Mary Nettles

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The Cultivator

President, Chatham County Community NAACP

By Matt White | PHOTOgraphy BY Beth Mann


Mary Nettles makes things in Chatham grow. She keeps proof in her phone and scrolls through the pictures looking for examples, stopping to exclaim, “Sun flowers!” The round, yellow starbursts beam from the screen and Mary beams, too. “And that’s cucumbers,” she says, moving on. “And do you recognize this? Basil.”

Mary has kept a garden her whole life. As a girl in Pittsboro, she helped her parents grow for the table. She kept an urban garden in Carrboro during a 30-year career with UNC Health Care and recently completed her certification as a NC State Extension Master Gardener. Her Pittsboro backyard – and most of her iPhone scrapbook – is dedicated to gardening. “I came back in 1995,” she says, “and I’ve had a garden since.”

But vegetables and owers aren’t all that Mary helps nurture in Chatham. She is the president of the Chatham County Community NAACP, the latest role in a life of civil and political activism. As Chatham has grown, she’s helped political discourse grow with it.

As a child, Mary tagged along with her parents as a volunteer during elections, handing out sample ballots and knocking on doors for get-out–the-vote drives. In college, she led protests at the Chatham County Courthouse, though her father put a stop to that after an early close call. She overslept and missed a bus carrying activists to Greensboro for a major protest. The event ended in clashes between the protesters and police. When her father learned she had tried to go, he erupted.

“He called me everything but the child of God,” she says. “That was the end of me being in protests. If I went to jail, I knew he was not going to come get me.”

Moving from protest marches to party politics, Mary became the first African-American woman to chair the Chatham County Democratic Party. She returned to the NAACP in 2009.

This year was also a special sort of harvest. Since retiring, Mary has worked as a substitute teacher for Chatham County Schools. In 2018, kids she taught as kindergartners began graduating from high school.





Read the original article from the April/May 2019 Issue:

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