Carolina Drive: A historically Black neighborhood
Feature photo of Carolina Drive by Luke George
On a warm, sunny July day in Benicia’s Community Park, more than 100 folks from throughout California and beyond gathered to celebrate a long-time, primarily African American Benicia community. We reconnected and celebrated our community and our families in the Black Family Reunion tradition. The inaugural Carolina Drive Hill Reunion was a rousing success.
Joy, laughter, music, food, and chants of “The Hill, The Hill, The Hill” were a part of the merrymaking.
Ms. Chessie Mayo, a beloved 90-year-old matriarch who has lived in the community for more than 50 years, received special recognition. A memorial wall honored the ancestors, and T-shirts commemorated the event. A hobbyist photographer, a descendant of an early Hill family, roamed the area taking photos to preserve the memories.
Donald Ray Pruitt, a member of one original Hill family, spearheaded the reunion. All too often, we were reuniting at funerals and memorial services. Why not have a reunion to celebrate our community? He recruited a committee, and they began planning for a 2020 event that was delayed two years by the Pandemic. Donald Ray and his committee of Pam Blake, Jeanetta Calhoun, Sonja Calhoun, Angela Collins, Vivenne Cornelious, Wanette Foster, Juno Mayo, Debra Pruitt, Alfreda Smith, Carmella Smith, and Dorothy Smith planned every detail of the successful, fun-filled event.
Photo by Dr. Monique Hunt
The Black Family Reunion has a historical legacy heavily rooted in centuries of American slavery.
After emancipation, many African Americans were eager to reunite with family members – spouses, children, siblings, and parents – who had been separated or sold away during slavery. They desperately searched using word-of-mouth, memories, newspaper ads, and letters in hopes of finding lost loved ones. Reuniting with a loved one was a time to gather, rejoice, and celebrate with other loved ones. They sought to rebuild family and community in the tradition of their African roots.
Carolina Drive in Benicia, California, was a historically African American Community often referred to as “The Hill.” It once was a close-knit community of 40 African American families. Very few African Americans lived elsewhere in town. The residents were employed homeowners with hopes and dreams for themselves and their children. This circle of single-family, owner-occupied homes built in 1954 was the definition of community. It was a Black neighborhood that flourished as a village. Yet, in the broader community, they enjoyed the relative safety of small-town life, and their children had the advantages of a sound school system.
How did Carolina Drive become a Black community?
Oral history states that the original developer fell into financial trouble and needed to sell the homes quickly, so he sold one to a Black family. After that, he could only sell to African Americans, as whites chose not to buy there. In the early ‘50s, it was difficult for a Black couple to qualify for a home loan. Though they had significant down payments, were gainfully employed at stable jobs, had stellar credit, and, often, references from a white person, they were denied home loans. Those who qualified seized the opportunity to purchase the Carolina Drive homes with magnificent views of the Carquinez Strait and achieve the American dream of homeownership.
The “village” raised its children, cared for itself, and participated in community activities. Elders looked out for all the youngsters. More than one neighborhood elder reprimanded one misbehaving child. When a resident passed away, the neighbors quickly gathered around, took up a collection to help with expenses, and brought food and comfort to the family. The fathers came home from work, coached Little League, and were church deacons and community volunteers. Mothers, some of whom worked outside the home, coached softball, and volunteered at the schools and in the community. Some were the founders of King Solomon Church, Benicia’s only primarily African American church. There was very little violence or criminal activity. This African American community contradicted the stereotype of the depressed, lawless, poverty-stricken, violent, black ghetto.
Most original and early families produced gainfully employed, upstanding, contributing citizens and one or more college graduates.
Some became civil servants, court officers, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, firefighters, ministers, nurses, police officers, sports coaches, or teachers. Like any community in America, a few did not do well. Concurrently, the families dealt with racist townspeople, teachers, and police officers.
Over the years, the original owners passed away, and the homes changed hands. Today it is a more ethnically diverse neighborhood that lacks a sense of community. A few of the Hill families and descendants are still living there. Many of The Hill’s descendants formed friendships that remain intact today. The reunion celebrated all that is good about a community that thrived despite setbacks. The Carolina Drive Hill Reunion is on track to become an annual event that will only evolve and grow.