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Guillermo Nurse, North Carolina's first Latino mayor, says unifying Oxford is his driving force

Mayor Guillermo Nurse poses for a portrait in City Hall in Oxford, N.C. on Friday, Jan. 19.
Matt Ramey
Mayor Guillermo Nurse poses for a portrait in City Hall in Oxford, N.C. on Friday, Jan. 19.

When Guillermo Nurse was elected mayor of Oxford, North Carolina in November, he became the first Latino mayor in the state. He's also the first Black mayor of Oxford, a small, majority African-American town just north of the Triangle.

Nurse, a native of Panama and 22-year veteran in the U.S. Navy, ran on a platform of unity in a town that he said has struggled with racial and economic division for decades.

Learning how to lead

Guillermo Nurse, 66, walks up a gently sloping hill from Oxford City Hall toward Main Street like a sailor at ease; shoulders back, head held high, with his hands tucked behind his back, recalling his military service.

"We were working a lot with the drug interdiction in Panama. We ran up and down the jungles," Nurse said. "And I loved that."

Nurse and his family immigrated from Panama to the United States in the 1970s. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving in engineering and patrol squadrons.

"I believe in performance and military as my job. I took it to heart," Nurse said. "I got to the point where my wife says I used to iron my T-shirts. That says how gung-ho military I was."

Nurse said the Navy taught him how to be a leader. He went back to Panama to coach his country’s national basketball team, then came back to the U.S., finding a home in the Triangle and working in Virginia.

He passed through Oxford on his commute every day. He said it took just a few rounds at a local golf course to convince him to buy a house in the city in 2010.

"And when I got to Oxford, it was a very divided city. And Oxford is still divided," Nurse said.

Oxford is home to nearly 9,000 people. There are three main roads that come together in a crooked intersection to create the downtown area. It has the character of many small Southern towns: streets lined with two-story brick buildings from as far back as the 1880s. Guillermo Nurse seems to know almost every worker, manager or owner of the small businesses here.

On this cloudy, windy, and cold day, Nurse — the town’s newest Black leader — meets up with one of its oldest. Eddie McCoy, 81, led sit-in demonstrations here in the 1960s. He supported Guillermo Nurse in the race for Oxford mayor, which Nurse won in a landslide.

"He was in the right place at the right time. He was the right fit. Because he has an open mind," McCoy said of Nurse.

McCoy stepped inside a shop on Main Street that used to be a drug store with a segregated lunch counter.

"The counter was here and it had booths around it, here," McCoy said, gesturing at what is now a display piece at a new business under construction.

"We told the man we wanted to sit down. He said he didn’t serve nobody. We kept coming back and you know what he did? He took all the seats out of here to keep us from sitting at the counter," McCoy said.

"He just got rid of the lunch counter," he added. "And that’s what you did in the South. That’s how you shut ‘em down."

McCoy also led protests after the killing of Henry Marrow, a Black Oxford man killed after being accused of making a crude remark to a white woman in 1970. Two white men were acquitted of his murder by an all-white jury. After Marrow’s death, some demonstrations turned destructive, with protestors firebombing storefronts.

The entire story is laid out in the book “Blood Done Sign My Name” by Duke University research scholar Tim Tyson.

McCoy and Nurse believe Marrow’s killing is still an open wound in Oxford more than 50 years later.

"The Justice Department messed up," Nurse said. "The city leaders went along with that.

"I think the city never gave a proclamation on that issue," he added. "That needs to be done. We need to recognize when a mistake was made, and move forward. They never recognized this man was assassinated."

Nurse said he wants the city commission to pass such a resolution this year.

Growth, progress and division

Civil rights activist James Eddie McCoy poses for a portrait in City Hall in Oxford, N.C. on Friday, Jan. 19.
Matt Ramey
for WUNC
Civil Rights activist James Eddit McCoy poses for a portrait in City Hall in Oxford, N.C. on Friday, Jan. 19.

Guillermo Nurse and Eddie McCoy sit down for lunch at a local brewery, where the conversation moves from reckoning with the town’s past to addressing its present.

By Nurse’s estimation, Oxford is a small town on the rise. He pointed to about a dozen new housing developments under construction and a recent uptick in home sales. He wants to attract bigger employers to encourage more growth.

But there are what he calls serious problems that could stunt that growth. Nurse said Oxford police officers need raises. Some buildings owned by people who don’t live in Oxford have been vacant for more than a decade. There are no public support systems for unhoused people or people who need treatment for substance use disorder.

And then there’s the underlying issue of division. Guillermo Nurse and Eddie McCoy describe rifts between generations, races and socioeconomic classes in Oxford that originate from some members of local clergy.

Neither McCoy nor Nurse identified any ministers by name, but they agreed local churches should do more to attract younger people, and encourage their congregations to engage in city commission meetings or public events.

'Estamos con el'

Mayor Guillermo Nurse sits outside Strong Arm Bakery in downtown Oxford, N.C. on Friday, Jan. 19.
Matt Ramey
Mayor Guillermo Nurse sits outside Strong Arm Bakery in downtown Oxford, N.C. on Friday, Jan. 19.

"Antes, yo venía trabajar aquí, pero ya no trabajo porque no puedo tener mi manos sucios," Nurse said.

Guillermo Nurse described in Spanish how he used to help out at American Latin Tires, a shop owned by his friend, Belem Arias-Alvarez.

Arias-Alvarez poked fun at a question about whether Nurse will make a good mayor and said he’ll wait and see.

"Estamos con el," he added. "We are with him."

Nurse acknowledged the significance of being Oxford’s first Black and Latino mayor, but says he never promoted himself that way. Even so, at least some residents say his presence at city hall is important.

Betty Galloway said Nurse is the first mayor she can remember to regularly visit her nail salon downtown.

"I’ve never seen such support and that means a lot," Galloway says. "On top of that, he's Latino, like me. So I feel even more confident about expressing myself."

In his first months on the job, Oxford Mayor Guillermo Nurse said he feels a sense of urgency. He believes even small town mayors and council members should have term limits, and promises he won’t stay in the position for more than six years.

In the meantime, he remains optimistic about making meaningful changes.

"Everywhere I go I'm being told, 'You are what Oxford needed.' That warms my heart, makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere," Nurse said. "That's my driving force."

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.