Rocky Mount, North Carolina

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Rocky Mount, North Carolina
City of Rocky Mount
Rocky Mount's City Lake Park
Rocky Mount's City Lake Park
Flag of Rocky Mount, North Carolina
Official seal of Rocky Mount, North Carolina
Official logo of Rocky Mount, North Carolina
"The Center Of It All"
Location in Edgecombe and Nash Counties and the state of North Carolina.
Location in Edgecombe and Nash Counties and the state of North Carolina.
Coordinates: 35°56′18″N 77°47′26″W / 35.93833°N 77.79056°W / 35.93833; -77.79056Coordinates: 35°56′18″N 77°47′26″W / 35.93833°N 77.79056°W / 35.93833; -77.79056
Country United States
State North Carolina
CountiesEdgecombe, Nash
FoundedMarch 22, 1816
IncorporatedFebruary 19, 1867
 • TypeCouncil–Manager
 • MayorSandy Roberson
 • City managerPeter Varney
 • City council
  • Andre Knight
  • Reuben C. Blackwell, IV
  • Richard Joyner
  • T.J. Walker
  • Lige Daughtridge
  • W.B. Bullock
  • Chris Carroll Miller
 • City44.89 sq mi (116.27 km2)
 • Land44.68 sq mi (115.73 km2)
 • Water0.21 sq mi (0.54 km2)
 • Metro
1,045.8 sq mi (2,708.5 km2)
98 ft (30 m)
 • City54,341
 • Density1,216.14/sq mi (469.55/km2)
 • Urban
68,243 (US: 406th)
 • Metro
143,870 (US: 291th)
 • CSA
288,747 (US: 111th)
Time zoneUTC−5 (EST)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−4 (EDT)
ZIP Codes
27801, 27802, 27803, 27804, 27809, 27815
Area code252
FIPS code37-57500
GNIS feature ID1022368[2]
Interstate HighwaysI-95.svgI-87.svg
U.S. HighwaysUS 64.svgUS 301.svg
State HighwaysNC 43.svgNC 48.svgNC 97.svg

Rocky Mount is a city in Edgecombe and Nash counties in the U.S. state of North Carolina.[2][3] The city's population was 54,341 as of the 2020 census,[4] making it the 20th-most populous city in North Carolina at the time. The city is 45 mi (72 km) east of Raleigh, the state capital.

It is the principal city of the Rocky Mount metropolitan area, often called the "Twin Counties", which had an estimated population of 143,870 in 2020.[5][6][7] Rocky Mount is also an anchor city of the Rocky Mount-Wilson-Roanoke Rapids Combined Statistical Area in northeast North Carolina with a total population of 288,747 as of 2020.[5]

Incorporated in 1867, the community at the falls of the Tar River that became the city of Rocky Mount dates from the middle of the 1700s. Historically strong in rail transportation, textiles, and agriculture, the economy of Rocky Mount has diversified into biomedical pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and logistics.[8][9] Rocky Mount has also twice received the All-America City Award from the National Civic League in 1969 and 1999.[10]



The region around the Tar River was continuously inhabited by indigenous people for 12,000 years before the first Europeans arrived, when it was home to the Tuscarora people.[11] Europeans began settling the area after the Tuscarora War in the early 1700s.[12] Like many other early settlements in colonial America, they settled along the fall line between the Piedmont and coastal plain, which is the point at which rivers become unnavigable sailing upstream and water flowing downstream can power a mill.[11] The Falls of the Tar River Primitive Baptist Church was established in 1757, which still meets today, although its original building has since been replaced.[13] Much of the community attended the church so that it served as an early form of record keeping and law enforcement with citations given for crimes.[14]

19th century[edit]

A post office was established at the falls of the Tar River on March 22, 1816. At this point, the name "Rocky Mount" officially appears in documented history, undoubtedly referring to the rocky mound at the falls of the Tar River. The second cotton mill in North Carolina followed soon thereafter, Rocky Mount Mills, in 1818.[3] Its proprietors were two entrepreneurs and Joel Battle, grandson of an original colonial settler to the area. Joel bought out the other proprietors before turning over the enterprise to his cousin James Smith Battle. The mill's spindles were initially operated by slaves until the 1850s and then worked exclusively by white women and girls. This female working arrangement lasted for the rest of the century.[6][15]

The Battle family was also involved in the construction of the longest continuous railroad in the world up to that time, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, which ran about two miles (3 km) east of the mill.[6] It connected the area to major ports in Virginia to the north and the port of Wilmington to the south. The tracks first reached Rocky Mount on Christmas Eve in 1839. In 1840, a train of cars en route to Wilmington stopped in Rocky Mount to import some "Old Nash" for special toasts at opening festivities and from there the fame of Nash County apple brandy spread. The railroad exerted a powerful influence on the development of the town so that, in 1871, the county line moved from the Tar River to its present location in the center of the tracks.[3] The Raleigh-Tarboro stage route also passed just below Rocky Mount (roughly where I-95 and U.S. 64 run today), and for a time was the logical debarking point for railroad travelers wishing to proceed east or west.[3]

The surrounding region was raided in 1863 during the Civil War by Union troops under the command of Brigadier General Edward E. Potter. The mill, which supplied Confederate yarn and cloth, was burned down. The mill was rebuilt after the war ended.[16] On February 19, 1867, the village outside the mill was incorporated as a town.[3]

The latter half of the 19th century saw the tobacco industry take shape in the state. Adjacent to the sandy coastal plain, Rocky Mount was well situated to take advantage of the rapidly rising demand for brightleaf tobacco that grew best in the sandy soil.[17] Tobacco also shaped the city's social life. Warehouses where tobacco was stored and marketed began hosting balls for the community in the 1880s that became known as "june germans" for the time of year and style of dance. June Germans eventually transformed into all-night dance parties and attracted musicians and socialites from miles around well into the 1900s.[18] By the end of the 19th century, tobacco had surpassed King Cotton as the town's primary agricultural product.[17]

20th century[edit]

Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1907
A map of Rocky Mount in 1950

The turn of the 20th century saw Rocky Mount become the northern headquarters of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and its major repair shops and yard facilities located to the town. With it came an influx of railroad employees.[13] In 1900, Rocky Mount's population was around 3,000. On February 28, 1907, with a population around 7,500, Rocky Mount was officially incorporated as a city. A main railroad line, a well established cotton mill, and productive farmland for brightleaf tobacco were major contributors to the area's growth and prosperity over the next decades.[3] A vibrant central business district arose.[19] As in the rest of the South, though, racial segregation was imposed on the community leading to white suburbs largely on the west side of town, such as Villa Place and West Haven, and black neighborhoods largely on the east side of town, like Crosstown and Around the "Y" where jazz musician Thelonious Monk was born.[20]

Several notable Civil Rights events occurred in Rocky Mount. In 1946, African American tobacco warehouse workers voted to organize in Rocky Mount as part of a broader nationwide movement known as Operation Dixie that led to voter registration and political action against segregation.[21] On November 27, 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Booker T. Washington High School wherein he used his famous refrain "I have a dream" a year before his better known delivery at the March on Washington.[22][23] The city also had its own sanitation workers' strike in 1978 when government sanitation workers protested their black co-worker being wrongfully arrested leading to his acquittal in court and the city later apologizing.[24]

Downtown Rocky Mount, 1962

After WWII, the city continued to grow and the 1950s and 1960s saw the city's economy diversify into banking, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and the headquarters of a fast food chain known as Hardee's.[25] New educational facilities were also built including North Carolina Wesleyan College in 1956 and Nash Community College and Edgecombe Community College in 1968. In 1970, Rocky Mount received an All-America City Award. The 1970s also saw the consolidation of the city's hospitals under Nash General Hospital and the completion of Rocky Mount–Wilson Regional Airport.[26][3]

Like much of the rest of America, the 1980s onward saw urban decay of the inner city. Rocky Mount's downtown deteriorated but new neighborhoods and shopping malls were built like Golden East Crossing, and the city's boundaries expanded. In 1996, the town of Battleboro to the north of the city was annexed.[27][28] In 1999, the city won its second All-America City Award.[10]

The fall of 1999 saw two hurricanes make landfall in eastern North Carolina. Both passed over Rocky Mount: Hurricane Dennis as a tropical storm in August with 20 inches (510 mm) of rain and Hurricane Floyd in September with nearly 17 inches (430 mm) of rain. Floyd is especially memorable because most localized flooding happened quickly overnight and many residents were not aware of the flooding until the water came into their homes, requiring many to be rescued. As a result of the hurricane, the already saturated Tar River suffered the worst flooding in its recorded history, exceeding 500-year flood levels along its lower stretches, and many homes and businesses were destroyed.[27][29][30]

21st century[edit]

The first decades of the 21st century have seen efforts to revitalize the historic downtown and projects to renovate buildings such as the train station and Douglas Block, or repurpose them like the Imperial Centre for Arts and Sciences.[31] In 2007, Capitol Broadcasting Company bought Rocky Mount Mills and is in the process of turning it into a mixed-use campus of breweries, restaurants, lofts, and event space.[32] There have also been major new community projects such as the 143-acre (58 ha) sports complex and 165,000-square-foot (15,300 m2) downtown event center.[27] In 2019, CSX, the successor company of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, broke ground on a new intermodal cargo terminal that is expected to grow the local economy in the next decade.[33]


Interactive map of Rocky Mount city limits

Rocky Mount is located in northeastern North Carolina, at the fall line between the Atlantic Coastal Plain to the east and the Piedmont region to the west. The city is 58 miles (93 km) east of Raleigh, the state capital, 91 miles (146 km) northeast of Fayetteville, 144 miles (232 km) north of Wilmington, 19 miles (31 km) north of Wilson, 42 miles (68 km) south of Roanoke Rapids, and 127 miles (204 km) south of Richmond, Virginia.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 104.9 square miles (271.8 km2), of which 104.6 square miles (270.8 km2) is land and 0.4 square miles (1.0 km2), or 0.35%, is covered by water.[34] The Tar River passes through the city from west to east, crossing the fall line at Upper Falls and Little Falls and descending 25 feet (7.6 m) within the city limits. The city boundaries straddle the line between Edgecombe and Nash counties, which follows the railroad tracks through the center of the city running north to south.


Historic Rocky Mount Mills Village[edit]

Situated near the Tar River, the Rocky Mount Mills Village grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a small community of tenants working for the mill. Built between 1885 and 1940, each home is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.[35] Changes in industrialization eventually forced the closing of the mill, and this way of life came to an end. However, when the mill closed, the property remained intact. Though the property has been a rental for its entire existence, covenants are placed on the property to assure home ownership and owner occupancy and protect the historical integrity.[36]


Rocky Mount has a humid subtropical climate (Köppen Cfa) characterized by cool, sometimes moderately cold winters, and hot, humid summers.[37] The average high temperatures range from 51 °F (11 °C) in the winter to around 90 °F (32 °C) in the summer. The average low temperatures range from 31 °F (−1 °C) in the winter to around 69 °F (21 °C) in the summer.[38]

Climate data for Rocky Mount, North Carolina (1991–2020 normals, extremes 1954–present)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 78
Average high °F (°C) 50.3
Daily mean °F (°C) 40.5
Average low °F (°C) 30.6
Record low °F (°C) −8
Average precipitation inches (mm) 3.22
Average snowfall inches (cm) 1.9
Average precipitation days (≥ 0.0 in) 8.1 7.2 8.2 7.7 8.3 9.1 9.8 8.6 7.7 6.1 6.5 7.8 95.1
Average snowy days (≥ 0.1 in) 0.5 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.8
Source 1: NOAA[39][40]
Source 2:[38]


Historical population
Census Pop.
2021 (est.)53,957[41]−0.7%
U.S. Decennial Census[42]

2020 census[edit]

Rocky Mount racial composition[44]
Race Number Percentage
White (non-Hispanic) 14,470 26.63%
Black or African American (non-Hispanic) 34,426 63.35%
Native American 298 0.55%
Asian 757 1.39%
Pacific Islander 26 0.05%
Other/Mixed 1,692 3.11%
Hispanic or Latino 2,672 4.92%

As of the 2020 United States census, there were 54,341 people, 22,260 households, and 14,334 families residing in the city.

2010 census[edit]

As of the census of 2010, 57,477 people, 23,097 households, and 14,639 families resided in the city. The population density was 1,312.6 inhabitants per square mile (606.7/km2). The city had 26,953 housing units. The racial makeup of the city was 61.3% African American, 32.4% White, 0.6% Native American, 1.0% Asian, and 1.6% from two or more races. Hispanics or Latinos of any race were 3.7% of the population.

Of the 23,097 households, 27.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 35.7% were married couples living together, 22.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.6% were not families. About 31.4% of all households were made up of individuals living alone, and 26.6% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.42 and the average family size was 3.04.

In the city, the population was distributed as 27.5% between the ages of 1 and 19, 6.4% from 20 to 24, 24% from 25 to 44, 27.9% from 45 to 64, and 14.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age is 38.7 years. 45.8% of the population are males compared to 54.2% for females.

The median income for a household in the city was $37,059, and for a family was $39,929. The per capita income for the city was $21,779. About 19.0% of the population is below the poverty line.[34]


Rocky Mount's population is 40.3% religiously affiliated, below the state average of 48.9%.[45] Christianity is the largest religion, with Baptists (13.3%) making up the largest religious group, followed by Pentecostals (4.5%) and Methodists (3.5%). Presbyterians (1.5%), Episcopalians (0.9%), and Catholics (0.8%) make up a significant amount of the Christian population as well. The remaining Christian population (15.2%) is affiliated with other churches. Islam (0.5%) is the second largest religion after Christianity.[46]


Southern Bank Business Center in downtown Rocky Mount

The economy of the Rocky Mount metropolitan area, historically been dependent on textiles and agriculture, has diversified into pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. Located near the juncture of a number of highways and railway, distribution and logistics are important to local business. The area has a strong service sector and a number of financial and customer support centers are located here.[8][9]

Rocky Mount's is located 45 mi (72 km) from the state capital Raleigh and the Research Triangle located there. This has helped attract new companies to Rocky Mount seeking a skilled labor and a lower costs of living and doing business.[8]

The metropolitan area was named in a 2020 study as the third-highest in the United States where manufacturing is thriving with a manufacturing output of $6.2 billion, or $42,270 per capita. Between 2014 and 2018, manufacturing grew in the Rocky Mount area by 11.8%, and there were 108% more manufacturing jobs than the national average.[47][48]

In 2019, CSX Transportation began construction of a $200 million cargo terminal in Rocky Mount.[49][33]

Largest employers[edit]

Below is a list of some of the largest employers in the metropolitan area as of 2018.[50]

# Employer No. of employees
1 Pfizer 3,000+[51]
2 Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools 2,275
3 Cummins–Rocky Mount Engine Plant 1,800
4 Nash UNC Health Care 1,600
5 Edgecombe County Public Schools 1,100
6 QVC Distribution center 1,100
7 CenturyLink 1,000
8 Sara Lee Frozen Bakery 950
9 Alorica 885
10 City of Rocky Mount 850


Rocky Mount is the regional shopping destination with many big-box retailers and specialty shops located in the city. Rocky Mount's shopping centers are generally congregated along and around US 301 (Wesleyan Boulevard). Large centers include Golden East Crossing, Englewood Square, Sutters Creek Plaza, Cobb Corners, and Westridge Shopping Center.[citation needed]

In the downtown, the Douglas Block is a commercial area that was a former African American business district.[52] Station Square is a shopping area located next to city hall and the train station.[53]

Arts and culture[edit]

The city is home to multiple venues for the performing arts. The Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences hosts the Maria V. Howard Arts Center, a Children's Museum and Science Center, and a community theater.[54] The Dunn Center for the Performing Arts at Wesleyan College regularly has college arts performances and touring acts, and is also the home of the Tar River Orchestra and Chorus.[55][56] Most recently, the Rocky Mount Event Center opened in downtown with space to hold up to 5,000 seats for entertainment and sporting events.[57]

Rocky Mount Mills is a craft brewery incubator, the first of its kind on North Carolina, that is now home to many up-and-coming breweries and restaurants. In addition, the mill hosts summer music festivals and other events throughout the year. It has been in the process of redevelopment since 2014 by Capitol Broadcasting Company, which also owns the popular American Tobacco campus in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Nearby are dozens of historical homes for rent in the Rocky Mount Mills Village.[58][59] The next phase of development is Goat Island on the Tar River, which will offer public access to hiking trails, sandy beaches, and rafting/canoeing.[9]

A Rocky Mount Railroad Museum has been in the planning stages for a number of years given the cultural significance of the railroad on the city—in the early to mid-1900s the Emerson Shops alone of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad employed over 2,000 people—but is currently without a facility.[25][60][61] It has been proposed to be located inside the train station.[62]

National Register of Historic Places[edit]

The Bellamy-Philips House, Bellemonte, Benvenue, Edgemont Historic District, Falls Road Historic District, Lincoln Park Historic District, Machaven, The Meadows, Rocky Mount Central City Historic District, Rocky Mount Electric Power Plant, Rocky Mount Mills, Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District, Stonewall, Villa Place Historic District, and West Haven Historic District are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[63]

Parks and recreation[edit]

Rocky Mount is a major center for youth traveling sports as a midpoint between New York and Florida along I-95.[64] The Rocky Mount Sports Complex, maintained by the Parks and Recreation department, includes seven outdoor baseball fields, four softball fields, eight soccer fields, a professional disc golf course, basketball courts, and volleyball courts. The complex sees many statewide and interstate baseball and soccer tournaments. It also has a football stadium home to the NCWC Battling Bishops football team and Elizabeth City State University's annual Down East Viking Classic.[65] The Rocky Mount Event Center administered by the city has added eight indoor basketball courts, sixteen volleyball courts, a ropes course, a climbing wall, and a family entertainment center, with plans to host indoor basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics competitions.[64][66]

Tar River Trail is a 7-mile (11 km) greenway running east to west along the namesake river that connects with multiple parks, city landmarks, and the sports complex, with designated boat ramps for recreational paddling trips on the river. Notable among the connected parks is City Lake Park, built in 1937 during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration, and the 57-acre (23 ha) biodiverse Battle Park centered on the falls of the Tar River.[67][68] The trail also includes a 220-foot (67 m) long clear-span wooden bridge believed to be the longest such wooden bridge in the United States.[69]


Frederick E. Turnage Municipal Building in downtown Rocky Mount

The city of Rocky Mount has a council-manager form of government. The city is divided into seven wards with a total of seven council members elected to the city council, one from each ward. Members of the city council serve four-year terms with staggered elections every two years, while the mayor is elected at-large by citizens and serves a four-year term. The mayor is ex officio chair of the city council and only votes in case of a tie. The council appoints a city manager to serve as chief administrative officer of day-to-day affairs of government. As of 2022, the current city manager is Peter Varney.[70] Since the city straddles the Nash County-Edgecombe County border, the commissions of both counties are also involved in governance of the city.[71]

City council[edit]

  • Sandy Roberson (Mayor)
  • Andre Knight (Ward 1)
  • Reuben C. Blackwell, IV (Ward 2)
  • Richard Joyner (Ward 3)
  • T. J. Walker (Ward 4)
  • Lige Daughtridge (Ward 5)
  • Tom Harris (Ward 6)
  • Jabaris Walker (Ward 7)


Edgecombe Community College campus in downtown Rocky Mount

North Carolina Wesleyan University is a four-year private liberal arts college located in Rocky Mount and home to the Eastern North Carolina Center for Business and Entrepreneurship. The center's programs are free, open to the public, and focusing on business development, entrepreneurship, and community engagement.[72] The city is also served by Nash Community College, which has a brewing, distillation, and fermentation program in partnership with the Mills, and Edgecombe Community College, which has a downtown campus specializing in biotechnology and medical simulation.[73][74] Shaw University's College of Adult and Professional Education, or C.A.P.E., program also has a satellite campus in the Mills Village.[75]

The city of Rocky Mount is primarily served by the Nash-Rocky Mount Public School System, which as a whole has 15,000 students in 28 schools.[76] Parts of the city in Edgecombe County are also served by the Edgecombe County Public Schools system.[77] Public high schools include Nash Central High School, Northern Nash High School, Rocky Mount High School, Southwest Edgecombe High School and Southern Nash High School. The three nontraditional public schools are Tar River Academy,The Center for Industry Technology and Innovation and its sister school the Nash Rocky Mount Early College. The one local charter school is Rocky Mount Preparatory School. There are also a number of private schools in the area.

Braswell Memorial Library serves the community as its major public library with affiliated libraries throughout the Twin Counties. It recently became part of the State Library's NC Cardinal consortium of public libraries that share an integrated system allowing books and other materials to be checked out from other libraries across the state.[78][79]


Rocky Mount is considered part of the Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville television and radio media market, the 25th largest in the United States. However, multiple broadcast stations in the Greenville-New Bern-Washington market also cover the city.

Locally, WHIG-TV, founded in 1997 and currently hosted out of Wesleyan College, and WNCR-LD, founded in 2002 and located in downtown, are Rocky Mount's community television stations.[80][81][82] WRQM 90.9 FM is the repeater station of public radio station WUNC, the local NPR affiliate. In the 1990s, it was known as "Down East Radio" and also hosted out of Wesleyan College.[83]

The Rocky Mount Telegram serves as the main daily newspaper for the city of Rocky Mount and surrounding areas.[84]



Roads and highways[edit]

US 64 is the city's main east–west corridor

The city is served by three major highways:

  • I-95 to its west.
  • US 64 (Future I-87) as its main east–west corridor.
  • US 301 (Wesleyan Boulevard) as its main north–south corridor.

In the downtown area, both US 64 Bus. (Sunset Avenue / Thomas Street) and US 301 Bus. (Church Street) serve as major thoroughfares. State highways NC 4, NC 43, NC 48 and NC 97 serve the city by connecting to nearby towns.


The Rocky Mount–Wilson Regional Airport (IATA: RWI, ICAO: KRWI, FAA LID: RWI) serves the general aviation needs of the surrounding counties. It is on NC 97, 9 miles (14 km) southwest of downtown Rocky Mount. The closest airport with scheduled commercial service is Pitt–Greenville Airport (PGV), 40 miles (64 km) to the southeast. Cargo and charter flights in the area also use the Kinston Regional Jetport (ISO), 50 miles (80 km) to the south. Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), is 74 miles (119 km) to the west.


Helen P. Gay Rocky Mount Historic Train Station in downtown, originally built in 1893.

Amtrak provides three north and three southbound trains per day at the Rocky Mount station located in downtown. Service is to Washington, D.C., New York City, Miami and Philadelphia. Freight service is provided by CSX. Trains travel to destinations in eastern North Carolina and also to points west and south of the city.

Public transit[edit]

Tar River Transit provides public transportation in and around the city of Rocky Mount, and operates 10 fixed bus routes throughout the city.[85][86]

Health care[edit]

Nash UNC Health Care is a nonprofit hospital affiliated with UNC Health Care, which it joined in 2014. It has 345 beds at four different locations. Its flagship facility is Nash General Hospital.[87] When Nash General opened in 1971, it consolidated four different hospitals in the Rocky Mount area, and was the first all-private-room hospital in North Carolina.[88] Other hospitals operated are Nash Day Hospital, Bryant T. Aldridge Rehabilitation Center, and Coastal Plain Hospital. Nash UNC has added more facilities in recent years: a Surgery Pavilion in 2004, a renovated Emergency Department and Nash Heart Center in 2014, and Nash Women's Center in 2016. In 2018, the Danny Talbott Cancer Center facility opened, named in honor of a Rocky Mount athletic legend and cancer survivor.[87][89][90]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


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  28. ^ North Carolina General Assembly, Battleboro/Rocky Mount merger, House Bill 1177, 1995 Session, Retrieved Aug. 16, 2017.
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