4 Things You Didn’t Know About Rocky Mount’s African-American Heritage

Of course, you recognize the name Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but what about Rev. George Dudley?  You've grooved to the smooth jazz of Thelonious Monk, but do you know about Luther Barnes?

Rocky Mount Has a Rich African American Heritage

thelonius monk plaque rocky mountIt's reflected in the Douglas Block and Booker T. Theater, which were the cornerstones of the African-American community in Rocky Mount, NC from the 1920s through desegregation.

Most of the history of African-American communities isn’t written down, but passed down from generation to generation through oral history. While most African American residents lived outside the city limits, the Douglas Block, located downtown, was the hub for African-American businesses, movie theaters and other establishments. It was a center of culture that fought unemployment and provided job opportunities. 

Today, those buildings have been renovated, ensuring they will convey a sense of pride, purpose and inspiration for generations to come.

Rocky Mount recognizes this heritage with events such as the Juneteenth Community Empowerment Festival.  But beyond the celebrations, there may be some facts about the area's African American heritage you don't know.

The Man Who Invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A treasured, historic jewel was recently restored---it was a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his "I Have a Dream" speech  for the first time. And it wasn't in Washington DC—it was in Rocky Mount, NC. He spoke to around 1,800 people at what was then Booker T. Washington High School.



You May Know of King's Rocky Mount Connection, But Do You Know Why Martin Luther King Came to Rocky Mount?

He was invited by the Voters and Improvement League. While many had a hand in bringing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rocky Mount, the head of the league at that time was Rev. George Dudley of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church. Dudley invited King to Speak.

The headline in the Carolinian Newspaper read: "King Tells Rocky Mount Audience: Don’t Wait for Freedom."

African American Music Trails

If you're shopping around the Douglas Block area, you may find a statue of a piano, placed to honor the gorgeous, jazzy tunes of Thelonious Monk, who was born in Rocky Mount. You can hear a few of his hauntingly beautiful melodies online. Monk wasn't the only one who was recognized for his music.



Gospel singer Luther Barnes made his mark with his family. He joined the "Sunset Jubilaries" which was founded by Haywood, William Barnes and William Pope. In 2000, Luther and the Sunsets earned a Dove Award nomination for "Heaven On My Mind."

The Leaf House Workers

In 1946, tobacco leaf house workers in eastern North Carolina joined unions in a mass organizing campaign, representing 10,000 workers.

But the unions were about much more than labor rights. Organizers wanted to increase black voter registration. Nearly a decade before Montgomery’s bus boycott, African American leaf house workers used "unionism" to make their voices heard for civil rights.

The first union election was held in Rocky Mount at the China American Tobacco Company. 


Pioneer, Educator and Leader: Ruth Braswell Jones

Ruth Braswell Jones was born in Rocky Mount and made great strides as an educational leader. After earning her education degree from Elizabeth City State Teachers College and her master's degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, she taught elementary school for 47 years.

If her only professional accomplishments were the thousands of lives she touched in the classroom, that would be impressive enough, but Jones went on to achieve several firsts:

She was the first (and only) woman elected president of two state educational associations.

First, she was president of the North Carolina Teachers Association. Later, when this organization was integrated with the NC Association of Educators (NCAE), Jones was once again elected president. 


She was the first black woman from North Carolina to be elected to the National Education Association’s Board of Directors.

She was also the first African American president of the Southeast Regional Association of Classroom Teachers.



Rocky Mount is full of cultural African American history. Visit the Braswell Memorial Library for more information on our city’s heritage or find inspiration in the renovated Douglas Block area. 


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