This is the first in a series of stories from WUNC's Youth Radio Institute, a group of high school students who spent five weeks this summer reporting on issues that matter to young people in North Carolina.
Growing up I had two homes: my grandparents’ house and the William H. Hargraves Center in the Northside neighborhood of Chapel Hill. My grandfather, Nate Davis, lived at both. He’s worked at Hargraves for 40 consecutive years and helped make it a true community center.
“Hargraves is just not a facility for recreation programs, and my job just do not consist of managing this facility for recreation leisure activity,” he says. “It’s a lot more to it.”
My grandfather became director of Hargraves 25 years ago. He was brought in by Fred Battle, the previous director, and a hometown legend in the Northside neighborhood. People in Northside built Hargraves in the 1940’s to serve the African American community there. Battle realized early on that my grandfather, or Nate as everybody calls him, shared his vision for a place that would be more than a recreation center.
“He’s concerned about the people themselves and social life and helping anybody that has a need,” Battle says of my grandfather. “They will come to Nate.”
There have been many times when my grandfather went beyond the call of duty as director of Hargraves. It’s something he takes pride in doing.
“I take it personal by working here and you know, I do a lot of personal things, far as working with people in the community to help them do better,” Nate Davis says. “Whether it be housing, jobs, school, child getting in trouble that I can go out and go with them into the court system and see what I can do to help them.”
My grandfather played a big role in the lives of a lot of kids at Hargraves. One of them was Northside native Joe Williams who grew up going to Hargraves for afterschool and summer camp. He’s 27 now, but he hasn’t forgotten what my grandfather did for him and his family. He remembers a time when his twin brother Lawrence accidently caused a fire in their house.
“Nate was there, you know before the ambulance and all the fire department got there, Nate was there to make sure Lawrence was okay,” Williams recalls. “And that was just like wow, ‘cause I don’t know how he heard. But he heard and he was there before I even got there, before me and my grandmother got there.”
My grandfather Nate also provided a needed role model for those who didn’t know where to look for guidance.
“You know, remind you, me and Lawrence never had a father so Nate kind of took that place,” Williams says. “And, mind you, I have a three-year-old, so he instilled the qualities of a man, of a good man, a respectful man, and he gave that to us, so that way we could give it to somebody else.”
Over the duration of my grandfather’s time at Hargraves, the Northside community has begun to change. Housing prices rose as investors bought homes to rent to students from nearby UNC. It’s become more difficult for families who have been living there to afford to stay. Keith Edwards, a lifelong Northside resident and friend of my family, says this is partly what makes it difficult for my grandfather to retire.
“Our community, we're losing it. It’s almost gone,” Edwards says. “And the kids that come there, they have to be wrapped in some kind of shelter of love and understanding that your grandfather gives to many who come there. He has to be assured that that’s going to carry on. He is so afraid of that not happening. That is why he’s still working.”
My grandfather has told me several times he’s looking into retirement, but every day something comes up that he feels, if he were not around, the problem would not be addressed.
“I don’t think there will ever be anyone here that cares as much as I care,” Davis says. “But someone here that’s going to continue doing some of things that myself and Fred battle have, you know, established here at Hargraves, as far as working with people in the community and caring for people in the community, and helping people.”
I hope Hargraves does get someone with the same passion and dedication as my grandfather. But it’s clear to people like Joe Williams, he won’t be easy to replace.
“Who is this guy? Like, Nate’s not real,” Williams says. “That's the type of guy Nate is. Like, don’t nobody realize, Nate has done so much for the community, for people... Nate is like everything. Everything.”
So at least for now, anytime you go to Hargraves center, chances are you’ll see my grandfather. The six-foot bald-headed guy wearing casual attire and a welcoming smile. Nate Davis.