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Cultivating aspirations: Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren Counties

The John M. Belk Endowment and Durham-based nonprofit MDC have partnered to examine the patterns of economic mobility and educational progress in North Carolina to determine who is being successfully prepared for entry and success in the most economically rewarding sectors of the state’s economy. The report, “North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity,” provides data and analysis on these trends and includes a close look at eight localities across the state. This week, EducationNC will be featuring the profiles of five of those communities.

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History and context: Tobacco, textiles, and travel

Stretching from the northeastern edge of the Research Triangle metro area along I-85 to the Virginia border, along the shores of Lake Kerr and Lake Gaston, the four-county region of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren remains distinctly rural despite its proximity to one of the state’s most economically dynamic areas. The region’s economic history is archetypal North Carolina: tobacco and cotton farming, driven by slave-labor until the end of the Civil War, followed by a manufacturing and mill-based economy for much of the 20th century. Timothy B. Tyson explains the primacy of tobacco in the region’s history in Blood Done Sign My Name:

“Tobacco put food on our tables, steeples on our churches, stains on our fingers, spots on our lungs, and contradictions in our hearts. A hundred years after the fall of slavery, C.G. Credle Elementary School still didn’t open until mid-September, after the farm children were finished ‘priming’ and ‘putting in’ tobacco—picking the leaves and hanging them in wood-fired barns to cure. Bright golden leaves blew off the trucks and littered the streets every autumn.”

While the agricultural and manufacturing engines of commerce created immense wealth for owners and managers, and stable employment for many workers, their legacy presents unique challenges for broadening economic opportunity in the region today. These four counties have an intertwined history—both political and economic—and face a similar fate today: they must build stronger pathways to postsecondary education and careers, and they must change the conversation about persistent poverty and what kinds of community investments are possible.

These four counties have an intertwined history—both political and economic—and face a similar fate today: they must build stronger pathways to postsecondary education and careers, and they must change the conversation about persistent poverty and what kinds of community investments are possible.

In 1860, 28,563 people in the region, or 54 percent of the total population, were enslaved people. There were more slaves in Granville County than in any other county in North Carolina, and in Warren County, the slave population was twice that of the white population—the highest ratio in the state. Free African Americans, often masons and other skilled laborers, made up another four percent of the population.1

Vance County was created in 1881 from portions of Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties in order to concentrate the black Republican vote, part of post-Reconstruction efforts to disenfranchise black voters. By the turn of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and the legal, social, and economic rights of African Americans in the area were significantly constrained.

Political changes were simultaneous with economic ones. When enslaved people were freed at the end of the Civil War, many became sharecroppers, an exploitative system in which land owners provided land and resources to farmers in exchange for a significant portion of the crop. Shifts at the turn of the century meant that the regional economy was no longer solely agricultural; Henderson Cotton Mill opened in 1896 in Vance County, and its owners opened the Harriet Mill across town in 1901. While the mills provided substantial employment in the region throughout the 20th century, black workers were only considered for the lowest-wage positions, and that economy created inequity by keeping wages low. The textile workers unionized in the 1940s, and a strike in the 1950s led to extended mill closures and violence, with the strikers eventually mostly replaced by new workers.2

Between 1910 and 1970, six million African Americans left the South—mostly from rural communities— in search of economic opportunity and to escape oppressive Jim Crow conditions. This massive population shift, known as the Great Migration, was felt in Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties: between 1950 and 1970, the African American population in the region decreased by nearly 10,000 people, or 16 percent.3 While the prospect of jobs and upward mobility certainly pulled people to the North, many felt themselves pushed away from the communities they called home because of entrenched racism, legalized segregation, and white supremacist violence.

The area also has a strong history of community organizing and activism, particularly civil rights organizing. After the racially motivated murder in 1970 of Henry Marrow, a young African-American Vietnam veteran, in Oxford, N.C. (the subject of Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name), Benjamin Chavis, an Oxford native who was then the statewide youth coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and later the executive director of the NAACP, organized a boycott of the town’s white businesses that pressured leaders to integrate. In Warren County during the 1970s, Floyd McKissick led a different kind of organizing: the development of Soul City, a planned multi-racial community with an explicit mission of black empowerment. Ultimately, the economic downturn and political opposition prevented Soul City’s completion. While Soul City did not flourish into the thriving community that McKissick and others envisioned, the infrastructure continues to be used, and it created organizing energy that continued in the region.4 For example, in the early 1980s, when the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources decided to build a PCB landfill in Warren County, the community responded with protests against the significant public health risks. Hundreds were arrested. Because the area was predominantly African American and low-wealth and the conditions at other sites would have been more environmentally responsible, the decision to locate the landfill there led Benjamin Chavis to start using the term “environmental racism.”5

Today, parts of Granville and Franklin counties have become bedroom communities for the Triangle—part of the halo of one of the fastest growing metros in the U.S. The labor markets of the areas blend together, potentially creating more diverse job opportunities for residents. Vance and Warren counties, while not impossibly far for determined commuters, retain their largely rural character. After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances of upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty, especially in Vance and Warren. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 18 percent of adults in Vance County and 20 percent in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher.6 The area also faces significant health challenges, an indication that economic change has left many in the region behind and dramatically reduced wellbeing. According to County Health Rankings, Vance County ranks 98th in North Carolina (out of 100) in an index of health factors, including health behavior, access to care, and social and economic factors. Warren County is ranked 92nd, while Franklin and Granville are ranked higher (53rd and 43rd, respectively).7 In Vance and Warren, 20 percent of people were uninsured in 2015, almost twice the national average (though that figure is down from 25 percent in 2013). In Franklin and Granville, 15 percent were uninsured.8

(Graphic courtesy: MDC)
(Graphic courtesy: MDC)

In the mill economy there were large disparities between the wealth of the managerial level and the subsistence of the workers. While the mill economy created many problems and deepened inequality, it did provide employment stability for many residents. When the mills closed, many of the affluent people left the area, and displaced workers were stuck with limited job opportunities and no transferrable skills. Once it became clear that the mill jobs were not coming back, decline set in. Many people in once-thriving neighborhoods full of old mill houses fell into poverty; not much later, a perception that they were blighted and filled with crime fed a cycle of disinvestment that lowered property values and diminished the tax base. According to Terry Garrison, a Vance County commissioner, “This area has an image problem that affects business recruitment.” Too many years with a culture of resignation, one where the traditional economic elite watched things happen rather than making things happen, took a toll.

“In place of Southern hospitality, we have Southern isolation.” — Harry Mills, director, Granville County Economic Development Department

This rapid decline has created a sense that poverty is an intractable problem. “There is such a tremendous amount of apathy, with people focused on ‘me and mine,’” says Paul Ross, director of the YMCA in Henderson. Many people of means have left the area or disengaged, according to Ross, creating a lack of resources and leaving the community fragmented. “In place of Southern hospitality, we have Southern isolation,” says Harry Mills, director of the Granville County Economic Development Department. In parts of the region, many affluent families have enrolled their children in private schools. In this environment, young people growing up in low-income families aren’t getting much positive reinforcement from the community. People make assumptions about who is worthy of respect based on their appearance. “We assume that because people look a certain way, they don’t deserve attention and respect,” says Jackie Sergent, mayor of Oxford. The sense of apathy, fragmentation, and disconnection has only exacerbated the community’s problems. “Too many people seem paralyzed by past failures—we aren’t spending enough time lifting up current success stories,” says Dr. Anthony Jackson, the new superintendent of Vance County schools. In Dr. Jackson’s view, this mindset is the first thing that needs to change.

“Too many people seem paralyzed by past failures—we aren’t spending enough time lifting up current success stories.” — Dr. Anthony Jackson, superintendent, Vance County schools

Many of the region’s visible challenges, including health outcomes, drug dependence, and vacant residential and commercial properties, will be difficult to change without economic development, and businesses are unlikely to invest in the area if they do not see people with the skills they need or the potential of local training systems to adapt and provide those skills. “There is an undeniable connection between education, health, and economic status, and those collectively impact the local economy,” says Val Short, with Triangle North Healthcare Foundation. While leaders want to attack those issues from every angle they can, including expanding health care access and quality, one of their biggest priorities is to find innovative ways to improve education outcomes and prepare people for work.

“There is an undeniable connection between education, health, and economic status, and those collectively impact the local economy.” — Val Short, Triangle North Healthcare Foundation

For that to happen, pathways to economic opportunity need to be concrete and accessible, but there is also, as Dr. Jackson says, a mindset change needed. “Being poor doesn’t relegate you to being unsuccessful,” says Carolyn Paylor, executive director of Franklin-Granville-Vance Smart Start. Young people in the community need to know that their future matters and that the community wants them to succeed; poverty is not an excuse to give up on them. Rather than imposing limitations on what they can achieve, their aspirations should be cultivated. In order to really change the prospects for the community’s youth, leaders need to reduce apathy and the sense of individualism. “Everybody blooms with connectedness,” says Oxford Mayor Jackie Sergent.

Along with shifting the culture toward more collective concern for community well-being, strategic improvements in the education-to-career continuum are being made, especially in Henderson and Vance County, where they are desperately needed. In Vance County Schools, where 91 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and the 2013 graduation rate was 65 percent (much lower than the state average of 83 percent),9 there is new energy for reform. Several new programs to provide students with additional pathways to career success are underway: two career academies, one focused on medicine and another on fire and public safety, as well as an alternative high school for students who were not successful at the county’s other high schools. “We decided we needed to do something to give kids hope,” Eric Pierce, the principal at the alternative high school, told WUNC-FM in an October 2015 interview.10 That school, Western Vance High School, has had a 100 percent graduation rate for the past few years; students stay until they meet the graduation requirements.

(Graphic courtesy: MDC)
(Graphic courtesy: MDC)

Along with other leaders in the region, Superintendent Jackson is committed to changing the conversation about student success. “We are waiting for some magic bullet program, but it’s really about building the capacity of our parents, about teaching them how to advocate for their kids to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences,” he says. Since he started as superintendent, he looks around and sees students, parents, and teachers who are trying in spite of difficult circumstances—and he sees many who are succeeding. He wants to make sure all students receive the support they need, even those who don’t match what people imagine as a “typical” successful student.

“We are waiting for some magic bullet program, but it’s really about building the capacity of our parents, about teaching them how to advocate for their kids to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences.” — Dr. Anthony Jackson, superintendent, Vance County schools

The changes at Vance County Schools echo those of Henderson Collegiate, a charter school that opened in 2010. Current enrollment is at 620 students, and it is adding grade levels every year; 94 percent of its students are African American or Hispanic, and 86 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Eric Sanchez, who founded the school with his wife, Carice Sanchez, is a former teacher in Vance County Schools. He saw a troubling divide when he taught there—the students who started out in kindergarten less prepared than their peers just fell further and further behind every year, while students whose parents knew how to support their learning and had the time and skills to advocate were well served, often by the Academically Gifted program. Sanchez was distressed by this achievement gap, and particularly by the unspoken assumption that many students would never be successful.

At Henderson Collegiate, Sanchez and his staff are creating a culture that sets clear expectations for all students to succeed. Their students’ test scores are higher than North Carolina averages, and they even exceed the average state scores for students who are not economically disadvantaged, defying many people’s assumptions about who can succeed in school. Henderson Collegiate will graduate its first students in 2019 and the school is carefully planning ways to support students as they select and transition to college. Each high school grade will have its own college counselor, and the school is starting to build relationships with colleges that have their own support programs for first-generation students. Talk of college is infused into everything, from the school’s name to classroom walls where teachers proudly display pennant flags from their alma maters. But they also know that students need a clear and concrete path to get there. Classes are structured to “provide immediate attainability of incremental goals,” says Sanchez, and both individual and collective learning are celebrated. One eighth grade student showed us a tally of points for reading books of their choice from the class library beyond those assigned; she was the frontrunner, but one of her classmates was quick to point out that “it’s about more than just the points—it’s about building knowledge, because knowledge is power, and power is freedom.” In the afternoon, bulletin boards in the hallway display quality work completed that same morning. A test was displayed with a note from the student at the bottom, “Did I crush this test?” The teacher had checked yes.

A test was displayed with a note from the student at the bottom, “Did I crush this test?” The teacher had checked yes.

(Graphic courtesy: MDC)
(Graphic courtesy: MDC)

Henderson Collegiate’s commitment to educating students from low-wealth families distinguishes it from a large number of charter schools in the state. Because state funding for charter schools can’t be used for transportation and food, many charter schools do not provide buses or lunch, which are huge expenses. Those are necessities for many families in the area; parents who work in low-wage jobs are unlikely to have the schedule flexibility to drive their kids to school every day, and some may not even have consistent access to a car. With 29 percent of children in the county food insecure, many families rely on school meals for their children’s nutrition.11 Henderson Collegiate does provide transportation and meals and sees them as mission-critical, but it takes significant effort to obtain grants large enough to cover those expenses. “The state funding model could be adapted to ensure that charter schools can and will be accountable for educating low-income students,” says Sanchez. While the people of this region need an entire system of public schools that provides a quality education at scale, Henderson Collegiate is proving that low-income is not synonymous with low achievement.

The region’s education landscape is anchored by the area’s community college, which serves all four counties. The role of community colleges, particularly in rural areas, extends far beyond the academic. In this region, as in many other rural regions, the community college is the only postsecondary institution, and in that role it serves as a workforce trainer, leading employer, community convener, cultural ambassador, and change agent. In each of these capacities, community colleges are positioned to make significant contributions to the overall improvement of the community’s health. “Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC) has the capacity and flexibility to do almost anything this area needs in education and workforce development,” says Linda Worth, the county manager in Warren County. With its main campus in Henderson and campuses in each of the four counties, VGCC is a central part of nearly every educational and career pathway in the area, and diverse offerings and partnerships have cemented it as a hub of education, workforce development, and regional advancement. “One of the most valuable assets we have is Vance-Granville Community College,” says Oxford Mayor Jackie Sergent.

“One of the most valuable assets we have is Vance-Granville Community College,” says Oxford Mayor Jackie Sergent.

VGCC has partnered with the local school systems to establish early-college programs in each of the four counties. Students enroll at the start of high school and graduate with a two-year degree, or college credit, within five years. VGCC is also partnering with four-year institutions to ensure students have an array of degree options and clear academic pathways; through a partnership with North Carolina Central University (NCCU), students can complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice on the VGCC campus.12 In addition to preparing students to transfer and pursue additional education, VGCC is working to align the training with the needs of local employers. VGCC has identified employers with specific skill needs and included them in program design to ensure students have desired technical skills. As a result, two campuses have biotechnology labs where a “BioWork” Process Technician training course is offered through the continuing education program to prepare students for careers as process technicians within bioprocess, pharmaceutical, or chemical manufacturing companies; there is also a bioprocessing technician degree program offered. A momentous new program at VGCC is the mechatronics engineering technology degree, which prepares students for highly technical jobs in industrial maintenance and manufacturing and relies on important partnerships with local employers and the career and technical education programs in the high schools. That program was made possible with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grant Program, which also allowed VGCC to expand the welding program to an associate degree level. “We need to make sure students have multiple educational pathways and our employers can find people with the skills they need,” says Harry Mills, director of the Granville County Economic Development Commission.

“There are many options other than four-year college,” says Ronnie Goswick, director of the Franklin County Economic Development Commission. Given the blending of the local labor market with the neighboring metro area, VGCC is focused on equipping students with varied skills so they can work locally or compete for jobs with the highly educated population in the Research Triangle.

“There are many options other than four-year college.” — Ronnie Goswick, director, Franklin County Economic Development Commission

Pockets of innovation and excellence in the region show what is possible for the future. The K–12 school systems and Vance-Granville Community College are working to ensure educational pathways are robust and the local workforce attracts and grows diverse businesses, and the Kerr-Tar Youth Council, coordinated by the Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments, plans employment and training programs for youth in the region. But the region still needs strong collaborative leadership to organize around a vision for the future economy. Far too many families in this area—and even entire communities—struggle to make ends meet with limited resources. Even with a comparatively low cost-of-living, it is difficult to get by on the minimum wage, and it is practically impossible to build wealth and invest in your family’s future. Positioned in the Triangle’s outer ring, many of the area’s residents will have better luck finding family-supporting work if they are able to commute, but only if local education and training systems prepare them well. And even with sufficient training, low-income people will be at a disadvantage because of inconsistent access to transportation.

Given the complex nature of the problems facing this region— problems that are too big for any one organization to tackle—it will take long-term, cohesive planning by a multi-sector group of leaders to strengthen opportunities for upward mobility. “Because we have limited resources, we need to coalesce around a common vision,” says Dr. Stelfanie Williams, president of Vance-Granville Community College. That common vision and the structures for collaboration and alignment between institutions do not currently exist, but they will need to emerge for the region to improve outcomes at scale. Achieving those goals will require broad alliances, including the involvement of employers, which has been difficult as the economy has restructured. Additional investment in the capacity of local nonprofits and civic organizations is also needed so that they better address issues that prevent educational progress and career connection.

“Because we have limited resources, we need to coalesce around a common vision.”– Dr. Stelfanie Williams, president, Vance-Granville Community College

Local leaders must also continue their work to change the conversation about poverty and who is likely to succeed. “We can’t allow poverty to be an excuse for not providing opportunity,” says Superintendent Jackson. Changing that mentality will take inclusive planning strategies: rather than creating a regional vision for low-income people, they must do it in partnership with them. After centuries of exploitative economic conditions, it is time for the region’s people to share ownership of the region’s economic transition and their future. As Lisa Harrison, director of the Granville Vance District Health Department, says, “We need to make it clear that this region values people and economic growth: those aren’t competing priorities.”

“We need to make it clear that this region values people and economic growth: those aren’t competing priorities.”– Lisa Harrison, director, Granville Vance District Health Department



Part 1–Introduction

Part 2–Cultivating aspirations: Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren Counties

Part 3–Partners at the speed of trust: Guilford County

Part 4–Recovery through collaboration: Wilkes County

Part 5–Landscape defines opportunity: Western North Carolina

Part 6–Growth that benefits all: Pitt County

Show 12 footnotes

  1.  “The Spread of U.S. Slavery, 1790–1860,” Lincoln Mullen, interactive map,
  2.  “Harriet-Henderson Cotton Mills Strike,” Maurice C. York, NCPedia, 2006.
  3.  Accessed November 2015:
  4.  “The Time Republicans Helped Build an All-Black Town Called ‘Soul City’,” Brentin Mock, CityLab, November 2015.
  5.  “How the Collapse of ‘Soul City’ Fired Up the Environmental Justice Movement,” Brentin Mock, CityLab, November 2015.
  6.  U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey
  7.  County Health Rankings, A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program,
  8.  “Changing Uninsured Rates by County — From 2013 to 2015” Enroll America, interactive map. changes-in-uninsured-rates-by-county
  9.  North Carolina School Report Cards,
  10.  “Perils And Promise: Educating North Carolina’s Rural Students,” Leoneda Inge, WUNC, October 2015.
  11.  “Food Insecurity: Data by County,” Feeding America.
  12.  “NCCU, Vance-Granville Community College Launch Program,” North Carolina Central University.
Alyson Zandt

Alyson Zandt was MDC’s 2009-2010 Autry Fellow and is now a program manager. She manages research and analysis for the State of the South, and helped lead the development of the 2014 report.