Sarah Culver and her other classmates had no clue about the neighborhood two miles south of campus.
They do now.
They took Dr. Cara Kozma’s Community Writing class, and they discovered what makes High Point’s Burns Hill neighborhood memorable.
Last semester, Culver and nine other classmates recorded the oral histories of 10 longtime residents of Burns Hill, transcribed them and created essays about their life long ago in the segregated South.
This semester, Culver is acting as an editor. She’s turning those oral histories into a book that will become part of the collection at the High Point Library, High Point Museum and the city’s Heritage Research Center.
But the project is more than just a book. The project strengthens the town-gown relationship High Point University has with its own city and captures for the first time the history of High Point’s largest Black neighborhood.
Moreover, students put their education into action. They give voice to a working-class neighborhood that felt forgotten and see their coursework come alive in a 12-chapter book, “The Voices of Burns Hill.”
That’s the HPU way.
“I think a university like ours needs to be involved in our surrounding community,” says Culver, a senior from Park Hall, Maryland. “Our job as people is basically to help other people.”
At HPU, at least a quarter of every course is focused on experiential learning like Kozma’s course. Students go beyond the classroom. Through service-learning courses in particular, they help and learn about their neighbors. They also help and learn about themselves.
That, Kozma says, is what education is all about.
The Life of Thommy Lumps
HPU’s Dylan Golden sat across from Thomas Marks in a church office. They were two men separated by 61 years, bonded by their early love for football.
Golden played in his hometown of Miami. He and his younger brother, Devin, suited up with the Coconut Grove Titans in an inner-city league where his dad, a lawyer, was the commissioner.
The league gave Golden a unique perspective on diversity because he and his brother were the only white players in the inner-city league.
Marks played for the Tigers of High Point’s William Penn High, the city’s all-black school. He was the eighth of nine children. His mom made socks in a hosiery mill, and his dad made panels for a furniture company.
In 1956, Marks graduated from William Penn and saw the world.
He joined the U.S Air Force, played football for the Los Angeles Rams, survived three brain surgeries and worked for a quarter century as a supervisor for an aircraft company owned by billionaire Howard Hughes.
He lived for decades in Los Angeles and came back every year to his hometown to see his mom on her birthday. In 1997, two years after his mom’s death, he returned to North Carolina to be closer to family.
He and his wife, Marie, now live in Jamestown, which neighbors the city of High Point. Just beyond his screened backyard porch is a barbecue pit adorned with an American flag and built of bricks.
Marks learned to be a brick mason long ago –– at William Penn High. Back then, he lived in Burns Hill, on Furlough Street.
He’s now 83, and he’s glad he told his story to Golden.
“There’s not too many my age still living,” he says. “Only few of us remember Burns Hill. So, this means a lot to me.”
Marks still has his William Penn yearbook, and he can find quickly the picture of Thommy Lumps. That’s him – and his nickname. In his senior year, he wore No. 46 for the William Penn Tigers and escorted the homecoming queen onto the field.
That picture is in the yearbook, too.
“You know where that field is now?” he said, pointing to the photo. “That field is now the soccer field at High Point.”
Golden heard those stories and created an essay entitled, “The Good Days.” His time with Marks, he says, was special.
“I could have talked to him forever,” says Golden, a senior English major with a concentration in creative writing. “He possessed a lot of knowledge I could take into my own life because of the challenges he faced. And he came out on top. That takes a lot of mental strength, which I try to embody in myself.”
So, Marks talked; Golden listened.
“These are the lives that make up the history of Burns Hill,” Golden says. “Without it, it would be incomplete.”
The Bridge Building of Kozma’s Class
Kozma comes by her curiosity of community naturally.
She’s the oldest daughter of two journalists, and her interest in writing about community took root during her years at Detroit’s Wayne State University.
While pursuing a doctorate work in rhetoric and composition, Kozma discovered a vibrant section of the city that fascinated her. Since the 1920s, generations of Mexicans came to Detroit for work and resettled in the southwestern pocket of the city.
That area of Detroit is now known as Mexicantown.
She wrote her dissertation on Mexicantown and had the students she taught produce community writing projects with two Mexicantown organizations. She found what her parents already knew: Tell the stories of marginalized communities, and you elicit understanding and empathy.
When she came to HPU to teach a decade ago, Kozma brought that knowledge with her.
For the first community writing project, her students interviewed and wrote the oral histories of immigrant women. In the second project, students interviewed and wrote about the people of Washington Street, an area once known as the “Harlem of High Point.”
The third project was “Remembering Washington Street,” a book that looked at Washington Street landmarks and professionals during the Jim Crow era.
The Burns Hill project is the fourth community writing project Kozma has led at HPU.
She understood its importance when she visited the city’s Heritage Center and found inside the Burns Hill folder only one article. It was a story from the High Point Enterprise about the neighborhood’s sympathy club group.
“They had to live in a world where their history wasn’t important as white history,” she says. “Yet today, they see young, predominantly white students interested in documenting their stories, and that lets them know their stories are important, that they matter.”
Kozma sees the impact firsthand.
“Students hear stories that made High Point, and for our community members, they see our students as real people,” Kozma says. “It’s that cultural sensitivity. We’re building bridges.”
The Blessing of a Book
For Jerry Mingo, Burns Hill is awash in memories.
He can drive through Burns Hill and point out houses where his doctor, his high school principal and his third-grade teacher once lived, and he can sit on his front porch on Thissell Street and envision the flowers his dad used to plant in their front yard.
When he sits, though, his head is on a swivel.
He’s constantly on the lookout. He doesn’t recognize the people walking by his house, and he worries about the future of his neighborhood, a place filled with vacant houses and apathy.
So, he sees the book as a blessing. Know your history, he believes, and you take pride in where you live, and you have hope for its future.
Mingo is 73, an Army veteran and a retired supervisor. He graduated from William Penn in 1965. He’s now the president of the Burns Hill Neighborhood Association, and he lives in the house where his parents lived in 1965, when he was 16.
They were the first Black family to move onto the street, and during a time when the Ku Klux Klan was active in North Carolina, Mingo says his family felt welcomed.
His dad moved boxcars along a short-line railroad, and his mom worked as a maid. Mingo was their baby, the youngest of eight. He’s now “Granddaddy Mingo” to his five grandchildren. He’s also the tour guide for Kozma’s class.
“So many people in our neighborhood don’t know our history,” he says. “So, I am so grateful to Dr. Kozma. I’m so happy she did this.”
‘This Is Good History’
The name Burns Hill, according to Mingo, comes from the neighborhood’s hilly streets and a man named John Burns. He was a Black man who owned property in the neighborhood in the 1930s.
The oral histories Kozma’s class collected unveil a community where Black neighbors lived beside white neighbors, and all neighbors looked out for one another on the dirt and paved streets of Burns Hill.
Teachers and police officers, principals and judges called Burns Hill home. Bob Brown, chairman of the HPU’s Board of Trustees, grew up in Burns Hill, raised by his grandmother.
Vivian Washington called her Mrs. Nellie.
Washington is 69, a longtime employee of local fabric companies, and she lives on East Commerce Street in a four-bedroom house with a wide porch. That’s where she grew up.
She was the oldest of five. Her dad was a janitor, and her mom was a nurse. An electrical fire nearly burned down their home in January 1963.
Washington was 12. Her uncle happened to be driving by when he saw the smoke. He stopped, ran to the house and spotted Washington and her four younger siblings on the roof. He helped them down.
They were unscathed; their mom was not. She had burns over 90 percent of her body. She spent several months recuperating in Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, her neighbors took care of Washington and her siblings.
These are the stories Corrie Bruce heard from Washington. Bruce recorded her, transcribed what she said and created an essay entitled, “My Village.”
“This project is valuable,” says Bruce, a senior English major from Taylorsville, North Carolina. “It preserves the past, and we’ll all be able to learn from it.”
“Here you have students from High Point University who know no one here,” says Washington, a mother of three and a grandmother of four. “But they are putting our history into a book, something we can keep, so it’s not forgotten.
“I love that. This is good history, it’s our legacy, something we can pass on to our kids.”
This semester, Culver will pore over stories from Marks, Mingo, Washington and seven other residents. She’ll edit them for clarity, and Kozma will publish 100 copies of the finished book.
It’s meaningful, necessary work. Culver gets it.
She’s been a Girl Scout and a volunteer at the U.S. Oyster Festival near her Maryland hometown. For two days, sometimes for eight hours at a time, she would stand in a booth beside her parents and raise for various local groups.
She sold quarts of oysters. This go-round, she’ll make sure the stories from Burns Hill sing.
And for Culver –– a Presidential Scholar, a member of HPU’s Honors Scholar Program and a double major in criminal justice and English writing –– she knows the big thing is this:
“We’re writing with community members,” she says, “not telling stories for them. Active listening and understanding are always the first step in self-growth and growth between communities. Learning about the experiences of others is what college should be about.”