Watts Hospital-Hillandale parade is a Durham neighborhood tradition

jspector@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2013 

Wearing all manner of red, white and blue, about 800 past and present residents of the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood queued up behind a firetruck Thursday for their 64th Fourth of July parade.

The festive celebration in this leafy residential area just northwest of downtown Durham was clearly a family affair, with parents pushing kids in strollers and children weaving through the crowd on bikes.

This year’s parade, however, was a bittersweet occasion. Neighborhood icon Alice Walker, who organized the neighborhood’s first parade in 1950, died in February at age 94.

Walker’s descendents came to town to carry the color guard of flags leading the parade and to hold a memorial service for her Friday at 2 p.m. in the Croasdaile Village chapel. Daughter Ann Walker, 55, of Glendale, Calif., said the origins for the parade lay in the rambunctiousness of children cooped up in the July heat.

“The kids were hot and bothered and mom said, ‘Let’s go do something. I need a break!’ ” Walker said.

When she was 7 years old, Ann Smith decorated her bike and rode around a block of Club Boulevard with a dozen other kids in the first parade. Now she’s 71 and a minister of visitation at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.

The neighborhood was especially patriotic in 1950, Smith said, because many of the men there – her father included – had recently returned from fighting in World War II.

“It was like, ‘Yay for our country!’ ” she said. “Our parents always had the flag out.”

Times may have changed since Smith and the other kids roamed these streets playing kick the can and waging pine cone battles, but the neighborly atmosphere and good environment for raising kids has stayed constant.

In all those years, event coordinator Tom Miller noted, it has never rained on the parade.

Thursday’s parade route wound around two blocks from Oval Park on Club Boulevard, over one and back again. The Rev. Joe Hensley, minister at nearby St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, threaded through the bustle on a unicycle, while spinning a plate on a stick and sporting a body-length American flag necktie that his father wore in the ’70s. Others walked their dogs and sat watching from front yards.

Joshua Allen, 38, moved to Durham in 1998 to work for IBM. He has lived in the Watts neighborhood since 2004 and likens it to “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“Durham is just awesome, but this neighborhood is particularly friendly,” he said. “It feels like being in Mayberry, but you’re in a city.”

Congressman David Price, a Democrat whose district includes the neighborhood north of Club Boulevard, was on hand to lead the Pledge of Allegiance after the parade. He’s been coming to the event since the late ’90s and called the event the granddaddy of Fourth of July parades in the area.

“This is a very close-knit community with lots of community spirit,” Price said. “It’s full of kids, full of older people and everyone in between.”

The Walkers joined in as the O.K. Chorale performed the national anthem and “America the Beautiful.” Ann Walker’s husband, Michael Berman, said that Alice Walker particularly enjoyed the latter song because she discovered its writer, Katharine Lee Bates, was a distant cousin.

Flags of other states and nations, such as California and Wales, joined the many American flags flying through the grassy and sometimes muddy Oval Park. Participants were encouraged to bring the flags of wherever they came from originally. Ann Walker said this celebrates the plurality of the people who make up America.

“We all came from somewhere (to) here,” Walker said.

For Berman, who did not grow up in a small town but “married into” this tradition, the parade symbolizes the diversity of the South.

“This is very much part of the South, but it doesn’t fit the stereotypes,” Berman said. “It’s very pluralistic and open-minded, but also very patriotic and values-based.”

Four-year-old Ben Lyles rode his bike right behind the firetruck at the head of the parade and looked forward to seeing his first fireworks that night. His 15-month-old brother, Will, cooled off by splashing through a very muddy puddle in the Oval Park field.

“I like watching Will play in this big puddle and I jumped over it,” Ben said.

For Walker, a few things have changed at the parade – a few hundred more people come and instead of rushing to the tent at the end of the parade for Pepsi in small paper cups, people can buy T-shirts bearing the name of the neighborhood and drink Coca-Cola in glass bottles.

Still, all come with the same spirit as her mother had in 1950.

“So much time can go by and some things are still important enough for people to do again, and again,” Walker said.

Spector: 919-836-4918

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