Briana Brake of Spaceway Brewing, in Rocky Mount, NC

Meet the Women of Color Remaking One North Carolina Town Into a Destination That Celebrates Diversity

Rocky Mount, North Carolina, has borne witness to U.S. history — but what’s really special about this city today is the people who are shaping its future.

You could easily drive past the small highway marker on the side of an unremarkable road in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. But if you stop to take a closer look, you'll learn that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first gave a version of his "I Have a Dream" speech at a high school here, just nine months before the March on Washington.

Once a hub for the cotton, railroad, and tobacco industries, this city — which lies an hour east of Raleigh, and is also the birthplace of Thelonious Monk — is now following in the footsteps of other Southern manufacturing towns, turning its historic buildings into creative spaces. But what's more notable about Rocky Mount is who's driving the revitalization efforts. Read on to meet six women of color who are remaking Rocky Mount into a destination that celebrates diversity.

Kristin Kitchen, Metris Batts-Coley, and Melanie Graham at Avent on Falls guest house in Rocky Mount, NC
Lissa Gotwals

Our House

Fewer than 1 percent of all hotels in the United States are owned by Black women — but Rocky Mount's newest inn is owned by three. Kristin Kitchen (left), founder of hospitality group Sojourn Heritage Accommodations, and Melanie Graham (right), a fellow B&B owner, met at a conference in Rocky Mount, and fell in love with a 1901 home they happened upon in town. Kitchen brought in Metris Batts-Coley (center), previously the manager of a Sojourn Heritage property in Miami. The trio's nine-room guesthouse Avent on Falls opened this past October.

Kitchen says, "Despite some of the deep racial divides that plague the community, left over from a city that was built on slavery and tobacco, there is also a bond in Rocky Mount that is second to none. We want to celebrate the city's rich African-American history by working together to make things better and tell our stories."

Etaf Rum at her Books & Beans coffee shop and bookstore in Rocky Mount, NC
Lissa Gotwals

A New Page

Palestinian-American writer Etaf Rum, a New York Times best-selling author, has deep roots in Rocky Mount; she moved to the area when she was 19, eventually going on to teach at a nearby college. In 2019, Rum opened the café-bookstore Books & Beans in Rocky Mount Mills — an 82-acre entertainment, dining, and residential campus on the site of a restored cotton mill. "It was important for me to give a voice to women, minorities, and people of color through a diverse selection of books," she says. "Perhaps visitors can even leave with something that changes their perspective on the world around them."

Portrait of Kimberly Clayton Thigpen of Bath Place
Lissa Gotwals

Natural Beauty

In 2006, Kimberly Clayton Thigpen began making shea-butter soaps to help a family member with eczema. After three years, she launched an online business and, in another three, opened a brick-and-mortar location, the Bath Place, in the Douglas Block, the historically Black business district in downtown Rocky Mount. "At the time, people believed downtown was not a place worth revitalizing," she says. "I saw it as full of character, and couldn't imagine my business anywhere else." The Bath Place sells non-chemical bath products like lip balm, lotion, candles, bath bombs, and salt scrubs, all of which are made on site.

Portrait of Briana Brake from Spaceway Brewing Co.
Lissa Gotwals

Making Space

"When people think craft beer, they just think of a white guy with a beard and a flannel shirt," Briana Brake says. "That's not the case at all." After being laid off from a software company, Brake took up home brewing in her spare time. It soon became more than a hobby: a tip from a fellow brewer sent Brake from Durham to join a brewing incubator program at Rocky Mount Mills. Here, she opened the Afrofuturist-inspired Spaceway Brewing Co. in 2018, becoming, at the time, one of two Black women brewers in North Carolina. "I want to create awareness among the brewing community that Black people are here and we have something unique to contribute to this industry," she says.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "All for One."

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