How the 'little' Washington seeks inclusion and celebrates diversity

Posted February 20, 2019 4:46 p.m. EST
Updated March 4, 2019 5:16 p.m. EST

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

One of the main lures of Washington, N.C., is its location along the Tar and Pamlico rivers. The gleam and glow of the waterfront is no doubt breathtaking, but what is truly powerful is the role the rivers played in the cultural history and diversity of the area.

"Freedom Seekers got their freedom from the Washington waterfront from 143 plantations in the greater Washington area," explained resident Leesa Jones, the founder and curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum. "Using the waterfront, they were able to get to places like states in the north, Canada and Fort Mose, Fla., which was a land that had been given to landlords for free blacks."

Jones, a born and raised Washington resident, was always interested in family history.

A descendent of both free blacks and enslaved ones, she began writing a book about her ancestors for her grandchildren. Using her findings and genealogical research, she developed a walking tour of Washington in 2009 with her husband that featured more than 300 years of African American history in the area.

Due to its popularity, she started a Facebook page where she shared updates and information about Washington's black history.

"The National Park Service got wind of what we were doing as we shared the history of the Underground Railroad here in Washington. They contacted me and said that if I could get them documentation that Washington was used as an avenue of freedom for Freedom Seekers, they would make the Washington waterfront a National Park Service Underground Network to Freedom site, which they did in 2014," Jones proudly explained.

The museum opened in 2016 after Jones realized the town needed a physical location where it could showcase information about Freedom Seekers. It is housed in a refurbished railroad car near the town's civic center.

Little Washington : Spotlight : Underground Railroad Museum

The Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum is housed in a refurbished railroad car near Little Washington's civic center. (Photo Courtesy of Washington Tourism Development Authority)

Some of Jones' favorite exhibits include information on "code items" such as black eyed peas, which were dropped on the ground to indicate to Freedom Seekers that people were watching. To Jones' delight, the museum has drawn visitors from all over the country.

"We had a young girl who was studying the Underground Railroad. She's homeschooled and she lives in Idaho — she happened to Google, ‘Underground Railroad,' and Washington, N.C., came up. Her parents flew her here from Idaho to the museum just so she could visit," Jones said.

Demographically, Washington's population is predominantly white (45.4 percent) and black (43.6 percent) residents. But as resident Al Powell points out, diversity "isn't just about race."

"A lot of folks mistakenly associate race when they hear the term diversity, but that's not true. Diversity is just in a nutshell, a difference in the way different people look at things. It could be economics, it could be dress, politics [or] religion," said Powell, who permanently moved to the area with his wife after he retired.

Washington city councilman William Pitt agrees.

"I've been on the council for 10 years; I believe that no man is an island, and when you live in a small community like Washington — one of the most important things is that diversity is a state of mind," he said.

For Powell, diversity is a state of mind. He is the president of the Inner Banks STEM Center (formerly the Beaufort County Police Activities League), a divisional diversity officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and a retired FBI agent. His work with Inner Banks STEM seeks to improve the relationship between youth and law enforcement through educational efforts in STEM, specifically through exposure to aviation and the aerospace industry.

The organization rebranded its name to align with its mission, as PAL programs are typically athletic league and recreational based. In August 2018, Inner Banks STEM received one of two $179,000 Burroughs Wellcome Grants.

"We just made a conscientious decision here in our area that [STEM] is what we were going to focus on," Powell explained. "With the STEM component being in our name, there's no mistaking the fact that we are about science, technology, engineering and math. We're still 501(c)(3). Our mission is to improve the relationship between all first responders, firemen, et cetera, and also expose kids to phenomenal careers as first responders. And then we work very closely with the military, and the military is comprised of diversity."

Through Inner Banks STEM, kids get an opportunity to spend time on the Johnson Air Force Base at the Cherry Point Marine Air Station and at the Coast Guard base in Hoboken. Enlisted officers and staff members from all over the country share some of their stories with the group.

Powell said this is the "essence" of what diversity is and shows how people from different backgrounds and perspectives can come together for a common mission.

As a diversity officer Powell raises situational awareness about officers who are coming into the Coast Guard from different backgrounds and walks of life. He said his childhood in a rough area of Washington, D.C., and his role at the FBI have influenced his current work in bringing diverse groups of people together.

He said programs, education and awareness can promote inclusion and foster opportunity.

"My last assignment in the FBI was the chief of the counter terrorism unit, so I got a chance to travel to different parts of the world. It became apparent to me that no matter what your race, color or creed, if you are a terrorist, it has something to do with the environment that you were raised in. It is not an inherently genetic predisposition to hate," Powell said.

Pitt emphasized that representation alone is not enough and that people who want to feel included need to "show up" and propose what they have to offer to the group at large. An example of this is Jones's work in bringing her own family history to life for the benefit of the entire community.”

Pitt also said creating an inclusive community starts with simple things like holding a door open for someone and being the first to lend a hand.

Washington does not claim to be a utopia, but it is certainly making valiant strides to be a community where everyone feels welcome and represented.

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.