Gentrification in Durham: ‘We’re not going anywhere,’ says pastor of historic black church

Velma Wilson was born in Durham in 1937 and has spent her life here. She goes to the same church as she did growing up: Mt. Vernon Baptist.

“I grew up in this neighborhood, right down Enterprise Street, and joined the church at age 9,” she said.

She met her husband of 60 years, Jarius Wilson, at the church. They’re still members.

“I like the idea of the growth for Durham, especially downtown,” she said. “I see a lot that’s been done for downtown, which I think is good because that’s where we used to go, for shopping.”

But that’s not all Velma Wilson sees.

“I like what I see and also don’t like what I see,” she said. “I’m looking at all the gentrification going on now. I see it as a way of putting folk out of Durham.”

The interest in Durham, with about 20 new people moving here every day, has driven up housing prices and begun changing neighborhoods. The city had an estimated 267,743 people in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up 16.8 percent from 2010.

The Southside housing development, built with a public-private partnership to revitalize the neighborhood for old residents while attracting new ones, has a sign that says “Spirit of Hayti.”

It sits just south of the Durham Freeway, walking distance from downtown.

But the spirit of Hayti is arguably farther up the street, in Mt. Vernon Baptist.

The role of the church

From the Bible’s New Testament book of Matthew, 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden.”

Mt. Vernon Baptist Church can’t be missed. It sits close to Roxboro Street in the heart of the city’s historic African-American community, which means it also sits near the Durham Freeway, which cut right through the Hayti area. It’s not the only church on the block — Gethsemane Baptist and St. Mark AME Zion are close by, both historically African-American, too.

When Wilson talks about her church’s location, she calls it both Hillside and the bottom of Hayti, as it sits near the old site of Hillside High School and is, indeed, on a hillside farther down from Hayti. And as downtown grows, the new luxury apartments you can see from Mt. Vernon seem closer and closer.

Mt. Vernon’s pastor is the Rev. Jerome Washington, who lived in New Orleans and Detroit before moving to the Bull City a decade ago. He said he loved coming back to the South, to “a city on the move and growing.”

But with growth comes change.

Rev. Jerome Washington, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, looks out over the congregation during service on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Mt. Vernon is located near C.C. Spaulding Elementary School, named for one of Durham’s influential African-American forefathers. Spaulding was president of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company and a business, education and civic leader.

“This is the first time not one child from C.C. Spaulding is at this church,” Washington said. “The neighborhood has shifted and changed so much, there’s no child from the school a half-mile away.”

Even so, church members still volunteer at the school as usual.

Washington said that like many mainline congregations, Mt. Vernon’s doesn’t have as many members between the ages of 18 to 35 as it would like — most are in their 60s.

Ron Rogers, 69, has lived in Durham all his life.

“I love Durham. I like what’s happening. I was able to retire with a pension and can afford to live in Durham,” he said. “People not making a living wage are catching hell. They cannot afford to live in Durham.”

Legacy of the Durham Freeway

Older church members talk about the Durham Freeway, N.C. 147, like it was last year, not 50 years ago.

The impact went beyond just a new road. In many cities, urban renewal plowed roads through African-American neighborhoods, Durham included.

“If you want to find the black neighborhood, or where the black neighborhood was, look for the highway,” Washington said.

Hayti represented pride, people and entrepreneurship in the community, he said.

“I understand the feelings. Sometimes not all the truth was told to them, lives were disrupted, eminent domain was painful,” he continued. “I think people were well-intentioned. In many African-American communities then, there was little room for progress, so if there was any semblance of progress, people bought into it.”

Downtown Durham and nearby housing developments continue to grow outward towards Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, bottom left corner. However, the church has been land banking, keeping property in the hands of those at risk of being displaced, over the years. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Percy Murray, N.C. Central University history professor emeritus, said the freeway destroyed the black community.

“It used to be the railroad tracks, then the Freeway — now we call it gentrification,” he said.

“There’s a left-out part of the population. We used to walk downtown from Fayetteville Street through Hayti, and the black church was the hub,” he said. “The Freeway destroyed the economic base of the black community.”

The revitalization of downtown has not led to a boom in African American-businesses, with less than 4 percent of local businesses minority-owned, downtown or countywide.

Washington, 60, said church members “represent the scars, the pain of what happened to Hayti in many cases.”

“They’re suspicious, and they have a right to be, given history,” Washington said.

Yale University professor the Rev. Eboni Marshall Turman said gentrification is prevalent in urban areas across the nation.

“It is causing some interesting, compelling conversations in black churches,” Marshall Turman said. “One, because churches that have historically been neighborhood churches — esteemed cultural, social centers of the life of a particular community ... are no longer surrounded by black people.”

She saw it happening in her own home church, Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where she was an assistant minister. The church urged members to buy property in Harlem.

“It’s never too late, but it seems — as we stand in the midst of this crisis of black people and people of color being forced out of their communities because white people are deciding to move back in and take over — it’s almost too late to say, ‘We need to buy, that black people need to buy,’” she said.

Marshall Turman was director of Duke Divinity School’s Office of Black Church Studies from 2013 to 2016. She’s now an assistant professor of theology and African American religion at Yale Divinity School. She said beyond buying, stopping gentrification is also about being present when development decisions are being made and ensuring race, gender and class equity among those at the table.

“Revitalization is never about revitalizing black life,” she said. “Whenever people talk about revitalization in black communities, it’s always about economic gain that comes through white dollars, that comes from forced displacement of black people and poor people.”

“This narrative of we are revitalizing this neighborhood for you, the black neighborhood, has been a longstanding narrative, but a lie,” Marshall Turman said.

“The product of our revitalization, this area of making our community great again ... is in many cases anti-black, even as it promotes a desire for the good of all,” she said.

Mt. Vernon Baptist Church sits on S. Roxboro St. not far from the Southside housing development, and many other development projects. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Frances and Willie McIver joined Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in 1991.

“When we came to the church, it was predominantly blacks living around here,” said Willie McIver. “I’ve seen a transition that’s unbelievable. There was no reason to come to downtown Durham. Now there’s so many new places.”

Frances McIver said they lived in Parkwood in southern Durham when they moved to Durham in 1973, and now live by Falls Lake, near Wake and Granville counties.

“Growth has pros and cons,” she said. “I’m concerned about the crime and drug trafficking in the area.”

Southside residents have complained to city leaders recently about crime in their neighborhood.

Why Mt. Vernon won’t sell

Mt. Vernon is named for its first address, at the corner of Mt. Vernon and South Queen streets, where it was formed in 1886 on land bought for $300 from W.T. Blackwell, the tobacco industrialist, according to church history. The church built a new building at its current 1007 S. Roxboro St. location in the 1940s.

The church provided food for civil rights protesters in the 1960s and hosts NAACP meetings today. And as gentrification draws closer around them and property values go up, Mt. Vernon is not leaving.

Javon Wilson, a lifelong member of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, claps along to music during church service on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

“If you stand in front of the church, anywhere you see a vacant lot on Enterprise to Umstead [the church owns it],” Washington said. “Some is converted to parking lots and greenspace. Houses were torn down, and our church bought them.”

He gave reasons why.

“Two things: for parking and land banking,” he said.

Land banking — keeping property in the hands of those at risk of being displaced — is one strategy against gentrification.

Washington’s father told him that God’s not making any more dirt.

“The Black Church owning land — I think it is important we have control and a voice in how certain things look around our church,” he said.

According to Durham County property records, the church’s property is valued at $678,836. The church also owns several lots along Enterprise and Sawyer streets next to the church and near the Whitted School. The total tax value of all Mt. Vernon’s property is more than $750,000.

There is also a large vacant lot between the church and Southside apartments, that is city-owned.

This past fall, the city put out a request for proposals to develop that land on Beamon Street into homes and small rentals. The Lofts at Southside down the hill from Mt. Vernon include 217 rental units, according to the city, with 138 of them rented to people at 60 percent of the area median income or less. In Durham, a single person making $30,840 is at 60 percent AMI. A three-person household at 60 percent AMI has an annual income of $39,600. Like the first Southside development, it will be a public-private partnership with a mix of funding sources.

Mt. Vernon isn’t stopping at land banking. The church is in a $1.5 million capital campaign to upgrade the buildings’ technology and facade. And it has separate nonprofits for community development and a credit union for church members.

So, despite many of its 450 church members driving over from elsewhere in the city, Mt. Vernon won’t move.

“This is home,” Washington said.

“In the African-American church, the church is more than a building,” he explained. “It is a safe place, a sanctuary, a refuge and more. It is not easy for a congregation to leave a building in the African-American Church. It was built often by people who did not own a home, but they own a church. It’s more than opening the doors on Sunday. ... It was the one place you got affirmed, and is still one place we still get affirmed more than anywhere else.”

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