By Laurie Paolicelli
In 2020, a time of deep reflection, recovery and desire for open spaces, more than 1.1 million people took to Orange County’s great outdoors and harnessed the healing powers of the Eno River to help them navigate some of the most trying days of our times.
Orange County native Beverly Scarlett isn’t totally surprised. Scarlett is principal author of the newly published Eno Journal, “Ribbons of Color Along the Eno River,” which tells the history of the Eno River Valley from the perspective of People of Color living along the Eno, from prehistory to modern day. 37 of the 60 total miles of the Eno River are in Orange County.
The stories are both fascinating and shocking. The book contains first and second-hand accounts of those who have long lived in the Eno watershed. Writes Scarlett:
“Dad told us that his paternal grandfather, Levi Scarlett, had been a slave for spinster Scarlett women. When the freedom bell rang, the sisters asked Levi to remain on the plantation to run the farm and provide care for them. In exchange, they would leave the farm to him. Dad also told us that the women left Levi a tract of property from the I-85-Mount Hermon Church Road area down Pleasant Green Road to the Eno River. The Scarlett sisters lived in a house situated on the hill over-looking present-day Eno River State Park—Pleasant Green access. Levi lived in a log cabin on the hill looking over the Eno River across Pleasant Green Road. As we traveled back and forth to Mount Gilead Baptist Church using Pleasant Green Road, Dad would often point to the area where his grandfather once lived. He knew this area well. As a young man, he ox-plowed around the chimney of Levi Scarlett’s home.”
The book acknowledges Scarlett as the inspiration for this publication. “The breeze blowing across the river is Beverly A. Scarlett who grew up on generations of family land beside the Eno. What began for her as a search into her genealogical past became a dream of this journal: to bring out into the sun voices that historians had left in the shadows.”
If anyone knows about the healing powers of water and the Eno River, it’s Beverly.
Scarlett has been in Hillsborough most of her life, and has seen it rise and fall, showing both strength and fortitude, and division and struggle, and now sits as Orange County’s first African American to serve on district court, and the first African American woman on either court.
It was a medical technology degree and an early medical career at UNC that led her down the path to law school. It happened the day she applied for a promotion and was turned down, knowing she was the better qualified candidate.
“I literally walked across campus to the school bookstore and got every LSAT book they had,” she said. “I just started studying for the LSAT. I didn’t tell anybody at work, I didn’t tell anybody at home.”
She eventually took the LSAT, and after four years of night classes at NC Central, she received her law degree, and, though still working at the lab, returned to Hillsborough, scoping the area for a job.
She found one with Superior Court Judge Carl Fox, who was at the time district attorney for Orange and Chatham Counties. He hired Scarlett as an assistant district attorney, a position she worked for some 9 years.
As Hillsborough began to grow and development started booming, the courthouse added a new judicial seat to handle the increased workload. Scarlett took this seat, where she remains today.
Despite years of resistance, discrimination, and overcoming obstacles, Scarlett looks back fondly on the winding road to where she is today.
Justice is her job, but the Eno River is her passion. The Eno River Association has been instrumental in the protection of over 7,400 acres of natural open space and the creation of 5 regional parks: Eno River State Park, Occoneechee State Natural Area, Little River Regional Park, West Point on the Eno Durham City Park, and Penny’s Bend State Natural Area.
Orange County is an area steeped in a rich folklore and an advocacy for protecting the environment and preserving its heritage by giving a voice to the stories of countless natives who continue to shape this County’s narrative. One of these voices is that of Beverly Scarlett, a woman who celebrates the river that flows through her life by keeping its stories alive.
Books and Resources
New Event Date:
Eno River Association will be having an informal drop-by, outdoor, “Meet the Contributors” event at the El Restaurante Ixtapa in Hillsborough on Thursday, April 1 from 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm to promote the Ribbons of Color Along the Eno River Journal.
El Restaurante Ixtapa
162 Exchange Park Ln, Hillsborough, NC 27278
For an overview on access points, visit: https://www.nctripping.com/eno-river-state-park/
For more information, visit: https://www.enoriver.org/#gsc.tab=0
For more information on Beverly Payne’s newest book, see this story in the Daily Tar Heel. https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2021/02/arts-black-indigenous-book-reading
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.