Before I get into the details and set up of this story, I want to issue an apology. As Managing Editor of the News of Orange County, I am sorry for not setting aside space in the Sept. 9 issue to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
I was sitting at my laptop in the News of Orange office, doing research for a story for the upcoming paper. My desk faces the many-paned window that faces the old Orange County Courthouse across King Street. I caught a glimpse of a man crossing the street toward the office.
It was John Blackfeather Jeffries, a Hillsborough-born, local historian, Native American, military veteran. He is also softly outspoken.
When he came in, I stood up and said, “Good morning,” but my greeting whiffed by him.
“I want to know what the paper did to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11,” he quietly demanded. John Blackfeather is not a big man. At 5’6”, I don’t tower over too many people, but I stood there looking down at him, stammering at the sudden realization that I had failed to mark a solemn and momentous occasion.
I explained to John that I had been preoccupied with other events and mentioned the controversy over the potential 161-acre development and covering how businesses are dealing with COVID-19, among other issues.
John’s eyes were both tired and unsatisfied. He questioned why I couldn’t have assigned a reporter to write something on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Now, a lot of people don’t know that, while the News of Orange County has a paid staff of three, only one of those people is devoted to the editorial department: me.
I explained this to John, but, again, I failed to satisfy his frustration. He walked out, but not before declaring “there is no news in this paper.”
I am slow to anger, but this didn’t sit well with me. I grabbed a copy of the News of Orange and followed him out the door.
“Mr. Blackfeather,” I called out to him. He turned and I slapped the paper to his hand. “Don’t tell me there’s no news in this paper.”
I think I took him by surprise. John’s eyes no longer looked unsatisfied. They just looked at me like I was missing something. I watched him head back toward his red metal folding chair that was sitting behind a line of flags on flagpoles driven into the lawn of the old Hillsborough Courthouse, facing the traffic on Churton Street.
I chose the wrong attitude and immediately regretted it. “Mr. Blackfeather,” I called out again. “John.” He turned to me. “How long are you going to be out here?”
“Until it rains,” he said. I told him I’d be there in a few minutes. I grabbed my camera, recorder, a pen and a notepad and headed across the street.
I sat on the ground in front of him and asked him why he was out here.
“To remember 19 years ago, when the Twin Towers were hit,” he said. “This is America. The Twin Towers were hit and we lost a lot of people. Policemen, private citizens, firefighters. Killed in that attack on America. I’m out here to commemorate our veterans who died in foreign wars. Ones who died right here in Hillsborough. Who died for this country. Even in the Civil War. My great grandparents died in the Battle of Alamance. They’re buried. People forget. I don’t forget.”
Many people in Hillsborough know John far better than I do. But what I learned about him is that he devotes a sizable part of his time to making sure people don’t forget the people and events that came before.
On Sept. 11, 2001, John was headed to Clarksville, Va., to help build a museum for the Occaneechi people, his ancestors. He was on the road in Halifax County crossing the Mecklenburg County line when the first plane struck one of the Trade Center towers in New York.
“Yeah, I remember where I was,” he said. “I cried. I prayed.”
I also learned that John spent eight years in the Marine Corp. I’ve seen him three times, and each time he’s worn his black Marine Veterans hat.
“I’m still in the Marine Corp,” he said with a smile. “Always in the Marine Corp.”
After returning to Hillsborough, John led a Boy Scout Troop and worked for 20 years with the Orange County Rescue squad. He led 21 Eagle Scouts. John said he was the first Eagle Scout of color in Hillsborough. He also said there weren’t many people of color on the rescue squad.
“I saw things I didn’t see in combat,” John said.
When he was a boy, he shined shoes at a store on Churton Street. John is good friends with Harold Russell, another Hillsborough native who shined shoes as a youth.
He spoke in angry whispers of comments allegedly made by the President about U.S. soldiers who were killed in combat.
"He is the Commander in Chief of the military," John said, sounding out each word like he was giving me a lesson in phonics. "This isn't political. It's not about Republican or Democrat. It's about respect."
I got to hear a few stories about the history of the town and its Native American heritage. I got to hear John’s Scottish accent, which was pretty hilarious.
John also told me about his wife, who he clearly still loves and thinks about often. She passed away almost two years ago to the day.
And there it was. Another reason this day means so much to John.
“My wife was always right there with me,” he said. All of the background noise and cars passing by honking their support had gone silent. “Her name was Lynette Jeffries. She was one of the founders of the Alliance of Historic Hillsborough. She was all over town. People knew her. She passed away right after 9/11 in 2018.”
The couple had two children, a girl and a boy. Jeffries’ son was born on Sept. 11 more than 50 years ago. There it was again.
“This day is something to me,” he said. “When my wife crossed over in 2018, somebody came to me every night from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. I was talking to God. He guides me. That’s why I’m here today. It rained yesterday. Didn’t rain today,” he said.
What John Blackfeather wants more than anything, what he spends so much of his time doing — and sometimes getting angry about — is for people to remember the past, especially the sacrifices made by people. He believes newspapers are key to keeping people from forgetting.
It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.