents to come together to create a safer community free of gang violence and traffic deaths.

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After the loss of her son, Minnigan-Judd created Fallen Angels, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Robeson County families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. It’s her way of providing healing to parents in need.

Guns, gangs and drugs are persistent problems in Robeson County, as they are in much of rural southeastern North Carolina. Robeson had the highest overall crime rate and the highest violent crime rate in North Carolina in 2022, according to the State Bureau of Investigation.

There have been at 11 homicides in Robeson County so far this year.

‘We have to come together’

The meeting on Monday also heard from residents like Dean Thomas, who lost his mother, Annie, after they were both hit by a drunk driver last June.  

“It’s taken months to rehabilitate my bruises,” Thomas told attendees. “But the loss of my mom will live on.”

The number of fatal crashes in Robeson County has almost doubled since 2018, NCDOT data shows. Last year, 65 people in Robeson County died in car accidents. The staggering numbers prompted the state to create a task force — Vision Zero Robeson County — dedicated to brainstorming solutions to traffic problems and educating drivers on how to stay safe on the roads.

The common thread uniting these issues is the desperate need for safety in all facets of Robeson County, said Mark Ezzell, director of the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program.

“We wanted community input in Robeson County because we are seeing outsized effects of both traffic safety and violence issues here,” he said.

Robeson County resident Charles Black offers feedback during a meeting about community safety. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Ezzell said the turnout at the event — about 75 people — was higher than anticipated. It emphasizes the desire of residents to be heard on issues of safety, share the traumas they’ve endured and begin to work toward positive change, he said.   

The gathering brought together a coalition of residents, including members of the Lumbee tribe, officials from UNC Pembroke and leaders of community organizations. Leon Burden, chief executive of the Colors for Life gang prevention program, said convening and discussing common challenges is the first step toward progress.

“All of us, as leaders of the community, know the problems we face,” Burden said. “But we work in silos. We have to come together if we want a way out.”

Three questions

Attendees aimed to answer three questions: What challenges do we face? What are we doing well? What resources do we need to create solutions? Many small-group discussions focused on the persistent poverty that often leads to a lack of upward economic mobility. According to recent Census data, 27% of Robeson County residents live in poverty and 54% of residents are considered low-income (earning less than $59,900 a year for a family of four).

Many people highlighted the need for long-term funding to spur solutions and emphasized the need for collaborative thinking across community organizations.

“We have enough if we work together,” said Brianna Goodwin, director of the Robeson County Church & Community Center. “Folks are trying to overcome a lot here, but we are worth it.”

The crime prevention group plans to continue meeting to develop a comprehensive safety plan; an official meeting time is not yet scheduled. The Vision Zero task force will meet in early May. 

David Powell, a Robeson County resident, said the county needs to do more to help formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrate into society to avoid high recidivism rates. Photo by Ben Rappaport