By Todd Cohen
SPRING LAKE, N.C. — In 2001, after conducting research on her grandfather’s family, Harnett County native Ammie Jenkins left a technology and teaching career to form a nonprofit to help preserve the cultural heritage of African-Americans in the region.
Today, the Sandhills Family Heritage Association is spearheading a handful of initiatives to provide education and training to help African-Americans in six counties hold onto their land and create businesses and jobs tied to it.
The organization’s goal is “building self-sufficiency and self-worth through preserving our cultural heritage and our natural resources,” Jenkins says. “We are connected to the land, and we are tied to that culture that is defined by the land.”
With an annual budget of just over $200,000, most of it from government through the N.C. Rural Center, and from foundations, the association is developing a one-stop center to generate jobs and income through businesses, tourism and education rooted in the region’s African-American culture and heritage.
The association is developing the center at a site on Chapel Hill Road in Spring Lake in Cumberland County that houses a cinderblock building built in 1950 that served as the civic center for African-Americans and was the scene of strategy meetings for the civil rights movement.
The association wants to raise $1 million to renovate the building to serve as a museum and library for its collection of over 120 audio and videotape interviews with elderly African-Americans.
It also wants to build a new wing to house a community kitchen, business incubator, offices for the association, and meeting space for family reunions and other gatherings.
And the site will be home to a farmers market, scheduled to open May 12, to help African-American farmers in Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Lee, Moore and Richmond counties market their produce.
The association also is developing a “brush arbor” like those that served as the first churches for African-Americans in the South who had no other place to worship.
The site also houses a replica of the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road, built with slave labor in the 1840s, that ran to Winston-Salem from the Market House in Fayetteville where slaves were sold, and was the longest plank road in the U.S. and the first road system in North Carolina, Jenkins says.
At the center, the association plans to continue offering workshops and training it has provided on issues involving land ownership.
With the center serving as a magnet, Jenkins says, the association also is promoting tourism tied to the region’s cultural heritage.
Last year, in a pilot program funded by foundations and other agencies, the association sponsored heritage tours that attracted over 100 people.
One tour, sponsored by the Fayetteville Convention and Visitors Bureau, hosted 42 media representatives from throughout the U.S.
To strengthen itself as an organization, the association has received support from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem and the Resourceful Communities program of the North Carolina office of the Conservation Fund.
“We are looking at the land and creating land-based jobs or income opportunities so people can help pay their taxes and hold onto their land,” Jenkins says, “and so they can continue to do the type of work they enjoy doing and at the same time preserve the cultural heritage that is tied to the land and have something to pass on to the next generation.”