My Buck Leonard story: A return to Rocky Mount

The air on the northwest outskirts of Rocky Mount was crisp but not frosty, a gorgeous fall day, the type a typical Rochester kid misses from his youth and savors once he resides well below the Mason-Dixon line. Summers in eastern North Carolina — not to mention the heavy, seemingly endless and sultry type that said upstate New York boy slogs through in New Orleans with resignation and a series of sweat-stained ballcaps — are oppressive enough that the arrival of what passes for autumn in those summer climes is met with unrestrained joy.

It was, I guess is what I’m sayin’, a gloriously resplendent day. Beautiful. Fantastic. Quite gnarly.

It had taken me a couple hours or so to drive — with a rental car, because my stepmother’s Audi is off-limits and my dad’s SUV is frightening — from Atlantic Beach to the cemetery, surprisingly quickly.

The majority of the graves in Gardens of Gethsemane are small but dignified, flat stone markers nestled amongst the well manicured grass. A good portion of the rest of the graves are identified with modest tombstones, few of them taller than waist-high, if that. Most of these such graves are located toward the rear of the cemetery, shaded by longleaf pine trees that steadily drop enough brown needles to thinly blanket the ground below.

Rising from this prickly, arboreous crust are a pair of mausoleums that, aside from their contents and stony scripts, are pretty much identical to each other — four crypts high and two crypts wide. (I don’t remember how many crypts deep they are, and of course I didn’t bother to take a picture of the whole thing.) On this day, the sun’s brilliant rays glint off the brown marble of the ends of the mausoleums, adding a muted radiance.

The most notable facet of the modest cemetery for me is the white stone sculpture of Jesus that stands guard at the entrance to the Gardens. Hands at his side and facing forward, his head bowed slightly, the short but affecting figure stands atop a brick foundation with a small bed of flowers in front and a flagpole rising above Jesus’ head and topped by an American flag. The statue is similar to ones that stand sentinel at countless cemeteries large and small across the country, but the one at the Gardens of Gethsemane fits seamlessly into the overall mood, scope and spiritual impact of the cemetery.

(The perpetual-care, privately owned cemetery is actually a fairly new one — it was created in 1991 despite some grumblings from adjacent property owners who worried that groundwater from the graves would contaminate the neighbors’ drinking water. Then-Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Rev. J.O. Thorne endorsed the proposal, and landscape contractor A.B. Rose called it “a good project, and I think it’s going to be a good asset to the community.” Actually, it seems like the cemetery was initially supposed to be much bigger than it turned out, from a proposed 10,000 graves down to roughly 2,400, with wetlands issues playing a role. I write about these picky details out of nostalgia from my early days as a journalist in small-town North Carolina, covering planning boards and county commission meetings. It seems like a whole lot of drudgery, and it was in some ways. But it was also kind of fun and compelling getting to see how government works on a small scale. And by and large, local governmental systems — especially in small-town America, work much more smoothly and with a minimum of acrimony, certainly compared to what we see in D.C. It was surprisingly reassuring. That doesn’t mean things were completely devoid of controversy, personal grudges and administrative volatility; that stuff was there, no doubt. But municipal and county-level government tends to be much more responsive and attentive to the needs and concerns of the populace, which is pretty cool.)

In all, the Gardens of Gethsemane covers about … honestly, I don’t know how many acres of land along U.S. 64 Alternate, otherwise known as East Raleigh Road. (I was going to call the cemetery office and ask weirdly specific but non-burial questions like that, but I figured I’d come off a little, umm, weird. I’ll get the exact acreage in the revision to this opus.) While the cemetery is roughly three miles out from the center of town, it’s situated far enough out to the west that the surroundings have a slight country field; across the road is the dilapidated, overgrown, rusted Rocky Mount fairgrounds (the facility has been idle since the 2016 Rocky Mount fair, which had been a century-old local attraction before its demise), and flanking the cemetery are a roller skating rink and custom car shop. Dotting the stretch in between the businesses are single- and double-wides, and modest but neat, one-floor homes with brick siding. In all, it’s a typical, “eastern North Carolina” kind of vibe.

(Editor’s Note: In a coda to this post below, I discuss US 64 and how a part of it was renamed after Buck Leonard.)

Truth be told, I hadn’t been to Rocky Mount for at least a dozen years, but, aside from the propagation of generic commercial (fast food, dollar stores, pharmacies), the landscape hadn’t really changed — or at least from how I remembered it.

When I lived in Rocky Mount for about six months after graduating with my bachelor’s, the city — I’d call it a very large town with delusions of enormousness, but why quibble — wasn’t hurting economically, per se, but it wasn’t a boomtown, either. It had its anchor employers — RBC Bank, restaurant conglomerate Boddie-Noell Enterprises, Sara Lee Bakery and MBM Corp., the food distribution company my dad worked for a spell — but those sources of employment and revenue didn’t necessarily translate to a hopping business community or happening social scene.

Downtown Rocky Mount was, for all intents and purposes, dead, with shuttered businesses and very little traffic — auto, foot or otherwise. The downtown wasn’t blighted and didn’t qualify as a proverbial ghost town, but it was just, well, dead. Most of the population growth in the latter half of the 20th century occurred on the outer rings of the city, including the middle-upper-class neighborhood on the west side in which my parents lived.

Judging from what news and stats I can glean, I’m not really sure how Rocky Mount is doing financially these days. Recent Department of Labor numbers pegs the unemployment at around 6.5 percent or so, representing a significant drop from the mid-14-percent level of circa 2010.

However, the area’s largest employer, a Pfizer pharmaceuticals plant that (as of 2016) employed roughly 2,400 people, instituted drastic layoffs beginning in fall of that year, and the planned construction of new, $150-million-plus production facility by the firm reportedly doesn’t come with any new jobs.

Moreover, word in 2016 of a $160-million investment in a railroad terminal by CSX quickly evaporated, with the rail company stalling on implementation of the intermodal hub that allegedly would create at least 150 new jobs.

Rocky Mount Telegram, June 19, 1991

On the other hand, city officials and business leaders in spring 2017 crowed about the groundbreaking of a 175,000-square-foot, 12- acre, up-to-$41-million downtown community facility right smack downtown. Whether such a public enterprise, though, can spur the local economy — including the redevelopment of a long-dead downtown — well, we’ll see.

Buuuuuuuuuut, I undertake all that blathering to come back to my day last November visiting the Gardens of Gethsemane Cemetery near Rocky Mount and the crypt of its most famous denizen and the city’s favorite son.

To wit: at the entrance to the cemetery that day labored the owner and a few employees of the mega international conglomerate of Hunter’s Maintenance & Repair Service.

Well, of course not. Walter Hunter’s landscaping and general-labor business isn’t a global financial superpower. It’s not a substantial local corporation. In fact, whether it’s actually incorporated under the North Carolina government might be in question.

But there, in his work-worn, beat-up white pickup sat the man himself, Walter Hunter. With feet dangling from the driver’s side of the vehicle and his forearm draped over the steering wheel, Walter chomped on a cigar and picked at a late-afternoon sandwich. Various work equipment — a lawn mower, maybe? A generator? A magician’s trunk filled containing trick rings, colorful handkerchiefs, a top hat and at least two, possibly three bunnies? I don’t really remember — was piled up in the bed.

Adorned with neon green-yellow worked vests and calf-high brown leather boots, toting massive, yardwork plastic bags, and fanning out from the cemetery’s dirt driveway entrance, Walter’s subordinates meandered along the small ditch along East Raleigh Road, scooping up lawn clippings, branches and leaves and depositing them in the said plastic bags.

(As a clarification, for the rest of this post, when I refer to “Walter,” it’s to Walter Hunter, not Buck’s given first name — Walter Fenner Leonard.)

With the sun slipping down and the work day nearing its conclusion, it struck me that — railroad depots and drug plants and rec facilities aside — Walter’s little operation embodied what I recall as a truly Rocky Mount and eastern North Carolina business.

Because during all my time living in eastern North Carolina and working for small daily newspapers — a little over two years in the mid- to late-1990s — one of my biggest, clearest impressions of the social and cultural setting there was that the black community was extremely tight-knit. Surnames were often and widely shared, extended families were vast and geographically far-reaching, church congregations were devoted and deep, and black businesses were small but ubiquitous, from barbecue joints to barber shops to real-estate agencies to computer support firms to little landscaping operations like Walter’s.

In some ways, the African-American population in eastern North Carolina has been forced to develop such a cohesive network thanks to the unspoken, denied but persistent racism that permeates the region.

Although pockets of eastern North Carolina (including Edgecombe County, in which the Gardens of Gethsemane and Buck Leonard’s former house rest, and Halifax County to the northeast) are majority African-American and feature numerous black members of government or law enforcement, the real power and control of the region sits with the white population. The two groups mix and mingle with each other on a daily but casual basis, but that interaction is only formal, commercial and perfunctory in nature — almost as if it’s an economic and political necessity to keep local society functioning smoothly, without any disruptions.

But below that shallow, commercial surface layer, eastern North Carolina — at least when I lived there — was split by informal but strict segregation, a de facto cultural separation that affected living areas, religious life, social clubs and even schools to a certain extent. The fact that, unsurprisingly, many of the black neighborhoods and communities were among the poorest and most disadvantaged probably goes without saying.

Rocky Mount, my dad told me recently, presented one of the clearest examples of how institutional segregation can linger in impact and practice for decades after such racial division is banned under the law. Actually, it’s almost eerie.

Bisecting Rocky Mount right down the middle are lines of railroad tracks. To the east sits black-majority Edgecombe County, white-majority Nash County to the west, and to paraphrase my father, if you stand straddling those tracks facing north, you can look left (west), then right (east), and be witness to two completely different worlds — worlds in which the cliche of “wrong side of tracks” isn’t cliche — it’s real. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen one municipality so completely hewed in half along rigid geographical boundaries.

Thus the tight-knit, semi-insular nature of an African-American community that has battled and continues to battle segregation, economic disparity and social isolation by developing a self-contained community that supports, nurtures and grows itself. Such an evolution helped, in many ways, to shield the black population from often withering racism-cum-paternal sanctimony from local whites.

And, as I spoke with Walter Hunter this past November, I realized that Buck Leonard was a member of this black community, the one isolated by unspoken social segregation and compelled to develop a self-sufficient, intricate system of economics and spiritual unity. In fact, that closeness was perfectly exemplified by Walter’s remarkable connection with the legendary first baseman.

Walter’s father, Herbert Hunter, for decades operated a funeral home on the 200 block of Atlantic Avenue in Rocky Mount — just four blocks down from Buck’s home on the same street. So it’s not surprising that the Hunters, including young Walter, were good friends with the then-retired baseball star.

(On a neat little aside, both Buck and Herbert Hunter served on the 1972 campaign committee for Rocky Mount City Council candidate George W. Dudley; both men help positions on Dudley’s finance committee. Herbert Hunter passed away in 1982.)

Rocky Mount Telegram, April 14, 1982

Walter said he knew Buck when the Hunter Jr. was a wee one, and a popular, African-American-run business was often the catalyst for Walter’s frequent contact with the future Hall of Famer.

In fact, Walter recalls Buck dropping by Hunter’s Funeral Home to, well, just hang out and shoot the breeze. The mortuary served as a social gathering place for the almost all-black neighborhood, and Buck would smoke cigars with Herbert Hunter and just catch up. Many nights, Walter told me, the junior Hunter would jaw with the hardball legend, slowly realizing that through his father’s friendship with Leonard, little Walter got a chance to sit at the feet of greatness — modest, unassuming greatness.

“Everybody knew him,” Walter said. “He was very quiet. Almost every day he’d turn up at our office. I was a small boy.”

Mostly, Walter told me with a grin, he just listened to the retired great, a big bear of man who toward over the youth.

“He talked about baseball, talk about business,” Walter said, referring to Buck’s real-estate firm. “I was just a small boy, and back in those days, children didn’t get up in grownups’ business.”

My conversation with Walter Hunter that November day — as well as, in the interest of full disclosure, a follow-up interview with him over the phone a few weeks later — was both illuminating and comforting; it made me happy that Buck Leonard played such a large part in the everyday lives of his Rocky Mount neighbors.

However, my later phone conservation with Walter Hunter ended on a slightly doleful note — when I asked him if the city has done enough to recognize Buck Leonard and the star’s contribution to the city, Hunter was unequivocal in his response.

“They don’t do a whole lot in the city for him,” he said.

Which is a sentiment that comes across as a bit jarring, given the city’s record of honoring Buck — he has a park named after him; a significant thoroughfare has been renamed Buck Leonard Boulevard (a move that was made in the years after I left North Carolina in 1997); several community awards have are named and bestowed in his honor; and, in many ways, 20 years after Buck’s death, the Hall of Famer is, without hyperbole, Rocky Mount’s favorite son.

That left me wondering — is there a disconnect there? Has the city truly done enough? What exactly is Buck Leonard’s legacy in his hometown?

Perhaps the most important question to ask about how Buck Leonard impacted his hometown — especially in light of the lingering effects of segregation — is whether his fame, success and character went beyond inspiring and encouraging Rocky Mount to play baseball and to develop the same type of vibrant moral code Buck himself had?

Did Buck’s popularity across cultures and races actually help ease racial tensions and socioeconomic divides? By accepting an older black man as their city’s favorite son, were the whites of Rocky Mount given more than a cursory glimpse into the lives of the average black man, woman or child in the city? And were those whites spurred to thus open their minds to the historical realities that still faced minority populations in Rocky Mount? Was Buck not just a window into the lives of “the Other,” but also an active conduit for reconciliation, understanding and bonding?

Likewise, was Buck’s career and life — including not only his athletic achievements but his later-life roles as a school truant officer and successful businessman — enough evidence to show the city’s black residents that success was and still is possible? Was his example enough to give the socioeconomically downtrodden the type of inspiration and hope that, when coupled with helping hands from government programs and community organizations, could spur them to similar success as the baseball legend?

Being 20 years removed from my period of residence in eastern North Carolina — and, as such, viewing the situation with the jaundiced, admittedly somewhat sanctimonious eye of a Northern liberal and Negro Leagues scholar — I’m probably not the best person to render judgment here.

So, here we are. However, I’ll (try to) quickly offer up an example of the unspoken, persistent division and discord in Rocky Mount, one that happened a few years after I left eastern North Carolina for parts elsewhere, but also that, like those train tracks, involved a visible, pressing symbol. … 

In 1999, the Rocky Mount city government announced its plan to memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a new park and statue of the great civil rights leaders. Sounds well and good, right?

Well, according to University of Maryland professor Renee Ater, city officials bungled the process from the start — most significantly by failing to solicit much input from neighborhood residents or African-American organizations, giving Rocky Mount blacks the distinct feeling of, yet again, being ignored by a white power structure that, to them, feigned interest in the black community and operated with a sanctimonious patriarchy and pandering.

That allegedly callous official attitude was then couple, wrote Ater, when “Rocky Mount’s economy [took] a downward turn in early 2000, with a disproportionate impact on the African-American population.”

Asserted Ater in the Indiana Magazine of History in March 2014:

“As a result, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial became a lightning rod for the divisive racial politics of Rocky Mount — a town that was 56 percent black at the time but had been ruled by the same white mayor and a majority-white city council for 30 years. … All of these issues formed a combustible mix, and deep emotions erupted to the surface in heated public discussions — on the surface about the statue and the artist [Erik Blome], but on a deeper level about local politics and the future of Rocky Mount.”

The irony was overpowering — the memory and image of a man who strove his entire life and succeeded (in varying degrees) to unite people was suddenly and tragically now the source of further division, anger and resentment.

Maybe somewhere in all that is a valid comparison between the nationally revered, outspoken orator, minister and revolutionary (King) and the quiet, unassuming local kid who happened to play baseball really well and, in so doing, practically stumbled in fame and importance in his hometown. But, maybe, that’s a further discussion for another day …

OK, having written all of this, including painting in some detail everything else about my November trip to visit Buck Leonard’s grave — the weather, the history of the cemetery, the social setting in Rocky Mount, my chat with Walter Hunter — I feel weird and somewhat guilty finally getting to the point of my venture that day.

That being visiting and actually seeing his grave. Which, strangely and possibly ruefully, I discuss now as a seeming afterthought. But it wasn’t an afterthought, please believe me. The moment I stood in front of the mausoleum that includes Buck’s crypt, with the sun beaming warming rays on my face, I felt a sense of … Satisfaction? Belonging? Tranquility rooted in the now confirmed knowledge that, at the very least in death, Buck Leonard is remembered, albeit (and quite properly, given his legendary humility) humbly, at least in death.

Buck’s crypt features a rectangular bronze plaque reading, “Walter F. ‘Buck’ Leonard, Baseball Hall of Fame, 1907-1997.” A little relief of a swinging baseball player separates his years of birth and death. Affixed to the right side of the plaque is a little vase holding white, red and pink artificial flowers; the floral arrangement, on this day, casts a shadow on the name plaque (which, at the very least, made it a bit challenging to get a decent picture of the grave).

(Another note: When I arrived at the cemetery I spoke briefly with the facility’s family services manager, Elsie Ricks, one of the company’s three employees, in a modest office building on the edge of grounds. I asked her if many people come to see Buck Leonard’s grave, and she kind of shrugged and gave a blase mumble of affirmation. To be fair, she was busy working on arrangements with a bereaved family on their loved one’s final burial place, so, sure, technically I was butting in on a very important conversation and being kind of a putz, but I was hoping for at least one or two nifty quotes. Phooey.)

After paying my respects (and yakking with Walter Hunter), I left the Gardens of Gethsemane and began the two-hour drive back to my folks’ place. My noggin rattled with errant reflection, trying to bring the whole day’s experience together. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t come to any sort of a conclusion about what I had just experienced. One overarching thought muffled any such attempt at satisfying contemplation.

I wasn’t done yet.

Nowhere near.

Rocky Mount Telegram, Nov. 19, 2005

Coda

In June 2004, roughly seven years after Buck Leonard’s death, the Rocky Mount City Council passed a resolution calling for the North Carolina Department of Transportation to rename Ramp Road —  a portion of U.S. 64 Business between the U.S. 64 Bypass, which runs east-west through Rocky Mount, to Sunset Avenue — Buck Leonard Boulevard. The DOT approved the alteration at its Sept. 2, 2004, meeting to restyle a fairly significant local thoroughfare into permanent memorial to the baseball legend.

In November 2004, a formal ceremony was held featuring remarks from the mayor pro tem and the unveiling of a massive sign along 64. The change was recommended by local attorney George Whitaker.

“He was just somebody I knew and thought a lot of, not because of what he had done in baseball,” Whitaker told the Rocky Mount Telegram at the time, “but just things other than that. … He was just as fine a gentleman as you’d ever want to meet.”

(Interestingly, what’s now Buck Leonard Boulevard sits in the Nash County side of the city, through a generally middle- to-upper-class area — and a hefty distance from Buck’s old neighborhood in the Edgecombe section of Rocky Mount.)

This pic is actually from Gary Ashwill’s Agate Type blog. I hope he doesn’t mind if I use it for this. His site, which is one of the best Negro Leagues blog out there, is here. Please check it out.

Traditionally, U.S. 64 has sometimes been described as “Murphy to Manteo,” entering the Tar Heel State at its very western tip in the Smokies near the former city, and concluding near the latter town, which sits in the middle of Roanoke Island, just west of the famed Outer Banks. And yes, it is that Roanoke Island, where some people got lost or some such.

I’ve traversed U.S. 64 innumerable times; it runs directly between Rocky Mount, where my parents lived and where I briefly worked at the Telegram, and Tarboro/Princeville, where I lived and worked at the Daily Southerner for a year and a half. The highway also runs right to Raleigh to the west, where my parents lived for several years after leaving Rocky Mount, and where my brother attended N.C. State.

(Tangential to this tangent is the story of Princeville, the first town in the U.S. chartered by blacks, which I’ve covered and written about a lot over the last 23 years, and which is the home of my lifelong friend Calvin. Both Princeville and Calvin — as well as none other than Hall of Fame pitcher Bill Foster — will figure into my Buck narrative in a bit.)

The renaming of a significant Rocky Mount thoroughfare and U.S. 64 connector to Buck Leonard Boulevard roughly corresponded with other, even more substantial adjustments. When I lived in Rocky Mount and Tarboro (circa 1995-1997), 64 was a limited-access, four-lane highway from Raleigh to Tarboro, but from there on east to the Outer Banks, it was a two-lane or four-lane, full-access road.

But that’s since changed — the four-lane freeway portion was extended to Williamston, about half-hour east of Tarboro and couple hours west of Manteo. The whole stretch from Raleigh eastward to Williamston — including through Rocky Mount — is in the process of being turned into Interstate 87. As it turns out, that’s significant because north-south I-95 runs just a few miles west of none other than Rocky Mount — in fact, it could be argued that Rocky Mount exists as a city largely thanks to I-95 traffic — which means there will be an intersection of interstates at Rocky Mount.

It also means that Buck Leonard Boulevard will soon become an important connector between Rocky Mount and an interstate, which would bring with it all sorts of developmental and commercial prospects, which, in turn, could make the name Buck Leonard a lot more well known to the general public. Which is quite good.

But there’s a little more to the U.S. 64/Buck Leonard story … Way back when the highway was first established, 64 was a simple two-lane road that ran right through downtown Rocky Mount; that changed when the 64 Bypass was built in the mid-1980s, and the old 64 became U.S. 64 Business/Alternate.

Connecting the dots, Buck Leonard Boulevard is, in fact a stretch of old U.S. 64, now 64 Business. From the end of the Buck Leonard Boulevard portion, 64 Business continues to run westward through the heart of Rocky Mount, from Nash County into Edgecombe County — through black and white neighborhoods, through well-off and working-class areas — until it exits the city with the name East Raleigh Road. Nestled along East Raleigh Road/64 Business?

The Gardens of Gethsemane cemetery.

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4 thoughts on “My Buck Leonard story: A return to Rocky Mount

  1. Pingback: Buck extras, Part 1 | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  2. Pingback: A friend gets on board with Buck | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  3. Pingback: My Buck story: The book that started it all | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  4. Pingback: My Buck story: Dennis Graham and research obsession | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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