Former United Way volunteer preserves local African American history one photo at a time

Feb. 24, 2023



Thomas Tipps smiled as he flipped through the old Bible in his hands and then looked up at the cross in front of him, and his face lit up even more. 


The cross came from the last church where his mother was the minister - New Hope Deliverance Church located in the Rhoney School Road area of Hickory.

“She had that church for seventeen years and she did a lot of work in this neighborhood. She would feed people who didn’t even go to the church,” Tipps said. “She was just special. I wish to God I could be just a portion of what my momma was.”

In his own way, he’s accomplished just that through his work with non-profits, including volunteering as a United Way loaned employee making campaign visits during the 1990s and now by saving his neighborhood’s history through the renovation of another iconic, local building, Propst’s Place.

Since 2021, the 60-year-old has steadily been breathing life back into the former store and weekend hangout, transforming it into a walk-in time capsule. Tipps has filled the building, he’s renamed Rhoney’s, with photos and memorabilia honoring the past generations that impacted not only the African American neighborhood, but all of Catawba County.

It was Tipps’ job driving a tour bus all over the world that helped him realize the potential of his vision.

“Everywhere I was going, I was seeing someone else’s history. That’s when I knew I wanted something to pay honor to my neighborhood,” Tipps said.
“We’ve become a nation taken by celebrities. Everything is about big football players, movie stars, but before them were people who lived in areas like this, who worked to build their community. Those were the real heroes. Those were the cats who made it happen for you, while you were there.”

To help tell the neighborhood’s story, he’s divided the building, which he now owns, into small presentation rooms – kitchen, living room, bedroom, church – that are filled with historical items like a Hoosier cabinet, a foot pedal organ, an old cast iron frame bed.

And then there are the photos.

Tipps has collected dozens of stories from local families in the form of pictures they shared with him. He plans on displaying them so anyone who stops by can take that trip back in time, and maybe even see some familiar faces.

“I’ve done that already, recently showed a bunch of young guys pictures of their aunts, who they’d never seen before.”

His collection even connects to the old Central High School in Newton, which, along with photos, he has an original diploma from1963. The historic building, located on South Ervin Avenue, is now operated by the Newton Parks and Recreation Department.

According to the historical marker outside the building, Central was an African American high school that grew out of an 1899 one-room schoolhouse. In 1924 the school was enlarged and named Snow Hill Graded School. Grades 8 and 9 were added in 1934, and it became a full high school in 1936, renamed Central High School. In addition to Newton, it served students from all areas of Catawba County except Hickory. In 1967 Central High School merged with Newton-Conover High School.

“The world needs to know that we have heroes amongst us and that’s what I want. I want those kids out here to come in and see a picture of their uncles and see that they did something,” Tipps said. “This community produced individuals who served in the military, were firemen, were pharmacists.”

In general, all those individual stories are never heard because they get stored away in a box in a closet or basement or attic after someone dies.

“Hopefully, other communities can take this project and do the same thing in their area…remembering grandparents or great-grandparents who did magnificent things.”

While the building is still being renovated, Tipps invites anyone interested to visit the Rhoney Community Time Capsule. You can arrange a tour by calling 828-851-2871 or email