Catawba Avenue is the lifeline of Cornelius; it links the eastern and western halves of the town. But a one-tenth-mile stretch of that busy roadway, just east of I-77, includes an important link to the town’s history.
For nearly 100 years, Union Bethel AME Zion Church has been a beacon to the Smithville community, the town’s historically African American neighborhood. The church was founded in 1917 by the Stinson Family, whose members had already lived in that section of town narrowly bound by Ferry Street and Hill Street.
On Feb. 27, the church and the Stinson family will get its due as Cornelius hosts its fourth annual Black History Month celebration. The event will be at town hall.
Each year, the town’s Park and Recreation Department partners with the Smithville CommUnity Coalition to hold the event, and each year one of the neighborhood’s families with strong historic ties is recognized. This year, the Stinson family, which includes the Grier and Nelson families, will be honored.
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“I feel Smithville is very important to black history … because it is an African American community,” says Lisa Mayhew-Jones, chairperson of the Smithville CommUnity Coalition. “ It was basically a stand-alone community until 1968. I feel it’s important so that people who are from here and people who are moving here know about black history and the history of Cornelius as a whole.”
The Black History Celebration, which runs 2:30-5 p.m., will include performing arts by members of the Stinson family, displays of family memorabilia and photographs, children’s activities, and refreshments.
“The event is aimed at preserving and highlighting the immeasurable contributions of African Americans to U.S. History,” says Mindi Ellison, the town’s special events coordinator. “It is great to be part of a collaborative effort to celebrate the contributions of African Americans past and present.”
Mayhew-Jones, 51, is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Samuel and Lizzy Stanton, the family’s oldest known ancestors. Current family members figure there have been eight generations since.
The Smithville CommUnity Coalition formed in 2010 and has since qualified for federal nonprofit status. Mayhew-Jones says the SCC has partnered with churches and other nonprofits on revitalization projects in the neighborhood.
The SCC helps organize an annual jazz festival at Smithville Park, which is across Ferry Street from Union Bethel AME Zion Church. It also helped develop the nearby community gardens and organizes an annual community cleanup.
The first Black History Celebration in 2013 focused on the entire Smithville Community, which includes nearly 100 homes. In years since, the Conners and Potts/Rivens families have been honored.
Samuel and Lizzy Stinson had 13 children. In 1917 Williams Stinson founded the church with Rev. Byfinue Stinson as pastor. By 1933, when the family held its first reunion, a couple of the Stinson daughters, Carrie Stinson Nelson and Maggie Stinson Grier, were married and welcomed in the Grier and Nelson families.
The descendants of Samuel and Lizzy are leading the charge to preserve the Stinson family history. Carrie Stinson Nelson’s daughters, Delorus Williams and Debra Moore, are key players, as is Williams’ daughter, Mayhew-Jones. Grier’s granddaughter, Jan Nealy Farrar, is the official family historian and helps coordinate annual family reunions, which draw around 300 people.
Williams and Moore attended the neighborhood’s Rosenwald School, a historical landmark that became the Better Community Center. That’s where Andrea Stinson, who became a star at North Mecklenburg High, N.C. State and in the WNBA, honed her basketball skills.
The community center, along with Union Bethel AME Zion Church, is one of the community’s two prominent buildings. Two doors down from the church is where Carrie Stinson Nelson’s home stands.
The house has been empty for years but the land is still full of memories for Mayhew-Jones. She said she remembers eating from walnut and pecan trees there, and how her grandmother talked of picking cotton in the field across the street that became Smithville Park.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.