by Laurie Paolicelli
What is unique about MLK Day when compared to other federal holidays is that it’s the only holiday designated as a National Day of Service. MLK Day not only honors the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it encourages all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. Next week, MLK Day takes place on January 18 and many events focused on service are schedule to occur in the Chapel Hill area.
Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, creates solutions, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community. It breaks down barriers by bringing people from diverse backgrounds together and it benefits those who choose to serve.
There are many events taking place throughout the Chapel Hill area. One event, The University/Community MLK Memorial Banquet, has a scholarship fund in the name of the late Edith Wiggins. Wiggins’ impact in Chapel Hill was far-reaching and prompted the annual University and Community Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Committee to revise its student scholarship to include Wiggins in its namesake.
Born in Greensboro, Edith Wiggins came to Chapel Hill in 1962 to get a graduate degree in social work. She ran for and was elected to a position on the School Board in 1979 and served on the board until 1987. Some of the issues she dealt with included the effects of redistricting and making more efficient use of school buildings by balancing enrollment at each site. Later in her life, she would recall that “some of the most tense and contentious meetings” concerned redistricting of Chapel Hill and Carrboro schools. At first, the redistricting proposals drew little public attention. But after the first draft was published, Edith shared that “the meetings were packed.” Another critical issue was maintaining socio-economic balance, ensuring that all students, regardless of achievement levels, received a proper education.
Edith served as Director of the Campus Y and became the first African American Vice Chancellor and Dean of Student Affairs in 1994. In 1996, she ran for Chapel Hill Town Council, won, and served until 2005. During her terms on Town Council, development was a major issue, as plans for Meadowmont and Southern Village were approved. Edith worked to ensure that development plans included public schools and affordable housing. Another issue was garbage collection, a “hot button issue” with many residents. She supported an initiative to require residents to properly bag trash and place waste containers on the curb, which improved working conditions for sanitation workers.
When the Chapel Hill Historical Society named Edith Wiggins a Town Treasure in 2018 it was in part because of her commitment to laying the groundwork for the future, especially in education. As a School Board member, she worked to reduce the dropout rate through special programs and the reduction in the achievement gap.
In acknowledging her award in 2018, Wiggins said, “One of the most significant changes I have seen in the community has been the increase in racial diversity as the community has dealt with discrimination and become more welcoming to minorities. I have found Chapel Hill to be a wonderful place to raise children, with its many services and amenities.”
Senator Valerie P. Foushee was a friend and colleague. “Edith was committed to justice, fairness, equity, and inclusion for the broader Chapel Hill community. Her commitment to quality education, affordable housing, and economic prosperity for all citizens made her an outstanding leader. I was honored to work alongside her for many years and proud to call her friend.”
Edith Wiggins died in spring 2021.
There is much work still to be done, of course; there never won’t be. That’s why MLK Day is designed as a day on, not a day off, and we can use Edith Wiggins as a guiding light.
Her vision and hard work changed this town for the better.
On MLK Day 2022, remember the man, remember the message, but most of all remember the service of people like Edith. After all, she was once just a young girl from Greensboro who made it her mission to fight racial injustice, and she fought it. And she won more battles than she lost.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.