MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Smells of charcoal and chicken blend on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Whitesboro as Shakina Akers and Jose Gonzalez tend a stacked grill.
Nearby are rows of corn on the cob, while there are also hot dogs and hamburgers cooking. It looks like they’re preparing to feed an army. On the far side of the gazebo at the Martin Luther King Community Center, children swarm an inflatable water slide, while more pile into a bounce house, working up an appetite for all that food.
What began as a gathering of friends for Father’s Day has grown into a community event, said Anthony G. Anderson. He said a group of community members that has coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement has begun regularly holding what it’s calling the BoroBQ. The food is free.
“We’ll pass around a hat at the end of the day, but we’ll cover whatever is needed. We aren’t asking for anything. This is something for the community,” Anderson said.
Building and strengthening the sense of community in Whitesboro is central to the now-weekly gathering, said Mark Harmon Jr., another organizer.
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Both men said they wanted to pass on the sense of roots and connection they once felt in Whitesboro to the younger generation. Doing so with fun and food seemed like a natural choice, they said.
The Whitesboro section of Middle Township is a historically Black community, founded in the early 20th century as a planned community for Black self-help and advancement, and named for George White, one of the last Black Republicans elected to the House of Representatives in the Reconstruction era. He represented North Carolina’s 2nd District before the rise of Jim Crow laws.
Booker T. Washington was one of Whitesboro’s early investors.
According to Harmon, the weekly gathering aims to keep the sense of history and community that has always been important to Whitesboro.
People know the community as the hometown of Stedman Graham, which has led to some visits from Graham’s partner, Oprah Winfrey, but it’s the everyday connections that keep the community special, Harmon said.
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“This is a place where we can be safe and be ourselves and be Black,” Shayna Lynn said Sunday. In many places, a large gathering of Black families would draw concern or even a call to the police, she said, even if they were just listening to music and playing with their children.
“I can bring my children here and feel like they’re safe,” she said.
The event is not only for Black people, Harmon and Anderson said. Everyone is welcome. But it is a Black space. It may seem like a subtle distinction. According to Harmon, it’s a place where Black community members have no pressure to accommodate white expectations or worry about other people’s reactions.
Anderson said he is working with township police to bring some officers to meet the children, to build communication and respect and to let the children know they do not have to be afraid of police.
The event was apolitical. On Sunday, there were no speakers, although Whitesboro resident Crystal Hutchinson, who has led several Black Lives Matter marches in the county, had a table set up to register voters. And the renewed national drive for racial equality and justice sparked by the death of George Floyd forms the backdrop of the barbecue.
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On Sunday, Lynn noted that people arrested July 4 as part of a protest on the Atlantic City Expressway, whom she called the Atlantic City Seven, attended an earlier barbecue, and many of the participants in a protest march on the Wildwood Boardwalk on July 19 also came to the barbecue afterward.
She also spoke about other community members involved with the barbecue or helping out, saying entrepreneurs, building contractors and community leaders were all part of the event.
“We start cooking around noon,” said Anderson. It’s usually a few hours after that when people start to gather.
This week, with temperatures hovering in the mid-90s, many people waited until things cooled before coming out. Some kids played basketball on the nearby courts, and many people just sat in the shade talking with their neighbors.
July 26 is the birthday of the late Waymon Hawkins, known in the community as “Tizz.” A commercial fisherman and member of the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, he died in an automobile accident in 2016. He was 29.
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In his honor, many at the Sunday barbecue wore T-shirts that said RIP Tizz or referred to Sunday as Tizz Day.
“He was the kind of person to post ‘good morning’ each day and offer an ear for anyone that wasn’t feeling great that day,” Anderson said. “He always wanted people to know that they could come to him, and he would listen and help you through it. You don’t come across that kind of young man often. So we celebrate him each year on his birthday.”