Andre’ D Vann calls R. Kelly Bryant Jr. Durham’s griot, a West African word for someone who tells the story of the people in their community or tribe.
“There was not a matter of history that he wasn’t engaged in,” said Vann, N.C. Central University’s archivist.
Bryant, who helped tell the stories of thousands of prominent and lesser-known African American men and women, died Sunday at Duke Hospital after an extended illness. He was 98.
Visitation will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday and a funeral service will be held 1 p.m. Saturday, both at White Rock Baptist Church, 3400 Fayetteville St.
Bryant made copious contributions to the community. He helped get a marker at the North Roxboro Street site of the Royal Ice Cream sit-in, a 1957 protest against segregation.
Bryant along with Jessie Eustace and others helped saved the Geer Cemetery, one of Durham’s oldest African-American burying grounds. The pedestrian bridge over the Durham Freeway honors his long effort to reconnect black neighborhoods split by the highway. As a Boy Scout leader, he pressed for local groups to integrate.
But beyond the high-profile moments that he was involved in and helped highlight, he also collected the stories of thousands of African American residents told through birth announcements, funeral programs and obituaries.
“His house could have been a library or archive because he was so careful to make sure that anything relating to the African-American experience was covered,” Vann said.
Bryant donated more than 2,500 funeral programs and obituaries, papers of professional organizations, scouting and historic preservation work to the N.C. Collection at the Durham County Library.
Born in 1917, Bryant was raised and went to high school in Rocky Mount, but he visited relatives in Durham often.
He was baptized in 1925 at White Rock Baptist Church, which his great-grandmother founded in the 1860s. Bryant moved to Durham in 1941 after graduating from Hampton University, where he majored in accounting. He spent three years keeping books at Mutual Savings and Loan, then moved over to N.C. Mutual Life Insurance, where he remained until retiring in 1981.
While NCCU and Duke University kept archives, Bryant saw a special need to preserve the African-American community’s story, Vann said. His perspective was shaped by his ancestors (his brickmason grandfather Robert Poole helped build Watts Hospital, the old Stokes Hall auditorium and iconic warehouses) and his job – at the insurance company, Bryant saw lives and contributions that were overlooked on a daily basis.
So, “he became that storyteller,” Vann said, and carefully collected documents that are now used to inspire and inform younger generations.
Former Hillside High School principal John Lucas grew up with Bryant in Rocky Mount and remained friends with him as they both moved to Durham.
Lucas, 96, said Bryant was also influenced by third-grade history teacher Anna Brown, one of the founders of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
She was a “great motivation for him and many of us to be a sermon rather than to hear one,” Lucas said.
Lucas described Bryant as straight-forward, bridge-builder who showed people that “life is real, life is earnest and hard work and sacrifice pays off.”
Bryant’s sister, Maggie, said her younger brother was a humble, active man who made time for his family, despite all his other activities.
“He was just so helpful,” said Maggie Bryant, 100, of Durham, who would turn to her brother for help with everything from writing letters to doing her income taxes. “He was just my backbone.”
Bryant’s community activities included the Durham Business and Professional Chain, the Durham Urban Trails and Greenway Commission, Goodwill Industries of Durham, Durham Outboard Boating Club and the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grant Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of North Carolina.
One of the last times Vann saw Bryant, the 98-year-old wanted to work on his computer.
So during the visit to Camellia Gardens Assisted Living Facility in mid-October, Vann helped set Bryant up at a desk so he could go through his personal files and check his e-mails.
“I think he led a great example for others to follow,” Vann said. “You can’t let age define you because he lived beyond his age in terms of really being inquisitive and wanting to know about tomorrow.”