Community Leader Florine Bell walks students through Lincoln Heights, NC, Halifax Co. excluded community

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Ms. Florine Bell outside an abandoned home on Branch Avenue in Lincoln Heights, NC

UNC Law students spent their Spring Break on the Wills Project, providing free wills, powers of attorney, and living wills for low-wealth clients in Halifax, Lenoir, Pitt, Avery and Watauga counties. The biannual Wills Project is sponsored by the UNC Pro Bono Program, Legal Aid, and the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Before meeting their first clients, students on the Eastern NC team were led on a walking tour of Lincoln Heights, and excluded community in Halifax County, by community advocate Ms. Florine Bell. Ms. Bell has been a minister and organizer in Lincoln Heights for several years and has spent her life fighting for economic, legal, and social justice in Halifax County.

Standing outside the Lighthouse of Deliverance Church on Branch Avenue, Ms. Bell gave a brief history of Lincoln Heights. Community Inclusion Attorney Fellow Peter Gilbert then gave an overview of community exclusion, the layered effects of disempowerment faced by Lincoln Heights, and the Center's work there and in other excluded communities. Watch the video below:

Lincoln Heights is a low-wealth African-American community bordered by Roanoke Rapids on three sides, but excluded from the city and access to city services. Despite being nearly surrounded by the city, residents have no electoral power over the city council, the local government body whose decisions most directly impact their lives. It has been the location of at least three of Roanoke Rapids' municipal landfills in the past five decades, and has suffered these environmental hazards along with the historic underdevelopment and denial of public services characteristic of other excluded communities. Because it is not part of city, 911 calls from Lincoln Heights are routed to the county sheriff instead of the Roanoke Rapids City Police, located only a few miles away. As a result, it often takes half an hour for an officer to respond to crimes or emergencies. The community has repeatedly sought and been denied annexation by the city. In 2010, the Center for Civil Rights helped the community stop the construction of a new Roanoke Rapids waste transfer station in the neighborhood. Preventing this additional environmental injustice in an already burdened community was one step toward full inclusion.

A burned-out home in Lincoln Heights. Since municipal codes don't apply outside the city, and due to uncertain property ownership, residents have no options to remove such hazards.

The challenges of community exclusion are not unique to Lincoln Heights. See Maurice Holland talking about the challenges faced by Midway, an excluded community in Moore County, NC.

Branch Ave in Lincoln Heights. Unpaved roads make it hard for emergency vehicles to navigate. There is also illegal dumping at the end of this road, leaving residents to live amid a mini-landfill.

Ms. Bell spoke to the students about the history of the community, which began with wood and tin shanty homes built for black workers, and its transition from a thriving neighborhood to a mixture of determined homeowners amidst an assortment of abandoned and dilapidated buildings. She pointed out parcels suffering from the legal stagnation of heirs' property—passed down without a will and now owned by numerous heirs with fractional ownership stakes-- stating that derelict homes were becoming fire hazards, havens of criminal activity and public health nuisances because neighbors cannot find or reach agreement with the multitude of absentee owners. Read more about heirs' property from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (PDF).

UNC Pro Bono Wills Trip Students and Center for Civil Rights attorneys with Ms. Florine Bell outside the convenience store in Lincoln Heights, NC

The Center will continue to work with Lincoln Heights and advocates like Ms. Bell toward cleaning up past environmental hazards, removal of dilapidated housing, affordable housing development, provision of municipal services, and annexation. Thanks to the law students, the UNC Pro Bono Program and the Legal Aid attorneys who continue to make the biannual Wills Trips so successful.

See more pictures from the Lincoln Heights walking tour and the Eastern NC Wills Trip.

Eastern trip students also provided their reflections on the walking tour and on their experiences writing end-of-life documents for clients. Read more reflections on the Wills Trip Blog: Where There's a Will, There's a Way.

Abandoned property in Lincoln Heights, NC

After going on this trip, visiting Lincoln Heights, spending time with clients, and talking to the attorneys from the UNC Center for Civil Rights, I faced a reality: in the Land of Opportunity, you can get trapped at the bottom.Rebecca Fiss, 1L

As we walked, I learned that this community was literally built on top of waste. When Roanoke Rapids still maintained a thriving mill industry, the mills would cross the river to dump all of their waste in Lincoln Heights. Even after the mills stopped dumping, the town of Roanoke Rapids leased land in Lincoln Heights to use as a landfill for the trash of Roanoke Rapids. In a time before regulations were in place on what could be put in landfills, toxic and hazardous waste was being dumped in the back yard of Lincoln Heights residents. This was not a community that had been forgotten – this community had been actively neglected for generations, and the community leaders are now doing what they can just to keep their heads above water.Justice Warren, 1L

However, the greatest impact, for me, was the eye-opening experience of seeing the level of poverty and exclusion in communities only a few hours from Chapel Hill, and learning that similarly-excluded communities exist right in Orange County. I, as I am sure many of us do, take for granted resources that seem so basic—access to water, sewer, paved roads, street lights, public transportation, and even proper grocery stores. Being able to walk through these communities and put a face on the issues facing excluded communities across the state was the most impactful experience.Kevin Denny, 1L

There is some hope for the community: Ms. Florine Bell, who led our walking tour, is a powerful advocate for Lincoln Heights and has helped push a number of measures forward to both protect and improve the community. The UNC Center for Civil Rights and other similar groups are also working to rectify the structural impediments to Lincoln Heights' progress. But still, as I walked around that community, I was reminded of villages in Uganda and rural Peru. How can we allow something like this to happen on our own soil? I don't know how we allow it to happen anywhere, but I hope more of us can work to change it.Ryan Fairchild, 1L

Walking through Lincoln Heights with Ms. Florine Bell on this Spring Break Wills Trip made me realize just how much there is a need for free or relatively inexpensive legal services. The community there is in need of some serious help and people who, like Ms. Bell, care deeply about North Carolina's rural communities and helping others. It is truly amazing not only what Ms. Bell does for her community, but also what the UNC Center for Civil Rights does on a daily basis and what our students did over this break. – Gabrielle Vires, 2L

News about the Wills Trip:

Thanks to UNC Law Student Rebecca Fiss for the pictures accompanying this post.

Posted by Mark Dorosin on Tue. April 10, 2012 3:56 PM
Categories: Annexation, Community Inclusion, Community Leaders, Education, Environmental Justice, Halifax County, Heirs' Property, Law Students, Pro Bono, Race Discrimination, Segregation
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