During a September 2017 Pender County Board of Commissioners resoundingly approved the idea of naming a portion of US Hwy 17 after Ambassador Mattie R. Sharpless, a Hampstead native.
On May 10, Pender County turned out to honor one of their own as the idea became a reality.
A dedication ceremony, conducted on the steps of Manhollow Missionary Baptist Church, named a portion of US Hwy 17 was named in honor of Sharpless.
Sharpless, a graduate of Pender County Training School in Rocky Point, was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as Ambassador to the Central African Republic. She was nominated Oct. 1, 2001 and just weeks later was confirmed by the U.S. Senate. She began working from the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, by mid-December of the same year. She served as the U.S. Ambassador for two years.
Sharpless was not a career diplomat. She started her government career in 1965 with the Department of Agriculture (USDA). She worked with the United States Foreign Agriculture Service.
The child of a tobacco farmer, Sharpless lost her father, James Sharpless, when she was just 11 years old. Her mother, Lecola, made money from selling the tobacco from the 12 rows left by her father.
“I washed dishes at the restaurant and I scrubbed the church,” said Sharpless at the May 10 ceremony at Manhollow Missionary Baptist Church.
Sharpless pursued higher education and attended North Carolina College in Durham, a historically black college, in which she earned a degree in business education. The school became North Carolina Central University and she returned to Durham to earn a M.A. in business administration and economics.
Sharpless is an example of a person who dreams and works hard to achieve great things, said Pender County Commissioner David Williams.
“It’s a pleasure to honor one of our own,” said Williams. “In September 2017, the board of commissioners read about Ambassador Sharpless’ accomplishments. We were asked to pass a resolution to honor her. It was a no-brainer to honor this humble, confident, and genuine lady. This is a big deal to have a portion of US Hwy 17 named in her honor.”
“This highway was only two lanes as we grew up,” recalled Glorious Leaven, sister of Mattie Sharpless. “We walked this way to the schoolhouse and the church and we didn’t see many cars on the highway.”
Today the North Carolina Department of Transportation dedicated signs along the highway from Union Bethel Road to the Pender/Onslow county line in honor of Mattie R. Sharpless. Her life’s journey has taken her to Africa, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and points beyond.
Joining in the dedication ceremony were Landon Zimmer, a member of the NC Board of Transportation; NC District 5 Court Judge James H. Faison III, NC Attorney General Josh Stein, Pender County Commissioner David Williams, Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin, Warsaw Mayor A.J. Conners, Chief of Staff at North Carolina Central University Dr. Al Zow, NAACP Director District 16 Deborah Dicks-Maxwell, and Manhollow Missionary Baptist’s Rev. Dante A. Murphy. Also attending the ceremony was Sharpless’ 96 year old mother, Lecola.
“Ambassador Sharpless has raised the level of education in North Central Africa,” said Stein. He commended Sharpless for her efforts of stressing education for girls. “She was extremely influential and a school in Africa was named after her.”
Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin said it was the “perfect day to honor a perfect lady.”
“You make us proud,” Medlin said. “You have given our students, especially our girls, an example to look up to.”
Topsail High School Jazz Band performed during the ceremony. The Pender High School JROTC presented the colors. Christa G. Faison played Amazing Grace on a violin as a musical tribute to Sharpless.
Sharpless thanked her many friends, colleagues from Washington DC, high school and college classmates, and her family for their support. She especially thanked Rev. Dante A. Murphy for spearheading the effort with NCDOT to have the honorary signs installed.
She joked that there were more steps and regulations regarding getting signage along the state highway than there were steps in a career in the federal government.
Sharpless retired in 2005 but she remains active in community projects, especially projects involving education, youth, and the elderly.