Durham is just your average city.
“This is how a lot of people my age view Durham,” said DeMarcus Boone.
But for Boone, this opinion he shared with his friends is a thing of the past.
“I found out that years ago there were highly successful businesses owned by African-Americans on Parrish Street, an area called ‘Black Wall Street,’” Boone said.
Within months of this discovery, Boone, who attended Hillside High School, learned from his art teacher about the Durham Civil Rights Mural Project, funded by the City of Durham and the brainchild of Brenda Miller Holmes.
Boone was one of 30 applicants chosen to participate in the project, which kicked off in the winter of 2013 with a series of educational workshops produced by Durham Civil Rights History scholar Benjamin F. Speller Jr. Held at the Hayti Heritage Center and open to all who wished to listen and share. Key people from Durham’s civil rights history spoke on such topics as the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, desegregation efforts in public institutions, civil rights campaigns, and the integration of public schools.
“I am a Durham native, and I want the community to experience the feeling I had learning the vast history that Durham has,” said Boone, who is a rising sophomore at North Carolina A&T State University.
After the lecture series ended, the participants, who range in age from 15-65, began meeting weekly to plan the execution of a large-scale, painted mural facing Morris Street, next to the Durham Arts Council.
Work is now in progress. The mural’s components, created in charcoal are done. There are buildings in the background, some of which represent Black Wall Street. The next stage, adding the paint, is open to the public.
“We want people to feel like they can take ownership of the mural,” Holmes said. “Anyone can come help paint. Just email me at mailto:Brenda@brendamillerholmes.com or check out our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/DCRHMP.”
When the City of Durham put out a request for proposal, Holmes, who has spent many years professionally creating murals, was immersed in civil rights history. She was taking a class taught by Tim Tyson, the writer and historian who specializes in the civil rights movement of the 20th century and hearing about Durham from her father-in-law, Irwin Holmes, who was the first African-American to receive an undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University.
“I thought this would be a fantastic story to tell but it is not my story to tell,” said Holmes. “I am Caucasian, not from Durham, and not a historian. It was important to me to get people who were qualified to tell the story.”
As Holmes and the participants designed the mural, they kept in mind something that Holmes learned fromTyson, that the people who have protested are often the people who are not celebrated. “This mural is about honoring the foot soldiers who risked their lives,” Holmes said.
Floyd McKissick Jr.’s family was in the forefront of the quest for racial equality in Durham and believes the mural very fitting.
“It will remind people of that very rich and significant legacy,” said McKissick, a state senator and lawyer. “If we value racial integration as an attribute, we must stay diligent, be mindful of how far we have come, and know that we can lose ground if we are not careful.”
Visual artist Franco applied to be a part of the project to learn from Holmes how to create an enormous artwork. “Whenever she speaks, I listen,” Franco said. “There have been so many people involved in this. The mural is for the community, and I think that is huge. This mural is bigger than every one of us.”
Award-winning filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman is documenting the project. “It will be a great tool for outreach for people in Durham, but also for those across the South who are interested in applying the model that Brenda is applying to hopefully initiate their own history murals, something lacking across the South, but sorely needed,” he said.
While making his last film, “Occupy the Imagination: Tales of Seduction and Resistance,” Dorfman traveled the world looking for stories similar to the mural one.
“Suddenly, in my hometown there is a project that encapsulates all of the qualities that I believe art and activism should inhabit,” he said. “What I have seen is an art process that is community based, that demands an inclusive process, that is cross-generational and speaks to politics without being ideological, and I think that is key.”
Civil rights attorney Scott Holmes’ daughter Wilgen is participating in the project. “I am really impressed by the way that Brenda has created this space where really different folks can come together and learn about our racial history and have conversations, sometimes difficult, around race, as we are trying to create art together that represents, symbolizes, and tells the story of our racial history,” Holmes said.
Wilgen, who attends the Durham School of the Arts, is profoundly grateful for the artistic processes she is learning and for getting to hear from the foot soldiers’ experiences as they strived for racial equality. “These things have left a giant imprint on my life and will definitely influence me in the future,” she said. “I am glad to be a part of this project and hope the mural will affect the public as much as it has affected me.”