happy hill reunion celebrates Community Spirit
By Judie Holcomb-Pack
When Ben Piggott began working as the supervisor of the William C. Sims, Sr. Recreation Center in the Happy Hill Gardens in the early 1990s, he noticed a dichotomy – the community had a reputation for drugs and violence, but he saw a community of working, caring people with an inspiring history. He thought if the young people who lived there could learn about the history and see the positive side of the community, it would give them a sense of pride that was missing amid all the negative assumptions.
What began as a conversation between William “Rock” Bitting and Piggott about the violence and drugs in the neighborhood turned into an idea for a community reunion. “I knew Happy Hill from another side,” said Bitting, who had grown up in the community. He remembered the businesses that used to be located there – groceries, barber shops, tailors – and doctors, lawyers and business people who grew up there and moved away to become successful in many different fields.
Piggott threw caution to the wind and started planning the Happy Hill Reunion. “When Ben is given an idea, he just runs with it,” said Bitting. With just a few volunteers and a lot of faith, they began working on an idea to bring together the people who have moved away and the current residents. They had no idea how successful the Happy Hill Reunion would become.
“That first reunion, we had 1,500 people show up!” remarked Piggott. Posters invited people to “Let Us Come Together – Strengthen Our Ability to Heal Ourselves and Live in Harmony.” And come they did, bringing food, grills, hamburgers and hotdogs, soft drinks – enough to feed everyone who showed up. And Piggott kept hearing the same question: Are you going to do it again next year? Piggott began to notice a change in people after the first reunion; more people wanted to get involved in neighborhood activities.
Piggott and Bitting both laughed as they remembered a particularly difficult year when donations were hard to come by. They referred to it as the “Year of the Picnic Basket.” They didn’t have any money for food and asked people to bring picnics. They were overwhelmed by the outpouring of food, more than they ever expected. Showing respect for their elders, seniors were invited to eat first. Piggott said, “People see others doing good and it brings good …it’s a chain reaction.”
From pulling together a small committee of volunteers and asking for donations from wherever he could get them, Piggott now has a more stable committee of core volunteers and sponsors that underwrite the cost of much of the event and donate many of the needed items. The Reunion has gone from a one-day event to a two-day weekend that includes games, prizes, entertainment, but most of all – memories. Former and current residents reminisce about old times as they look over displays of photos and memorabilia. Pride in community has returned to the oldest African-American community in Winston-Salem, which was originally called “Liberia.”
According to Piggott, what makes the Happy Hill Reunion different from other community gatherings is that it has a definite purpose and each year it has a theme, a poster and t-shirt. The first poster was designed by Kayyum Allah (formerly Greg Kimbrough) and it notes all the neighborhoods that are part of Happy Hill: Dixie Broadway, Salem Hill, The Gardens, The Heights, and Dog Trot. Plans for the event revolve around the theme, but the overall purpose is to “celebrate our history and lift up our ancestors.” Piggott noted that every year someone who had never attended would come and reconnect with old friends. One year two brothers who had not seen each other in many years, reconnected in a touching reunion of their own. A big surprise this year was a quilt made especially to celebrate Happy Hill’s Reunion donated by Rick Hickinbottom and Russell’s Funeral Home. It’s currently hanging at the Carl Russell Recreation Center, where Piggott is the center supervisor.
Piggott and Bitting are already making plans for next year’s Reunion and organizing the planning committee. Getting volunteers has not been a problem. “When people know they are welcome, they volunteer,” said Piggott. Then he added, “But I give God the credit for bringing us together.”