The Search For Susie Weaver's "Freedom In Chapel Hill"

Mar 13, 2017

There were many memorable freedom songs made famous during the Civil Rights movement. Anthems like “We Shall Overcome” gave disenfranchised people of color strength while facing down their oppressors.

In Chapel Hill, a woman named Susie Weaver was very active in the movement and actually wrote her own Civil Rights song.

A visit to the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library was the first introduction to Susie Weaver and this lost song.

Susie Weaver and her husband Bynum Weaver owned the only black funeral home in town. Today, it’s called Knotts Funeral Home, and their portraits hang on the wall in the chapel.

But their daughter, Wanda Weaver, says it was her mother’s singing that got all of the attention.

“Yes, yes.  She loved to sing. She was a singer, that’s what she did," said Wanda Weaver. "And servicing the community."

Susie Weaver and the Weaver Gospel Singers performed everywhere, including live on the radio. And she even wrote her own Civil Rights song, which was recorded and pressed into vinyl.

"I just remember the ending of the song, and she would go, ‘There will be freedom in Chapel Hill someday,” Wanda Weaver sang.

And that's the name of the lost song - "Freedom in Chapel Hill."

Chaitra Powell is the African American Collection and Outreach Specialist for the Historical Collection at Carolina. She searched for Susie Weaver, but didn’t find much.

A portrait of Susie Weaver hangs on the wall of the chapel at Knotts Funeral Home in Chapel Hill.
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

“How can someone like Susie Weaver disappear from the archival records? Why is it so limited?" said Powell. "If you have that stuff in your attic or your basement, could you think about putting it in a repository so that people can learn more about her.”

In a folder there was a transcribed interview with Susie Weaver, dating back to 1974, but still no recordings of “Freedom in Chapel Hill.”

Powell was able to find a photo, online of Susie Weaver’s record.  WUNC Music Librarian Brian Burns knew exactly who to call – Carolina Soul in Durham.

“When I heard you were looking for this specific song that was pressed on a really small label, I knew they would be the best people to ask about that," Burns said.

When you walk into Carolina Soul on Main Street in Durham, it’s like going back in time.

Jason Perlmutter is the owner. He prides himself with being able to find the coolest and most obscure vinyl records – soul, disco, jazz, country even gospel. 

“We find records in a lot of different situations, from private collectors, people who used to work in the business who maybe are getting rid of their stuff and everything in between," Perlmutter said.

And then a couple of months ago, Perlmutter was in Charlotte and got his hands on thousands of 45s.

“Yeah, I thought, wow that’s cool because I think that we just found some copies of that,” he said.

He had the record, which begins like this:

“We are tired, and we are weary, but we must fight on until we get freedom in Chapel Hill for all, oh yes.”

Susie Weaver’s “Freedom in Chapel Hill” was made into a record by JCP Records out of Raleigh. We think the song was recorded live at First Baptist Church in Chapel Hill in the 1960s. Weaver passed away in 1984.

Now, thanks to Perlmutter, a copy of the record is in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC and family members also have a copy, like Susie Weaver’s niece, Kathy Atwater.

“Emotional, brought up emotions, remembering her," said Atwater. "It’s amazing, she still lives.”