As Cathy Abernathy guides her tour group through downtown, it’s impossible to miss the new Durham, where hipsters cruise on fat-tired bikes past the restaurants, craft breweries, yoga studios and nightclubs.
But with Abernathy’s help, remnants of the old segregated Durham pop into plain sight. The segregated movie theater. The city park that occupies the site of a drug store and soda fountain firebombed after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Why the Parrish Street headquarters of America’s largest black-owned business topped out at 6 stories.
Preservation Durham conducts free downtown tours most weekends, starting at the downtown Farmer’s Market. There is a tobacco tour and an architecture tour, but Abernathy’s heart belongs to the civil rights tour.
Saturday’s tour came on a brilliant sunny morning, with wispy white clouds drifting across a brilliantly blue sky.
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One of the first stops was the Carolina Theatre, whose tall second-floor windows, framed by terra cotta colonnades, let light into the spacious lobby that used to be whites-only. Above them are the small square windows of the cramped formerly coloreds-only lobby, accessed by a separate entrance and opening on the coloreds-only balcony seating.
“Those little square windows look a little bit like jail cells,” said Abernathy, an archivist and librarian by training.
The Carolina Theatre, privately managed but housed in a city-owned building, was desegregated in 1963 after a 14-month boycott.
The intersection of old and new Durhams is perhaps most apparent at the corner of Parrish and Corcoran. The old CCB building has morphed into 21C, a hotel complete with chic bars and a provocative and edgy art museum. The hotel entrance faces Parrish, known as Black Wall Street.
“In the 1850s and ’60s, this was nothing but muddy streets and wooden buildings that burned down every few years,” Abernathy said.
The rise of the tobacco industry brought prosperity and jobs to Durham, including the city’s black residents.
Parrish was home to the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co., which became the country’s biggest black-owned business. The company spun off Mechanics and Farmers Bank, a financial anchor for the black community. The insurance company had its own printing press, a cafeteria for workers who couldn’t patronize whites-only diners, and buildings housing black lawyers, doctors and accountants.
Durham’s black business community was firmly in the camp of Booker T. Washington, who championed entrepreneurship and education as the key to black advancement. Washington argued that confrontation over Jim Crow laws and segregation was premature. That approach was largely rejected by W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP and a more confrontational champion of civil rights.
The Washington approach could be seen in the six-story Mechanics and Farmers Bank building, which housed NC Mutual until the 1960s.
“The founders did not want the attention that would come if their building was taller than the white-owned bank,” Abernathy said, pointing to the seven-story building that housed the First National Bank.
Abernathy was loaded with historical ammunition to inflame the passions of any history nerd. At the outset she handed out a timeline of civil rights milestones in Durham and nationally. At every stop on the tour she pulled out historical photos from a briefcase stuffed with manila folders. She read excerpts of oral histories or interviews. And at the tour’s end she shared the catnip of research librarians – a fully annotated bibliography.
The final stop of the tour was the city-owned parking deck across the railroad tracks from the county jail. The deck was the site of the Durham train station until it was razed in the 1950s.
From the shade of the second level of the deck, Abernathy showed the sweep of Hayti, the self-sufficient black community that was home to black-owned businesses, hotel, theater and other services: from the American Tobacco complex to St. Joseph’s Church on Fayetteville Street, all bulldozed prior to the construction of the Durham Freeway.
Unlike the rest of her tour, Abernathy could only point to what was absent.
“All gone,” she said.