About a mile from Thelonious Monk’s birthplace, city leaders recently gathered to celebrate with the Phoenix Historical Society of Edgecombe County with the unveiling of a marker honoring the legendary jazz musician.
The marker stands at the corner of East Thomas Street and the newly named Thelonious Monk Plaza.
The historical society, in partnership with the city of Rocky Mount and the Rocky Mount/Edgecombe Community Development Corp., unveiled the N.C. Highway Historical Marker on May 4. Monk was born in Rocky Mount on Oct. 10, 1917, in what is now Thelonious S. Monk Park off South Washington Street in the Around the Y community.
More than 125 people attended the dedication program in the recently renovated Booker T. Theatre, located in the historic black business district called Douglas Block. Speakers included Ruth Bullard, president of Around the Y community organization. In the past 10 years, Bullard led efforts in the naming of Thelonious S. Monk Park, renaming South Street as Monk Street and erecting an historical marker for Around the Y, a black, working class community that grew around the Atlantic Coast Line rail yard and the “Y” tracks junction.
Other featured speakers included Monk family historian Pamela Monk Kelley of New Haven, Conn., who recalled attending her cousin Thelonious Monk’s funeral in 1982; Sam Stephenson of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and the Jazz Loft Project, who spoke on his research into the Southern and Carolina roots of jazz; and in special pre-recorded remarks, Thelonious Monk’s son and musician T.S. Monk told the audience, “Rocky Mount has once again stepped up to the plate for Thelonious Monk.”
City Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem Reuben Blackwell greeted the attendees by proclaiming Rocky Mount’s ties to “the only truly American music – jazz” as the birthplace of Monk.
Rocky Mount/Edgecombe Community Development Corp. Director Joyce Dickens said though Monk left Rocky Mount at a young age, “he is still ours.”
Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley sent written remarks that were read and included on the program.
“In the end, to honor Thelonious Monk is to honor the community that shaped him ... the community of Around the Y, the ancestors who in the guise of ordinary working people did extraordinary things .... This was Monk’s world, a world that helped mold one of the greatest modern composers and pianists of the 20th century,” Kelley said.
According to research by the Phoenix Historical Society, Monk’s birthplace is at 815 Green St. also known as Red Row, which was just down the street from his aunt Eulah’s house on Dunn Street in the Around the Y community. Before 1910, Thelonious Monk Sr. moved from Sampson County to live with his sister Eulah and her husband, railroad worker Dan Whitehead. In 1914, Thelonious Monk Sr. married Barbara Batts, whose forebears had been enslaved on the Batts plantation east of Tarboro. Thelonious and Barbara Monk had three children while living on Red Row. In 1922, Barbara and her children moved to New York City when Thelonious Monk Jr. was almost 5. Monk never returned to Rocky Mount but always claimed his Carolina roots.
“I’m from Rocky Mount,” he would say.
The Thelonious Monk marker unveiling is the third N.C. Highway Historical Marker for the Phoenix Historical Society in the last year and a half. The Advisory Committee generally approves less than half of the requests received.