One of eastern North Carolina’s oldest towns is also one of its poorest. But a progressive advocate turned local mayor has his eyes on a better future for Enfield.
Most of the storefronts in Enfield are empty, but as Mayor W. Mondale Robinson walked through downtown in early July, people kept waving and calling his name.
“You’d be hard pressed to walk through Enfield and not see someone you know or who knows you,” Robinson said, “and after being away in large cities, it feels wonderful to be able to wave and know everyone, or most everyone, who drives past.”
Robinson has traveled the world, but grew up in Enfield. He’s walked its streets countless times, and knows its people as well as they know him.
But this walk was still somewhat of a novelty.
Enfield is 90% Black, and though it has frequently had Black city council members who’ve worked hard for the town, it has elected only a few Black mayors. The town is nearly 300 years old.
Robinson, 43, was elected in May, defeating the white incumbent with 70% of the vote.
This town of 2,000 people in eastern North Carolina is one of the oldest in the state. Its historic district is on the national registry of historic places, and General Lafayette once spoke from a balcony in Enfield a few years after helping the US win its freedom from England.
It is a hub of agriculture and throws a popular peanut festival every year.
But Enfield is also one of the poorest towns in the country. Some 34% of its residents live below the poverty line, more than double the state average, and the median income is $21,000 a year. Its population has decreased steadily over the last decade.
“When I was growing up here in the 80s and 90s, there were shops everywhere,” Robinson said as he walked. “None of that exists right now.”
Robinson stopped at the end of the block, across the street from Meyer’s Supermarket, one of the only places in town to get groceries. The doors were locked, and a sign hung in the window: “Will be closed for two weeks. Surgery,” it said.
Robinson knows the store well.
Meyer’s Supermarket has been on the same corner for decades, and his parents shopped there when they were kids. But they were not allowed to stand outside it, or anywhere else in Enfield, after 9 p.m.
It was against the law for Black people to be downtown after the stores closed. The fire department sprayed anyone who violated the ordinance with high-pressure water hoses.
“My mother told me stories about being sprayed right here on this corner,” Robinson said. “She had canned food and when the pressure from the water hose hit her, it knocked canned food all over the place. And she couldn’t just hide and leave to protect herself from the fire hose, she had to get those groceries because that was the only thing her sisters could eat.”
She was 8 years old.
Robinson’s term was barely a week and a half old as he gave a visitor a tour of his town, but those empty storefronts and Enfield’s poverty can’t be separated from its history of white supremacy, Robinson said.
“Absolutely there’s a possibility for something different for Enfield,” Robinson said, “but it doesn’t require us discounting what happened in Enfield and who Enfield was as a town.”
What it requires, he said, is more conversations with those people who kept calling his name on that hot morning. Robinson left town after high school to start a career in national politics. He’s worked on 160 campaigns across the country, he said, helping candidates get elected in towns big and small through a radical political strategy: Listening to residents instead of talking at them.
‘You Can See Almost the Whole Neighborhood Gone’
While he misses the bustling Enfield of his youth, nearly all of those downtown businesses were owned by white people, Robinson said, and most of the crumbling homes in the town he now leads are in the Black neighborhood, known as “Black Bottom.”
White mayors and town commissioners in the past spent funds on the white parts of town and ignored the Black areas, he said.
“America’s racist fingerprints are all over every building that’s fallen in,” Robinson said.
The Enfield Housing Plan of 1978, written a year before Robinson was born, described the widespread blight in “Black Bottom” where his family lived.
“It exhibit[s] general blighting conditions of unpaved streets, inadequate drainage, small lots and poor street lighting,” the plan said, and “has the worst structural conditions.” A huge chunk of the houses were not connected to the public sewer system.
This was by design, Robinson said.
“You can almost tell where Black Bottom begins, because the sidewalks end,” Robinson said.
“You can see almost the whole neighborhood gone.”
These buildings were built before he was born, deteriorated over his lifetime and are still falling in on themselves now, many with people living inside them.
They are a big part of what brought him home.
‘My Dad Could Do Almost Anything.’
Robinson was named after Walter Mondale, the Vice President under Jimmy Carter, but his first name is William, his father’s name.
His father grew up the son of a sharecropper who worked and lived on land not far from downtown. Once when his dad was a young adult, the son of the white landowner slapped his mother, Robinson said.
“My dad reacted,” he said, hitting him back.
“Nothing of course happened to the son of the white man,” Robinson said, “but a lot happened to my dad.”
He was chased out of town by the Klan, Robinson said, and when he came home, a felony charge waited for him.
“That felony conviction followed us our entire life,” Robinson said.
“My dad could do almost anything, pour concrete, train dogs, fix cars: I saw my dad do everything and I couldn’t understand why we were so poor,” Robinson said.
“I left here running, trying to understand my dad’s story,” Robinson said, “but most Black men of his age from the South suffered something similar.”
He spent the first part of his career teaching progressive candidates how to better listen to Black voters. His approach to governing will not be much different, he said.
“I have what I call ‘radical hope,’ and radical hope requires work, a lot of work,” Robinson said.
“It needs to be an inch better today than it was yesterday, and I think that is possible.”
Robinson says his immediate focus is working with state agencies and the private sector to secure grants and other sources of financing to tear down or rebuild the dilapidated buildings in Black Bottom and other areas. Such funding is a necessity, he said, because Enfield’s budget is smaller than its needs.
“Our annual budget is right at $10 million,” he said. It costs $50,000 to remove just one unsalvageable house.
“Our budget doesn’t have $50,000 of spare money, so we have to figure out these partnerships to make things work.”
Before Robinson took office, Enfield’s City Council secured a $250,000 grant facilitated by Rep. Michael Wray, a Democrat in the NC House of Representatives. The council voted to use that money to pay for senior and youth programs and to study revitalization of Highway 301, a main artery in the region with several stretches of crumbling houses and buildings.
He’s also working to modernize Enfield’s workforce, he said, by bringing computer coding classes downtown, and hopes to open a 24-hour coding training facility in one of the empty shops. The Farmer’s Market is coming back this year, as is a peanut festival, and he and Enfield’s city commissioners are working to make sure that as many of the vendors as possible are local.
Markets, shops, renovated homes, all filled with Enfield residents.
“We can take over these houses and create our own housing authority,” Robinson said, “and instead of having people rent these houses, we could have these people on a pathway to homeownership.”
Like any mayor, he will have to deliver on these ideas to keep his interactions in Enfield so friendly. But the people who elected him say they are with him.
“There’s so much he’s trying to do,” Mary Ann Mitchell, a Black Bottom resident, said as she took fresh laundry off the line in her backyard.
“He can’t do it all at one time either, it’s going to take some time, and we all know that,” she said.
“He came back where he come from,” she added, “to make it better.”
‘A False Notion of What it Means to be Southern.’
Robinson’s ambitions are still global. He’s just bringing his mission home.
He formed the Black Male Voter Project ahead of the 2020 election, a nonprofit that focuses on getting voters to the polls and changing how progressive candidates approach Black voters, especially Black men.
“If you believe what polls say, if you believe what stagnant data say, and you’ve not interacted with people beyond a phone call asking a question about how they feel, if you’ve not built a relationship, you’re always going to get a false notion of what it means to be Southern, rural, and especially Southern, rural, and Black.”
Progressive ideas can win in the rural South, he said, as long as candidates see the people for who they are, and what their most pressing needs are. Showing up every four years shouting about the most important election in a lifetime is not going to mean much to many Black rural voters, he said.
“When people are hungry, when they don’t have sufficient housing, how can you tell them this is the ‘most important election?’”
“This Is Donald, Right Here.”
As Robinson continued his walk, a man called out to him from down the block.
“Hey new mayor!”
“This is Donald, right here,” Robinson said, smiling.
Donald, an older Black man, crossed to him carrying several plastic bags of groceries.
They spoke in the street, feet from the curb, as two friends catching up, and as a mayor and his constituent.
“I think you’re doing good in this town,” Donald said.
“Man, stop,” Robinson said, laughing and placing his hand on his heart.
“Everybody loves you,” Donald said.
“I love everybody,” Robinson said, and gently patted Donald on the shoulder.
“And,” Donald added, “you’ve got a whole Black staff.”
The new mayor of Enfield smiled again.
“Ain’t that something,” he said.
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