Isolation and marginalization in eastern North Carolina

Isolation and marginalization in eastern North Carolina

- in Must Reads, News, Top Story
Photo: North Carolina Poverty Research Fund

New special report from the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund profiles Goldsboro, NC

[Editor’s note: Researchers Gene Nichol and Heather Hunt of the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at UNC Chapel Hill recently released their latest in a series of reports documenting economic distress in a variety of North Carolina communities. In “Goldsboro: Isolation and Marginalization in Eastern North Carolina,” the authors illuminate the startling depths of poverty that afflict this city of 36,000 in eastern North Carolina. The executive summary appears below. Click here to explore the full report.]

Goldsboro, a mid-sized city in Wayne County in eastern North Carolina, faces poverty challenges both historical and contemporary that are too commonly seen across much of the region. Traditionally divided along black and white racial lines, the city is in the process of being transformed by demographic changes, even as it wrestles with the consequences of two recent recessions and the economic transitions that swept the state in the early 2000s.

Originally known as Waynesborough, Goldsboro grew quickly in the 1840s, and by the onset of the Civil War, had become a vital rail junction and a major trading center for the large, slavery-dependent cotton plantations in the region. When the war concluded, African Americans participated significantly in both state and federal “fusion” politics, helping to elect four black congressmen from the famed Second Congressional District, until violent state and private forces drove black North Carolinians from the polity at the turn of the century.

Although agricultural production slowed dramatically during the Great Depression, the arrival of the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base during World War II brought historic numbers of jobs and triggered an economic expansion not before seen in the region. Even today, Seymour Johnson is Goldsboro’s largest employer, sustaining an almost $300 million annual payroll. Beyond the air force, principal large employers include the local school district, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Wayne Memorial Hospital, the county and Walmart. In the early 1990s, Money Magazine recognized Goldsboro as a Top Ten City in the United States.

Public school integration controversies and backlash apparently led to white flight from Goldsboro to the county. By 1970, 49% of Goldsboro residents were African American, up 8% from the last census, and the white population had dropped by 18%. New family dwelling construction declined pointedly in Goldsboro, as it increased substantially in the county. White student enrollment in the Goldsboro school district dropped precipitously. From 1964-1973, the white student population in city public schools dropped from 54 to 41% while the black student count rose from 46 to 59% district wide. An overall decline in Goldsboro city school enrollment also led to a marked loss of teachers and resources. Continuing enrollment, desegregation and funding tensions led the North Carolina General Assembly, in 1991, to allow a merger of the Goldsboro and Wayne County school systems. In 2009, the North Carolina NAACP sued the merged school system alleging that discriminatory attendance zones placed a strong majority of poor, black students in highly segregated institutions, denying equal educational opportunity.

In 2015, Goldsboro was listed as the fifth poorest city in America.3 Recent studies on mobility found that the greater Goldsboro area had more intense income mobility challenges than 95% of all the counties in the United States. Concentrations of poor and minority households, especially in a number of city center census tracts, reveal an array of intensely distressed neighborhoods, some of which are almost entirely African American. They present remarkable rates of poverty, child poverty and unemployment. Beyond such statistics, however, appear hardships, dangers and debilitations one would think impermissible in a society of notable wealth, and premised upon ideals of equal dignity and worth.

Despite these robust challenges, or perhaps because of them, Goldsboro is also home to a remarkable cadre of selfless and indefatigable community leaders, educators and social services providers who make it difficult to despair for the city’s fortunes. Driven frequently by faith, commitment to the city and its people, and seemingly unconquerable sentiments of brotherhood, they bolster and sustain even hugely challenged communities. It can be hard to digest the full measure of their strength, endurance and benevolence.


This report is part of a series documenting economic distress in a variety of North Carolina communities. Earlier reports examined local manifestations of poverty in Charlotte and Wilkes County, as well as among low-income people without access to health insurance. In this report, as in the others, we combine data and narrative to paint a portrait and, hopefully, to educate and inspire. We start by outlining the lay of the land by examining key data points—on population, income and poverty, and on the economy and local labor force. We then dive deeper by presenting the testimony of people in Goldsboro who have been touched by poverty. The themes they raise—the stunting isolation of concentrated poverty, lack of affordable housing and school inequality—are explored in more detail in the sections that follow. We acknowledge some of the remarkable people who call Goldsboro home in the next section, and, buoyed by their example, conclude by suggesting a few modest recommendations.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Heather Hunt is a Research Associate at Carolina Law. The research and publication work of Nichol, Hunt and their colleagues is supported by the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund of the University of North Carolina School of Law.