Wake County

‘Everyone was together. Then we lost it’

The South Park neighborhood where Akiel Denkins died in February is a mosaic of tidy bungalows, stately old homes, apartments and ramshackle buildings. The neighborhood, bordered by Wilmington, Lenoir, Hoke and Peterson streets, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is within easy walking distance of historically black Shaw University.

By some accounts, African-Americans settled in the area at the end of the Civil War. The neighborhood evolved at the turn of the previous century, when Edward A. Johnson, a former slave-turned-educator, attorney and author, persuaded a white-owned real estate company to develop a new neighborhood near the Shaw campus.

Early on, South Park was promoted as a fashionable address for affluent and middle-class African-Americans whose fortunes were connected to the district’s educational, governmental and commercial environment. East Hargett Street had been established as the center of Raleigh’s black business development, and many of the people who owned those businesses lived in South Park.

Completed in 1907, the new subdivision became home to a professional class of blacks who owned businesses, pastored churches and served as educational and civic leaders in the community, wrote Linda Simmons-Henry and Linda Harris Edminsten in “Culture Town: Life in Raleigh’s African American Community.”

The neighborhood flourished for decades. In late 1979, South Park was described by The News & Observer as “a solid middle-class residential area next to Shaw University.”

Bruce Lightner, a long-time funeral home owner in the South Park neighborhood and community activist, grew up in the neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s. Lightner, who directs the Martin Luther King Jr. Resource Center, grew up at his grandfather’s home on East Street, about four blocks from where Denkins died.

Lightner recalled a flourishing, self-contained, tight-knit community with mom-and-pop enterprises on virtually every corner, including barber and beauty shops, cab stands, a grocery store, funeral homes, restaurants and nightclubs.

“What I most vividly remember was my granddaddy going out to the backyard on Sundays to get a chicken. He raised chickens in the backyard,” Lightner said. “He would wring the chicken’s neck, or two chickens, and give it to my grandmother to have for Sunday dinner.”

Lightner, whose father Clarence Lightner served as the city’s first African-American mayor in the 1970s, said the character of the neighborhood started to change in the early 1970s, partly as a result of integration when homeowners started to explore opportunities in areas that had been closed to them because of Jim Crow. They left the community and rented their homes as boarding houses.

By late 1979, the city’s housing authority began a series of public hearings about a proposed $3.6 million redevelopment project in the South Park neighborhood, where city leaders deemed two-thirds of the housing substandard. Supporters of redevelopment also called for sewer and water improvements and the paving of dirt roads. In all, nearly 90 buildings were demolished.

The redevelopment plan came on the heels of a proposal in 1977 to extend Western Boulevard eastward by running it through South Park.

Lightner said the plan might have been better described as “urban removal.” Instead of revitalizing the neighborhood and allowing the business owners to return, Lightner said, the city purchased the land and amassed “whole blocks and years later sold it to white developers, who built large apartment buildings in South Park.

“The city started driving out black businesses and buying up land under the guise of urban renewal,” he said. “The city really did a hatchet job on the community.”

In 1986, city officials announced a plan to build 20 duplexes in the community to help ease a housing shortage among low-income families in the neighborhood. The duplexes to this day remain rental properties.

The community north of Martin Luther King Boulevard leading into downtown, features Shaw University, older homes, churches, apartment buildings and a smattering of businesses remains a stable community. But on the south side the boulevard, where Denkins died, the residents’ isolation is evident.

The neighborhood is within easy walking distance of downtown Raleigh, one of the most vibrant commercial districts in the state. But the household income in the neighborhood of just over 3,000 people is $17,441, compared to $62,313 citywide, and more than half the families live below the poverty level. Reported unemployment is nearly 17 percent, but another 73 percent of working age adults in the community are not even counted as part of the work force, according to the U.S. Census.

Diane Powell, director of Justice Served North Carolina, grew up in Southeast Raleigh’s Apollo Heights and Walnut Terrace neighborhoods. She agreed with Lightner. Redevelopment altered the character of the community for the worse.

“That was a point in time when everyone was together,” Powell said. “Then we lost it.”