NEW BERN, N.C. — Long before the Barack Obama campaign had the nation chanting “Yes We Can,” Mary Peterkin’s mother had encapsulated that sentiment in a recurring retort to any of her 11 children who said “I can’t.”
Mary’s mom said, “Get off can’t do street. Try again!” These words have inspired Mary, the middle child, to be involved in a wide range of philanthropic efforts in the New Bern area.
Among Mary’s achievements are being the first minority to serve on the board of directors for the Cherry Point Credit Union, serving as treasurer of the committee to restore her childhood church, First Missionary Baptist, which is on the National List of Historic places, serving on the Urban Design Committee for New Bern and being on the board of the Coastal Community Development Association which developed affordable housing and home-buying training for low-income residents.
Mary also serves on the Swiss Bear Community Development Corporation, which oversaw the revitalization of the waterfront and downtown New Bern.
And First Missionary Baptist Church honored Mary by naming her Woman of the Year in 2000, and she was given the Intriguing African American Woman Award in 2005 by the Northeast Community Development Corporation in Jacksonville.
Mary’s most recent philanthropic efforts have been through her work with Uptown Business and Professional Association. Under her leadership, the group is working to restore and revive business activity in the Five Points Duffyfield area of New Bern adjacent to the revitalized downtown district by preserving African American culture and history with the Trail of Flames tour.
Highlighting the historic fire of 1922 that devastated 40 blocks of the African American section of the city (a quarter of New Bern at that time), the Trail of Flames tour will focus on African American history and culture with the potential to revitalize a very depressed area of the city by providing entrepreneurial opportunities related to the tour and business redevelopment.
The project also hopes to engage youth as guides on the trolley tour.
When Mary Peterkin sees decay, lost opportunity and hopelessness, she remembers her mother’s words and sees a vision for what can be moving into action to make her hometown a vibrant and prosperous place for all the citizens of New Bern.
“We can all be an example to somebody,” she says. “I hope the youth of today will become the leaders of tomorrow.”