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Fannie Corbett, a founder of the Wilson Community Improvement Association, died Tuesday at age 86, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Mom was a fighter,” said her son, Alvin Corbett. “She fought for the underdog.”
When the WCIA started in 1968, the organization worked with businesses and individuals throughout the community to increase education and offer job training for the area’s neediest population and to eventually develop affordable housing.
“Mom kept her integrity throughout all of this,” Alvin Corbett said. “It was never personal. She had a vision, and that vision, with her board members, was to see a better Wilson than she grew up in. That’s what she lived and strived to work for.”
Corbett’s interest in helping others grew from her own experiences and a promise she made to help others. In a 2008 story in The Wilson Times, Corbett told how in 1963 she was a young single mother of four struggling to make ends meet after her husband left her.
She got a job and went back to school. She began working as an activist after college students from Durham were sent to Wilson as community organizers. The students helped her organize a grassroots effort to help people here, according to the Times story.
“At that time in the black community there were no sidewalks, the streets were dirt, and many of the people in East Wilson did not have inside plumbing,” Corbett said during the 2008 interview. “Some people were lucky to have outside spigots. City council claimed they did not know people were living like that, and some of the city council people were renting those rundown houses to black people. So you know they knew how folks were living.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
In those early years, Corbett also worked on voter education and helped people with voter registration.
“They weren’t sure how to register to vote and many didn’t believe voting would help them,” Corbett said in a 2012 interview with the Times. “They just couldn’t see it. They couldn’t see God moving to put something in their hands to feed them and help them. They just couldn’t see it.”
The Wilson Community Improvement Association was officially incorporated in 1972 and was housed in the old Mercy Hospital.
A daily feeding program was started for the elderly, and through Corbett’s leadership, decent housing was built, including Gee-Corbett Village, Adventura East and Beacon Pointe.
It was also Fannie Corbett who had the original idea to turn the old post office and federal courthouse into a science museum. She got the inspiration for Imagination Station after a visit to Charlotte’s Discovery Place and shared her vision with the building’s owner, Cameron Stallings.
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield called Corbett “one of the most innovative and progressive community organizers in our state.”
“From coordinating voter registration drives across East Wilson to fighting for affordable housing for thousands of low-income residents to helping establish recreational programs for children, Mrs. Corbett worked tirelessly in the 1960s and 1970s to serve as a bridge between the community and Wilson’s elected officials.
“Because of Mrs. Corbett, we know the power everyday people can have in sparking real change,” he said. “Wilson was blessed to have Mrs. Corbett, and with her passing, we must come together to finish the work she started.
“My thoughts and prayers are with Mrs. Corbett’s family and the countless residents of Wilson and North Carolina inspired by her activism. May Mrs. Corbett’s legacy live on as part of Wilson’s civil rights story.”
Fannie Corbett received many awards for her work, including the Nancy Susan Reynolds Award from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Nehemiah Award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
‘it’s a daily heartbreak’
When she retired in 2000, Corbett turned over the WCIA leadership role to her daughter, Barbara Blackston, who continues the work today.
Blackston said her mom’s biggest legacy, to her, is not only her love for the community but for her children as well.
“And how she instilled in us the benefit of not only helping yourself, but helping others in need.”
Blackston and her brother described the struggle in recent years as they tried to communicate with their mother as Alzheimer’s disease progressed.
“It’s a daily heartbreak,” Blackston said, “but Mom was still there.”
Alvin Corbett said his mother recognized her children even though she couldn’t articulate much. Instead, she communicated through her eyes.
“She was a fighter, even to the end,” he said.
Stevens Funeral Home will be handling funeral arrangements, which are incomplete.