This creates new communities, sometimes through gentrification of historic neighborhoods and communities. While the solution to completely balance an influx of new people with preserving the past is still a hot topic across North Carolina’s growing cities, in Durham, organizations are working to remember and honor the people and communities of the city’s history.
“You don’t know who you’re communicating with if you are trying to work with your fellow townspeople,” said Harry Watson, professor of southern history at UNC-Chapel Hill, about the importance of understanding the history of a community in order to engage with that community.
Even though schools in Durham are out for the summer, there is still plenty to learn about Durham and the communities that have historically lived here. While there are no shortages of histories to learn this summer, or places to learn at, these three individuals and organizations shaped Durham in unique ways:
Pauli Murray was not born in Durham — she was originally from Baltimore, Maryland. She moved to the city when she was four years old in 1914 to live with her aunt shortly after her mother died. She would go on to become an internationally known writer, activist and scholar. After graduating from Hunter College in New York City, Murray came back to Durham. She applied to graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, but she was denied admission due to being African-American.
While the public school of the state she was raised in didn’t accept her, Murray continued on. Murray would instead enroll in Howard University’s Law School. She graduated at the top of her class, a feat which granted her the Rosenwald fellowship, which typically meant she would go on to study at Harvard University. Yet, Murray was again denied admission, despite having former-President Franklin D. Roosevelt writing the president of Harvard on her behalf. She instead enrolled at The University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law.
Her determination to not let racial and gender discrimination stand in her way of getting an education was matched by her determination to be an advocate of the causes she cared about.
“Pauli Murray is interesting because she is a woman of our day even though she died in 1985,” said Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project. “Her ideas about justice, her ideas about inclusivity, her ideas about us working across difference, are more relevant today than they — even I think — were in her lifetime.”
Murray challenged both the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the mid-twentieth century to be more supportive of female leaders, women of color and working class women.
Murray’s house is the newest national historic landmark in North Carolina and the first to focus on women’s history. Murray was also a key supporter of having sex included as a category in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — she was worried that if the act excluded sex, it would not address the needs of black women and women of color.
Her contributions to social justice and the progress of society are numerous, which is what the Pauli Murray Project at Duke University hopes to highlight. In addition to the Center, the Pauli Murray House is currently being transformed into a center to learn about and continue Murray’s mission. The house is scheduled to open by 2020, according to The Project’s website.
“The way we operate is very different from other museums and historical sites,” Lau said. “Our goal is social justice and we’re trying to think about how history becomes a tool for that.”
By visiting The Pauli Murray Project’s website, one can donate to the restoration of Murray’s childhood home and see a digital exhibit about Murray’s life. The project also holds a series of summer events, including a national night out event on Aug. 1.
“I think that the values of what we’re doing at the Pauli Murray Center resonate especially with a lot of younger people who are also trying to make that kind of difference in the world,” Lau said.
The city of Durham itself owes a lot to James Shepard, and so do the 30,000 alumni of North Carolina Central University. Shepard founded NCCU in 1910 to establish a school to train black preachers and teachers. Andre’ Vann, coordinator for university archives at NCCU, said Shepard was hoping his school could fill what he saw as an African-American “leadership vacuum.”
“I always tell people the biography of the university is the biography of James E. Shepard,” Vann said.
Shepard was a supporter and driver of Black Wall Street businesses in Durham, which gave him the money needed to begin the creation of the college. When Shepard was deciding where to place his new college, he visited a few places, but Durham opened its door to the new college.
Shepard purchased 25 acres of land in Durham from Brodie Duke, the son of tobacco magnate Washington Duke. Brodie Duke returned the money to the University.
Shepard’s school became reality and would go on to become one of the most prominent historically black universities in America. From the start, students at Shepard’s school went on to further the black enterprise happening in Durham.
“Dr. Shepard helped fund just about every black-owned business in the city,” Vann said. “What he did as (students) graduated, they took positions in a lot of these (black owned companies) that he helped formed.”
While many of the students are away, NCCU’s campus still offers summer activities to learn about black history and the University’s impact. A statue of Shepard can be found on campus, as well as an art museum and other University sponsored events.
Durham being a center of enterprise, the businesses that once ran the town still have their legacy. A drive heading south on the Durham Freeway will show the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Founded in 1895 by John Merrick, with the help of Shepard, it is just one of the many companies that would earn Durham the name of “Black Wall Street.” While Durham would offer unique economic and educational opportunities for its black residents in the early twentieth century, it did not exempt the black community from the racial prejudices of the time.
“These firms helped create a vibrant black middle class in Durham. Nonetheless, most blacks in Durham worked in very low-paid jobs for tobacco mills or as domestics, and like in the rest of the South, blacks suffered under the brutal and oppressive Jim Crow system,” said Jerry Gershenhorn, history professor at North Carolina Central University.
Segregation led to protests and rallies in Durham. Vann said the Durham community was always fighting for civil rights and changing the town. A 1957 sit-in in Durham at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor predated the Greensboro sit-in, even though it is often overlooked.
“It took ten years to convince the state that 1957 came before 1960,” Vann said about the struggle to get a state historical marker to commemorate the 1957 sit-in as a prior event to the Greensboro sit-in.
Shepard, Merrick and other black business leaders in Durham were instrumental in much of the early black organizing in Durham.
“Blacks in Durham were proud of the successful black businesses. Many of the black businessmen were active in civic affairs helping to found the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs in 1935,” Gershenhorn said.
Durham is full of histories to learn about. Certainly, there is more to learn about Pauli Murray, James Shepard and the Durham community. This summer is an opportunity to visit and learn more about Durham’s historical sites. The Museum of Durham History is open as an overview of the town’s history.
“For any community it is important to understand the history, because the history shapes the community today,” Gershenhorn said.