TAYLORTOWN, N.C.—Perry Barrett, for one, is asking himself this provocative question: Is there a place today in America for the all-black town?
While many African-Americans, including Mr. Barrett, grew up in small rural towns with nary a white person, those communities today have almost faded from the scene—a consequence of interventions such as the Voting Rights Act, desegregation laws, and the civil rights movement, not to mention changing attitudes.
But a few such towns persist—and some residents and former residents are determined to save them. Far from seeing places such as Taylortown, N.C., as anachronisms carried over from the days of Jim Crow, they view the black town as a beacon of self-sufficiency and pride—something to be savored, safeguarded, even invested in.
Black towns once dotted the landscape from Alaska to New Hampshire and from Nevada to Florida. Some were carved from the dregs of segregation, marginalized in swamps and on the other sides of the tracks; others were hopeful gambits of self-sustainability. Some were created by “exodusters” fleeing the segregated South; others were simple camps left over from when planters left the rice fields. Hundreds—places like Dempsey, Alaska, Parting Ways, Mass., and Coit Mountain, N.H.—have gone by the wayside.
The rural black townships that survive today—with names like Atlantic Beach, Little California, Lost City, and Keysville—are mostly in the South, with some in Kansas and Oklahoma. A few are thriving. Some struggle against “structural racism,” suggests Anita Earls of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights. Many, like Taylortown, are slowly crumbling.
Some have lost hope. Tom Gibson plans to move to Philadelphia to make a go of a gospel music career. Crime in Jackson Hamlet, he says, has become too pervasive. “It’s impossible to realize your dreams in a place like this,” says the 30-something food service manager.