Durham – North Carolina’s African-American Culture: Advertising Travel Supplement
Bridgette A. Lacy
Here John Merrick and other African-American businessmen founded the North Caroling Mutual Life Insurance Company, once the largest black-owned firm in America. The company’s headquarters also housed the black-owned Mechanics Farmers Bank, and between the two enterprises, Durham’s black community was provided substance and stability–and its middle class, a strong base of political and economic clout. Meanwhile, the city’s tobacco industry and black-owned retail stores employed a burgeoning black working class.
Not far away was North Carolina Central University, chartered in 1909 as a “colored race” religious training school. The school, Parrish Street and Durham’s black churches were the heart and soul of a thriving African-American community.
That segregated world has gone to its grave; but it has left behind artifacts that testify to a former glory–and descendants who have added luster and festivity to the tale. Today, Durham, Bull City, remains a place that lures African Americans–and at no time more so than summer and early autumn.
This June brings the 26th annual Bimbe Festival, which draws upward of 10,000 revelers every year. In West Africa, Bimbe is a harvest festival, during which villagers gather to give thanks and praise. In Durham, Bimbe is a celebration of the diaspora and its cultural underpinnings from the Mother Continent. The three-day festivities feature gospel, reggae and rap music, storytelling, dance performances, arts and crafts, and street-side fun.
Not long after the city’s Bimbe excitement subsides, the fourth weekend in September rolls around and the city hosts its annual Bull Durham Blues Festival. This is a grand opportunity to check out the Piedmont blues, a lesser-known (and lighter, more cheerful and danceable) cousin of the Delta blues. Durham was long the home of the Piedmont or Carolina blues and gave us the likes of Blind Boy Fuller, Bull City Red, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and the legendary guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. The festival features more than just the blues: Last year, visitors were treated to jazz icons Koko Taylor., Ruth Brown and Jimmy McGriff, along with Durham jazz pianist Brother Yusef Salim.
The Bimbe and the blues festivals are special, but the sights and sounds of Durham’s black culture can be seen and heard throughout the year. For a start, simply stroll down Parrish Street. The old headquarters of North Carolina Mutual Life and the Mechanics Farmers Bank has been declared a National Historic Site. Just across the street is an old Woolworth building. Although it as yet lacks a marker outlining its historical significance, the building was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first participation at a sit-in, underscoring his support for the direct action tendency in the civil rights movement. The present North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. building towers over Chapel Hill Street; inside, tours are offered of the Heritage Room, which is filled with the memorabilia that highlight the company’s historic role in Durham.
Stop, too, at the Know Bookstore, whose owner, Bruce Bridges, delights in pointing readers–and browsers–toward their heritage. The yellow, green and red letters on the sign outside the door say it all: “Know Thy Self.” inside, his shelves are filled with books written by popular mainstream black writers, such as Toni Morrison and Durham native Randall Kenan, as well as by black authors whose following to date is primarily within the black community, such as Jawanza Kunjufu and Haki Madhubuti.
But the Know Bookstore is not just a place to buy a book. it is a gathering place, where residents and visitors come to debate hot issues and pick up a loaf of fresh-baked bread. It is a place where you can get a bean pie and papaya juice and a lecture about black history all at the same time. If you stop by at the right time, you may find a public fish fry under way.
Fayetteville Street leads you to North Carolina Central University. The flamboyant Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston paused here for the 1939-40 academic year, when the college went by the name of the North Carolina School for Negroes. More than merely the name was different back then. Hurston taught drama–in class and out. She was known to wear pants, smoke cigarettes and date college boys, all of which made the college president furious. The self-possessed Hurston flaunted her signature style around the campus by driving a red convertible and wearing her hat at a “reckless angle” to football games. Sadly, there is nothing at the school today–not even in the math department–to tell us which hat angles are reckless!
Today, a new generation of Central students are being inspired by another figure in black history. Chancellor Julius Chambers, the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, holds bookclub meetings at his house so that his students will have a chance to discuss the issues of the day.
But since Chambers seems to have a full house, running the university and entertaining students, visitors are advised to stop by the North Carolina Central University Art Museum, which features the work of sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett and the painter and Durham native Ernie Barnes.
Two other cultural high points in the city are the Hayti Heritage Center and the Durham Arts Council The Hayti Heritage Center is a bridge between the community’s past and its future. One of the center’s buildings is the former sanctuary of St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it still retains the church’s original pipe organ and pews. St. Joseph’s, founded in 1869, was one of the first autonomous black churches in Durham and, with White Rock Baptist Church, was the cornerstone of the community that built the black Wall Street. Today at the center, little girls meet for ballet classes, community groups hold meetings, and members of a jazz ensemble practice. The center also houses the North Carolina Center for the Study of Black History.
The old church’s refurbished stained-glass windows, depicting lilies of the field, mesh right in with the center’s newer building, which houses an art gallery decorated by work from contemporary African-American artists.
If you are lucky during your trip to Durham, your visit to the Durham Arts Council will coincide with a performance by Durham songstress Nneena Freelon, whose crystal-clear voice has taken her from singing lullabies to her children to a European tour, three albums and a national reputation. Whether performing her signature song, “Skylark,” or other jazz tunes, Freelon will readily convince you that she merits her soaring good fortune. Even if you miss her, however, you’ve a good chance to catch another singer–and you always have the opportunity to check out an art exhibit, for the council holds 52 of them annually.
Finally, visitors who want to conjure images of one aspect of the African-American past can tour Stagville Center. Here, on the former Bennehan Estate, a Federaler–a tobacco plantation that by the time of the Civil War stretched over 30,000 acres, you’ll find the story of 900 slaves who labored in bondage. A slave-built barn, artifacts and four original slave dwellings of the Horton Grove slave quarters–which housed perhaps 100 slaves in four-room, two-story cabins–are on view. Among the artifacts found between the walls of one of the slave cabins are two divining rods, which were used by the abducted Africans to gain the protection of their departed ancestors. The center also periodically offers programs on African-American history and material culture of the enslaved.
It was a hard life–but when the slaves from the Stagville community were freed, many of them flocked to Durham. They were the ancestors of those who made Dorham’s Parrish Street the black Wall Street, the ancestors of those who populated North Carolina Central University, the ancestors of those who made the Hayti neighborhood a community that could flourish despite the constraints of Jim Crow.
For further information on a Durham vacation, call (800) 722-BULL.
Bridgette A. Lacy is a feature writer for the Raleigh, N.C., News and Observer.
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