The COVID-19 pandemic plagued 2020 and caused much heartache for Sampsonians, but it did not stop the resiliency of community members as a whole. There were ups and downs along the way, as people coped in unprecedented times wrought with uncertainty, division, loss, but ultimately optimism for light at the end of the tunnel.
During the year, the virus snatched away classroom instruction for students, while precious moments such as prom disappeared for seniors — but hundreds of teenagers wiped away their tears, persevered and are now in college. With face masks and chants of “I can’t breathe,” people took to the streets and unified against social injustices that many feel are taking the air out of freedom. In 2020, Sampson County also had to say goodbye to people and loved ones who have been staples in the community for many years..
With a new year underway, 2020 will be remembered in hearts and minds forever, with hopes for a brighter future.
COVID shuts down schools
After COVID-19 continued to spread throughout Sampson County, continued their education from home in front of computers and laptops. For many parents, it came with stress and headaches for the 2019-2020 academic period.
Officials from Clinton City Schools (CCS) and Sampson County Schools (SCS) were also concerned about remote learning becoming the new norm for awhile. In March, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper made a decision to permanently close public schools for the remainder of the year. Students, especially seniors, missed out on many memories and special events associated with schools.
“Normally during this time of year, we’re getting ready for high school graduations,” said former SCS Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy in April. “It appears right now at this moment, it’ll be challenging to have them the way we’ve traditionally had them.”
Along with Bracy, CCS Superintendent Dr. Wesley Johnson was sad to see buildings closed with students forced to deal with remote learning, but he stressed the importance of protecting students, teachers, employees, and community members.
“Health and safety and the welfare of our students is of utmost importance,” Johnson commented in 2020. “Of course, it has to be our main priority.”
During board meetings, one of many conflicts involved ways to honor seniors with outdoor and indoor restriction in in effect. Many officials felt that the pandemic should not stop graduates from walking across stages with their families. Eventually, high schools across Sampson County held commencement ceremonies with social distancing and other safety measures.
Unlike previous years, students, parents and school officials wore masks. The formats included ceremonies on fields, drive-throughs in parking lots, and individual ceremonies inside auditoriums with a few family members present. While many traditions went by the wayside, seniors were honored in various ways, including banners raised in towns across the county adorned with the faces of students ending one chapter of their lives.
School officials from both districts implemented grab-and-go meals for students when schools were closed and during the summer. Although, students returned to classes for face-to-face instruction at some point during the 2020-2021 period, it was only for a few days each week. For the first day of school in August, CCS started with a mix of remote learning and face-to-face instruction, while SCS opted for remote learning only.
Sampson’s board members approved a plan to phase in pre-kindergarten through freshmen grade levels under the leadership of Interim Superintendent Dr. Stewart Hobbs, who received advisement from health officials and school administrators. High school sophomores and upperclassmen were allowed to attend classes a few days each week in mid-January 2021.
Both districts took precautions for students to return to buildings during the pandemic. Some of those ongoing actions include face covering requirement, temperature checks, hand sanitizing stations, social distancing marks on floors, and empty desks between students.
Sampson advocates for justice
An incident of police brutality started a worldwide movement after the death of George Floyd — a black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in late May.
Floyd wasn’t a stranger to Sampson County and had family roots in the area. After the May 25 incident, Diondris Butler and Hyson Howard refused to be silent. Together, the Clinton High School graduates led a peaceful protest a few days later.
Hundreds of people of all races followed behind Howard and Bulter as they held bullhorns chanting for justice down the Sunset Avenue in Clinton. Unlike other incidents in large metropolitan cities, protestors did not clash with with police officers and property was not damaged.
“I would like to say thank you to everybody who participated in the event,” Howard said that day. “It was real peaceful and that’s what we wanted. We wanted to promote George Floyd’s life. It was wrong that he got killed. A lot of people thought we were going to be rioting, like everybody else, but we came out here and did our thing.”
During summer, marches and prayer vigils were also held by community members in other towns. Lethia Lee, commissioner elect at the time, organized a prayer vigil in Harrells, where community members prayed for social justice while remembering the lives of people such as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner.
“We need prayer,” Lee said about a world dealing with the problem amid the pandemic. “We’ve had men, women and boys killed by the hands of police. We’re going to pray for COVID-19 and we’re going to continue to pray for social justice.”
Shawn Ford, a deputy with the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office, shared his personal experiences and spoke about his work as an officer.
“The only way you’re going to get a change is when you get inside and do the work,” Ford said.
Growing up in Trenton, N.J., Ford talked about seeing a lot of police brutality growing up and was also a victim of it. He shared a time during his teenage years when he was at a pizzeria with his friends. After eating their pizza, Ford was talking with his friends and was harassed by police.
“They had everyone put their hands up on top of their heads as they frisked us for weapons and drugs,” he said. “Once they seen that we didn’t have weapons and drugs, they had us pull our pants down on a busy highway. This was something that was common back in 91. So we’re out here with our pants down to our knees as people are driving by blowing their horns, just being degraded and disrespected for nothing.”
The efforts of Butler and Howard did not stop with the march on May 31 through their organization, Resilient Advocates. During a protest in front of the courthouse, the group received support from Bridgett Floyd, a Clinton High graduate, and sister of George Floyd.
“Unfortunately, it was his time. God needed him for the change,” Floyd said. “I’m very sad it had to be my brother, but when I look at what’s happening he has affected the world. He is going to be the change for our generation coming up. That’s going to be a beautiful thing.”
Resilient Advocates is working to become an nonprofit organization and are looking forward to host events while advocating for social justice. Towards the end of the year, one of the events was a candle light vigil at Newkirk Park. For the supporters, it was a reminder about the importance of raising awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We’re making sure that we don’t forget about them because their lives do matter and we do need to continue to fight for justice because they still have not received justice,” Butler said as candles flickered.
Confederate statue removed
A monument to the Confederate soldiers of Sampson County, standing in downtown Clinton for more than a century, was removed from the courthouse grounds in 2020. It was a move that split the county, with some calling the monument a symbol of racism, while others deemed it an important part of history.
In July, Sampson’s monument was the subject of a peaceful protest as such statues across the nation and globe came under renewed scrutiny. Those who called for its removal said that it symbolizes a heinous past of slavery and racism. Those on the other side of the matter say it honors fallen soldiers and represents Southern heritage.
On July 12, not long after the protest, the soldier statue was vandalized, found leaning backward at the base with a rope hanging off of its neck.
Before the statue was vandalized, the Clinton City Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution urging Sampson’s commissioners to begin exploring options to relocate the statue of the soldier. In August, commissioners opted to do just that, citing the damage to the statue as the prime reason for its relocation. Commissioners unanimously voted in August 2020 to have the statue and its accompanying base relocated to the Sampson County History Museum.
The statue was subsequently removed and taken to a secure location.
County administration reach out to city officials to inquire about sharing the $12,000 total cost of removing the remaining portion of the Confederate monument, which they ultimately did.
The statue was erected to honor soldiers who died during the Civil War, 1861-65, and spearheaded by the Ashford-Sillers Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was unveiled in May 1916.
Leading up to the decision by the county to remove the statue, many threw in their two cents on both sides of the issue through social media and during a public hearing on the issue.
Jan Honeycutt Cook of Clinton suggested that it be put to a vote in November.
“Please consider what the rest of us want by not letting our heritage be hidden away in a museum. Most of us grew up with that statue. We passed it on the way from school, we’ve taken comfort and confidence that it would always be there like an old friend. I did my high school term paper on him, as did others.”
Dwight S. Williams Jr. said the statue needed to be restored to its rightful position at the courthouse.
“Please put our county’s historical statue back on its original pedestal in front of the County Courthouse,” Williams urged. “I would also ask that it be returned in the condition it now exists, with its bumps, bruises, bends, scrapes, scratches and all. For you see, these too are now part of its history. These too cannot be erased or repaired to the exclusion of history, or memory. It is now a part of us, Sampson County.”
“We cannot stand together if we attempt to destroy our history, or our communal property,” Williams wrote. “Peoperty you can destroy, but you cannot destroy history. History tells us who we are and from where we came. History has its glory, to be sure, but it also has its ugliness. However you individually look upon this statue, for its glory or its ugliness, it is still ours. All of ours.”
Those who urged the board to consider removing the statue from the courthouse grounds said it was about “doing the right thing.”
A former history teacher, Larry Sutton said nobody should mistake the cause of the Confederacy, which was to “secede from the Union, preserve slavery and to destroy the United States’ government.” He read the inscription of the monument, which he said glorified the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
“This statue, for the last 104 years, has remained on the grounds at the hall of justice in downtown Clinton as a symbol of racism, white supremacy, hatred and division,” Sutton stated. “This is not an attempt to erase history, for one can love Southern history and its heritage without any relics of a racist past on public property. This is the time for us to come together and finally realize our common destiny is one and the same.”
City Councilman Darue Bryant, who lead July’s peaceful protest opposing the statue, said commissioners were elected to make tough decisions.
“We’re in a situation right now where a decision has to be made. One thing I understand about the Confederate past — it’s very damaging. For someone to make a decision to stay ‘let’s keep that statue,’ they don’t have the right intentions for community,” Bryant said. “You have a choice today to make a change and think about the community. This should not be a political decision … it should be a decision standing on the principles and the right beliefs — that we don’t believe in bigotry and racism.”
The Sampson County Sheriff’s Office has made no arrests in the investigation, nor provided any updates or suspect information in the months that followed.
King honored, then mourned
Around Sampson County, Ester James King was known for his vibrant personality, determination and for bringing smiles to everyone he met.
Community members mourned the beloved World War II veteran after his passing in December 2020 at the age of 100. King was the third oldest veteran residing in Sampson County.
“He was such a proud veteran,” said Ann Knowles, executive director of the Sampson County Office of Veterans Services. “He is really going to be missed. We would all ride by and look on top of the house to see if we saw Mr. Ester. Whenever he couldn’t get up there anymore, he’ll be in the yard do something. We would blow the horn and even though he couldn’t see us, he would wave his arm up … just a unique person and he was loved by Keener.”
He was born on May 21, 1920 and grew up with seven siblings. King attended Keener School up until he was 13 years old, before working in the fields. Years later, King joined the U.S. Army and served in the war from 1942 t0 1945, spending time in North Africa and Italy in the U.S. Army’s 907th Air Base Security. He started with basic training in Georgia and Alabama. After three short weeks at Fort Dix, N.J., King boarded a ship in Staten Island, N.Y., to head overseas.
During his service overseas, he served on the frontlines as a scout, where he was ordered to be in front of his unit. King would report back to his comrades about what the enemy was doing.
After being discharged from military service as a private first class, King married the late Alease Monk. Together they had two children, Starling and Suella King, who preceded him in death. He owned his own business, working as a brick mason and carpenter. Some of his projects around Sampson County included the Newton Grove Post Office, Sampson County Courthouse, White Oak Church and Bethlehem Church.
This community was able to share just how much they appreciated King on the event of his birthday in May 2020.
During a parade for his 100th birthday, Bud Gilmore, a firefighter from Halls Fire Department, presented King with the Key to Keener. He met King about 10 years ago when the department responded to his house for a fire.
“When we arrived, he did have a fire going … in a bucket … on the roof,” Gilmore said. “We had to extinguish the fire and boy was he mad. I knew then he was a firecracker. From that day forward, I stopped by to visit him often. He would happily tell me about his military service, all the construction within the county that he was a part of, his family, and the Lord. Of all the things he built, he was very proud of his fireplace in the home. He had to show it to me several times. It is a very unique piece of craftsmanship.”
King lived at the home he enjoyed building for many years, before spending his final months at the Carrolton Nursing Center in Dunn for health reasons.
“The staff there quickly found out that he was a live wire,” Gilmore said. “They enjoyed his stories, sense of humor, and his singing of praise. I have spoken with several of them and they expressed the joy that he was able to bring to their facility and that he would be missed by all.”
Following his good friend’s passing, Gilmore reflected back upon King’s birthday parade, expressing how that moment showed how his life impacted the community. During previous months, Gilmore said the country seemed to be falling into chaos because of the pandemic and political tensions.
“I saw one picture from the parade that spoke volumes. A little white boy, probably eight or nine years old, was smiling and shaking the hand of Mr. King, after having brought Mr. King a carton of Pepsi,” Gilmore added. “That shows we are not as divided as others would like us to believe. Not only did we have a large number of parade participants, Mr. King received gifts and cards from all over the United States.”
For Gilmore, it left him with hope.
“That is the legacy of Mr. Ester King,” he said. “A legacy that determination, love, and faith in God will overcome any division or classification that we believe divides us. I pray that our community will continue looking out for our neighbors in the same manner that we cared about Mr. Ester.”
Gilmore said King was known in the area as the man on the roof. He was always building, tearing down, and rebuilding it.
“My mother-in-law came over one day and had seen him building what appeared to be a staircase on the roof,” he said. “She asked if maybe he was building a staircase to heaven. Literally, of course not. He did however build his staircase to Heaven with his deeds and faith. It is my belief that his staircase is done, he has climbed to the top, and he is now present with the Lord.”
UIS stays strong
During a gym class at Union Intermediate School, hard rain pounded the roof right before a basketball lesson turned into a moment of terror on Jan. 13.
“It took me a second to think about what was going on and when I started to see the ceiling start to fold,” said Tanya Robinson-Freeman, physical education teacher. “My mind caught up to what was going on and that’s when I told the kids to start running.”
Three weeks into 2020, Intermediate School and the Sampson County district faced a major challenge of repairing the gymnasium and a portion of the roof. The cause was a microburst — a downdraft with high wind speeds. It happened during hazardous weather warnings in Sampson County that called for a line of thunderstorms and wind gusts of up to 50 mph. Reports of damage came in from across the southern part of the county. Three students were sent to the hospital for minor injuries after local Emergency Management officials and firefighters rushed to the scene on Edmond Matthis Road in Clinton.
After the storm, the school received an outpouring of support from community members and organizations. During the recovery process, the school used the hashtag #UISstrong on social media posts.
Work to repair the gymnasium continued throughout year and carried over into 2021. Mark Hammond, executive director of auxiliary services for Sampson County Schools, led the efforts with the assistance of Belfor Property Restoration. The Michigan-based company, with offices in North Carolina specializes in restoring buildings destroyed by fires, water, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
“This is kind of a freak thing the way it just came out of nowhere,” Hammond said in January. “We’re very fortunate and very thankful that no one got hurt. It just reminds you each and every day that you never know what’s coming. There’s always something out there that’s out of the grasp of your control. We’re thankful that this is all that it was at the end of the day.”
The estimated cost is close to $1 million, with hopes that students will have a gymnasium again before the 2020-2021 academic year ends. In addition to a new roof, repairs includes a new hardwood playing surface, new bleachers, and much more.
“It’s pretty much going to be a completely refinished gym once they get done with it,” he said.
When students returned to Union Intermediate after the school was closed for a couple of days, Principal Dondi Hobbs said it was exciting to see them. Along with Robinson-Freeman, she looking forward to seeing students in the gym again. She was also grateful of the quick response of emergency officials and staff members.
“We haven’t had an event like this to happen, weather related to a school building with kids here,” Hobbs said. “That was something different for the staff. We’re thankful and appreciative to each other and helping each other out, knowing we got each other’s back and building ourselves as a team. I always felt like we were a family here, but it feels like we’re so much more glued together. No matter where we go in the future, we’re going to be glued together as a staff.”