“We showed them what could be done.”

How a campaign to re-open a park helped build small-town political power in Oxford, North Carolina

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
Reclaiming Rural


Jason Dunkin throws an imaginary ball on the empty court at Granville Street Park. The hoops were removed years ago, but he remembers a better time. Photo by Milton Lindsay, 2023.

Jason Dunkin lives out in the country on the same small bit of land he grew up on. The rain is beating down hard on the metal roof. He looks out the window towards the road. “I remember my dad and my uncles would pick me up from right here,” he gestures to the house around him, “to go play ball.” He smiles at the memory.

They’d go about 15 minutes up the road to Oxford, North Carolina. They’d drive the car into town on Broad Street, passing the barbershop and downtown, until Broad turns into MLK Jr. Avenue. Then they’d hang a right to get to the Granville Street Park.

“Everyone would gather there,” explains Jason.“Teenagers who came to play ball would bring their younger siblings, so the park was just full all the time.”

But today the park is empty. The basketball hoops are gone and the blacktop is cracked. The heavy rain has made the ground muddy and water pools up over the sidewalk.

There’s a small sign, though, stuck in the grass. It’s a little crooked, a little beat down by the rain, but it reads “Park Renovations Coming Spring 2024.”

The story behind that little sign is a story of really, really good organizing.

A sign of things to come at the Granville Street Park in Oxford, NC. Photo by author.

“We always had a sense of pride here,” says Keisha Tyler about the area around the Granville Street Park, which sits at the center of the thriving Black neighborhood she grew up in. “There was a real sense of community and making sure that the community was kept uplifted. People got together, they had meetings and it was a really nice place to be.”

In the 1990s, however, Oxford began to cut back on city services. Politicians reduced taxes on the wealthy while leaving local budgets unfunded, including the budget for the park.

As municipal budgets decreased, people struggled to make sense of the town’s neglect of the park. One narrative, spread by the town’s white politicians, was that the Granville Street Park was dangerous.

“It’s just urban legend,” says Chelsea Smith, who also grew up in the area. “We did have adult guys starting to come down and play basketball. And I’m not going to say there was never a fight or a pushing match or something like that, but dangerous? No. And the politicians and media just really played it up.”

Keisha and Chelsea in the Granville Street Park. Photo by Harry Turfle at Down Home North Carolina

“The negative stigma they put on it was so they could take it away from us,” explains Jason. “They made it sound like it was all drugs and fighting when we were just playing ball. Putting a stigma on the park put a stigma on the whole community.”

And so the park fell into disrepair. The beloved basketball hoops were removed, the pavement cracked, and weeds grew up everywhere.

“I thought that the park was doomed to be like this forever and that we would only have stories to tell our kids about how the park was,’ says Keisha. “It’s been dead for about 20 years.”

Kids play ball in a yard near Granville Street Park in 2023. Since the city removed the basketball hoops, families have tried to make their own spaces for recreation.

During those years, community members who lived near the park quietly minding it and looked for ways to bring it back. But they knew it would take a larger effort to get the town to fund it again.

In the spring of 2023, local Down Home North Carolina members saw an opening. They discovered that $2.8 million was left unspent in the Oxford American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funding., In addition, the Oxford City budget had a multi-year surplus of roughly $7.5 million.

Down Home Granville members attend a city council meeting to make the case for funding the Granville Street Park.

Surveying the community, members learned that most people did want to see the park revitalized. “You always felt,” explained Jason, “That the lack of investment wasn’t just in a park, it was a refusal to invest in us, the people.”

They centered their sights on the city budget-making process. By knocking on doors and circulating a petition about making the park a budget priority. They asked people not only to sign the petition but also to join them.

Jason at a meeting of Down Home Granville. Photo by Milton Lindsay.

Chelsea set up a meeting with the City Commissioners office. “They only wanted four people to come in,” she said, “[But] we had about 20 people!” All summer they kept it up. They held meetings and small events. They became regular fixtures at town meetings.

Finally, on Tuesday, September 12th, the Oxford City Commissioners voted unanimously to refund the Granville Street Park.

Chelsea, Jason, and Keisha describe the Granville Street Park as something more than a park– it is a bigger representation of a people, a culture, and a place. It is not surprising, then, that the movement to get the park refunded also became much more than a campaign to reopen a park.

“We saw what we could do through organizing when we didn’t have any real strong connections in local government,” said Jason. “Imagine what we could do if we have our folks in office?”

Soon after the park funding was secured, local Down Home members endorsed three local candidates in the upcoming municipal elections: Steward Powell and Curtis McRae each for Oxford Town Commissioner and Guillermo Nurse for Mayor.

Guillermo Nurse, a Down Home Granville member, was elected as Oxford’s first mayor just a few months after successful campaign to refund the park. Photo by Milton Lindsay in the spring of 2023.

All three are Down Home members and all three were well-known, hometown guys– which matters in a place like Oxford. Jason has been to church with Curtis; Stewart’s mom was his school teacher. Guillermo Nurse had flipped burgers on the grill during one Granville Street Park campaign event, and Stewart had helped knock on doors.

Reeves Peeler, a local organizer for Down Home North Carolina, and chapter members canvassing in Oxford.

“We had shown the community what can be done,” explained Jason about the park. “So we could now go back to people and tell them what we could do next.” The park gave people a taste of what was possible.

Down Home Granville’s massive electoral canvassing paid off: Curtis McRae was elected to the Commission, while Guillermo Nurse became Oxford’s first Black mayor.

Meanwhile, construction at the Granville Street Park has started. The park’s trees are protected with caution tape, rusted playground equipment removed, and the park is ready for its much-needed upgrade. Springtime is just around the corner; you can almost hear friends chatting, kids laughing — and a basketball being dribbled down the court.

“This is our community,” says Chelsea. “We are community strong. We’re Granville Street strong. And I’ll testify that to the highest mountain.”

Down Home members in Granville celebrate on election night after helping elect two Down Home members to local office.



Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
Reclaiming Rural

Mother. Southerner. Storytelling Bread and Roses. Bottom up stories about race, class, gender, and the American South. *views my own*