‘I cried for a long time’: Black hair stylist’s dream crushed by racist neighbor
Angel Pittman’s dream was to create a mobile hair salon. So the 21-year-old stylist bought less than an acre of unrestricted land in North Carolina for $10,000 in September and purchased three school buses for $14,000 with money she had saved since she was 17.
“I’ve never seen anybody driving around doing people’s hair,” she said. “But not only did I want to get paid for doing hair, but I wanted to drive around, do a couple of homeless people’s hair and maybe go to some prisons and help incarcerated people.”
Pittman’s plan was to place the buses on the land, transform one into a living space, and turn the other two into mobile salons. She could do hair on her property, set up shop in different locations, or do house calls.
But that goal was crushed before it even began because of where Pittman chose to buy land: Salisbury, a small city in Rowan county, North Carolina.
When she first visited the property, and later during the closing of the land, she felt something was off in the predominantly white neighborhood but forged ahead with her plans. During the closing, Pittman encountered an elderly white man who lived across her property who she said “had already given me weird vibes”, but there were no indications of his intolerance.
About a week after closing, on 23 September, she returned with her mom to drop off the buses. This time, she said, the man approached them and asked, “‘Why are you guys here? Are y’all looking for shade?’”
Rowan county, which is 79% white and 17% Black, is a “sundown town”, a Jim Crow era term used to reference overwhelmingly white neighborhoods known for racial segregation. Katherine Mellen Charron, a history professor at North Carolina State University, said sundown areas remain prevalent in places like Rowan county to limit homeownership from Black Americans. (The Jim Crow saying was: N-word, “don’t let the sun go down on you in this town”.)
“Historically, it functions economically and politically to the benefit of white supremacists,” Mellen Charron said. “It’s a matter of economic insecurity and rising economic inequality, and the sense that white property values will go down if Black people move into the neighborhood and real estate agents blockbusting and taking advantage of that.”
Though demographics of many sundown counties, like Rowan, have shifted slightly, Adriane Lentz-Smith, a history professor at Duke University, said “legacies remain, and memories are long … few towns still post signs that warn Black folks”.
When Pittman returned with her parents a week after dropping the buses off, the neighbor’s behavior became more violent. “He sat over there and had his gun out the whole time,” she said. “He was like, ‘Get the fuck off my lawn. And [that] we need to get them fucking buses off his lawn. So basically saying, my land was his.”
She then noticed her buses had been vandalized. The glass windows were broken. Racial slurs were etched. The man prominently displayed Confederate flags, swastikas and KKK signs all over his yard, which Pittman said weren’t there when she previously visited the plot.
Seeing the vandalism, and afraid her land and buses could’ve been wired with bombs or bear traps, she called the police. When the Rowan county sheriff’s office deputies arrived, Pittman and her parents reported what they saw as a hate crime. But the deputies at the scene immediately brushed it off, telling her, “Oh, yeah, they do that all the time,” Pittman said. “The police talked to us for a little bit but they didn’t do anything. They just wrote a report and that was it.”
In an interview with the Guardian, one of the sheriff’s captains, Mark McDaniel, said the officers who went to the scene knew the elderly man and did “observe the damage … the broken windows [and] the stuff that was spray painted on”.
When asked about recourse for the attack, McDaniel said the incident happened before he started at the office. However, he said according to the report filed by the deputies, there is no indication it was a targeted attack because the neighbor always had white supremacy signs displayed.
“It wasn’t like he put it there overnight,” McDaniel said from the information available in the report from that day. “It’s nothing like that. So those items were not just put there after the buses were put there.”
Pittman disagrees with McDaniel’s claim, saying the elderly man’s harassment and racist behavior were explicit and directed toward her. She maintains that the sheriff’s office didn’t do anything to follow up or make her feel welcome on her property.
When pressed about the explicit racist comments, alleged racial hate crimes (which have been rising in the state), and the destruction of property, which led Pittman to flee the county due to safety concerns, McDaniel said Pittman never called back to file another complaint. With no eyewitnesses or video of the vandalism in progress the sheriff’s office closed the case.
“Even if the sheriff were willing to follow up,” Mellen Charron, the history professor, said, “make an arrest, do something, if you don’t have the law to back you up on the books that enables you to do that and to hold people accountable, then you can’t do anything.” (North Carolina has two hate crime statutes that include race.)
At the insistence of her family and fearful for her life, Pittman has now moved back home to Charlotte. She said she would’ve stayed on her land – which is still hers to this day – if she felt safe. But instead, she’s accepted the financial loss and is now trying to rebuild from scratch.
“To have all of that ripped from under me was really hurtful,” she said. “I cried for a long time. For somebody to be hateful because of my skin color makes it even worse. It’s really heartbreaking.”
Pittman is now raising funds to help recoup her losses and to buy unrestricted land in Charlotte. So far, she’s managed to tow two of the three buses to Charlotte, where the storage fees are racking up. The other bus still in Salisbury was so severely vandalized that it no longer runs. Pittman plans to find a way to fix it and bring it to Charlotte.
Her family, she said, has been her anchor through this, especially her dad, who won’t let her go back to her Salisbury property for fear of her life.
But the one lesson she said she can’t seem to shake, even now, is the explicit nature of the bigotry that even the police saw as status quo. “People make it seem like racism is over,” she said. “No. Racism is just thrown under the rug.”