Durham News: Opinion

August 26, 2014

Pierce Freelon: Legacy of Perish(ed) Streets

A century ago, the Hayti community was booming.

A century ago, the Hayti community was booming.

Durham’s largest black residential and commercial district, Hayti was nestled between Parrish Street – a hub for business and commerce known as “Black Wall Street” – and North Carolina College for Negroes – the nation’s first state-supported liberal arts college for black students.

Under the shadow of Stagville, a 30,000 acre plantation in North Durham that imprisoned countless enslaved Africans, Hayti erupted like a phoenix out of the Piedmont’s iconic blood-red clay. Systematically denied access to wealth and resources, as well as to neighborhoods such as Hope Valley and Forest Hills, black Durhamites thrived in defiance of white supremacy by creating their own businesses, schools, and communities. Hayti was home to teachers, shoe shiners, lawyers, domestic workers, musicians, bankers, pastors and barbers, and it existed for decades as a nationally recognized pillar of black resiliency and self determination in the Jim Crow South.

By the time I was born in Durham, in 1983, Black Wall Street and the Hayti district were distant memories. In the 1960s, desegregation splintered black communities and resources, while a national push towards Urban Renewal condemned homes and businesses in the name of “revitalization.” As was the case in many cities across the United States, the construction of highways played a key role in the destruction of the neighborhood. In Durham, Highway 147 (the Durham Freeway) split the Hayti district in half, starving businesses, demolishing homes and displacing black bodies in the process.

Durham is full of historical markers and tributes to the old Hayti district. One of the most visible is a large mural on the side of a grocery store at the Heritage Square shopping center. Painted in 1999 by artist Emily Weinstein, the “Black Wall Street Community Mural” depicts a vibrant intergenerational black community. Images of children, church goers, business people, musicians and educators grace the wall, in homage to Hayti’s legacy of struggle and distinction.

After 15 years, the mural is crumbling. Large swatches of hardened paint protrude from the wall like blisters, as color fades from downtown Durham. The adjacent neighborhood, St. Teresa, is in a similar state of decay. Dozens of the former homes of working-class black and brown families are boarded-up, empty shells. Other homes have completely vanished.

Meanwhile, directly across the street from the mural, a new apartment complex called “The Lofts at Southside,” is erupting into existence. In stark contrast to its surrounding community, Southside boasts luxury apartments and town homes, with a pool, fitness center and walk-in closets.

The enormous construction site is surrounded by signs beckoning would-be residents to “BE THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK” – an ironic reference, given that New Kids on the Block is white boy band, which appropriated its style from, and owes its existence to, a black band called New Edition.

The Lofts at Southside is one of many new developments springing up in historic communities of color. I hit the streets with one of my students, Simon “The Don” Lee to see how local residents of St. Teresa felt about the new construction, and other attempts to “revitalize” downtown Durham. While canvassing the neighborhood, we counted 21 condemned or derelict houses within a quarter-mile radius of the construction site.

We met an elderly black man named Russell, who had been a Durham resident since 1957. I asked him about West Piedmont Avenue, where I saw six boarded-up houses in a row.

“It’s been happening a long time” he said. “It started with Urban Renewal. That’s where it first started. Tear them (houses) down, and most of the people can’t buy the houses after they build them back.”

I interviewed two other black men, who asked not to be identified in the article. They explained the processes by which some of their neighbors were evicted, bought out of their homes, or forced to sell because of rent, taxes or legal trouble. They lamented that St. Teresa was being wiped out so that white people could live closer to downtown, and wondered why the city of Durham didn’t simply invest in existing communities, instead of replacing them.

On the edge of the once-thriving Hayti district, a mural memorializing Black Wall Street is deteriorating. It almost looks like the community members in the mural are weeping – shedding tears of chipped paint because, across the street, they see history repeating itself.

This is the first of two columns on Hayti. You can reach Pierce Freelon at pfreelon@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @Durhamite.

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