Josh Shaffer

Duke Ellington and W.E.B. DuBois stayed here. Could these houses be demolished?

The Delany House at the corner of East Lane and North State streets could be demolished if restoration plans are not approved. Home to Dr. Lemuel Delany until his death in 1956, it housed many prominent black leaders and musicians when Raleigh hotels were segregated.
The Delany House at the corner of East Lane and North State streets could be demolished if restoration plans are not approved. Home to Dr. Lemuel Delany until his death in 1956, it housed many prominent black leaders and musicians when Raleigh hotels were segregated. Josh Shaffer

From his house on East Lane Street, a piano-playing businessman named David Weaver ran a dance hall, a pool room, a beer garden and a soda shop in Raleigh’s black neighborhoods, making him a grand enough name to book Duke Ellington and Count Basie when their bands swung through town.

When those giants of jazz played Memorial Auditorium, they bunked across the street from Weaver at the home of Dr. Lemuel Delany, a Raleigh physician so skilled at cancer surgery that he routinely got sneaked through the back door of segregated hospitals to operate on white patients.

To pass those empty houses now, you’d never guess at the history they witnessed.

Weaver’s home at the corner of Lane and Tarboro streets got hit by a car fleeing Raleigh police in June, and repair work has left half a house behind, part of its roof missing. Delany’s house at the corner of Lane and State streets shows peeling white paint.

Both houses, recognized by the city as Raleigh historic landmarks, could be demolished.

On Thursday, the case for razing these sites comes before the city’s Certificate of Appropriateness committee, a branch of the Historic Districts Commission that judges how and whether to tinker with historic property. By state law, it cannot reject an application to knock down a property, but only delay it for a year. This kind of delay carries serious weight, because a developer doesn’t often want to put plans on hold for 365 days.

In the case of the Weaver house, the damage from the wreck caused the family’s heirs to start repair work on a half of the house that started to lean. But without the proper historic district approvals, fines began rolling in to the tune of $500 a day. The only way to avoid a huge daily fine was to apply for demolition. Nobody, as far as I can tell, actually wants it torn down. The neighborhood seems to be waiting for a savior to step in.

At the Delany house across the street, developer Stuart Cullinan calls demolition an “ultimate last resort.” Plans call for saving Dr. Delany’s home, placing it on the National Register of Historic Places and adding two houses with compatible architecture. But those plans need approval from both the Board of Adjustment and City Council because the lot size would be too narrow to meet city code. This uncertainty made demolition a back-pocket option in case the plans fall through. “Not in any way the desired outcome,” Cullinan said.

To me, all of this is a bureaucratic tangle that threatens to wipe out another slice of Raleigh’s history in a neighborhood that has preserved so little of it. The Weaver house served as the family’s residence, not the actual dance hall or saloon that earned part of its living. But the Delany house stands directly connected to giants of black history.

The best place to read about that connection is “Having Our Say,” the 1993 bestseller told by Sadie and Bessie Delany when they had both passed 100 years. Younger sisters to Dr. Delany of 212 N. State St., they recalled growing up on the St. Augustine’s College campus in the days when professors walked the streets speaking Latin. They spoke of the clash between their father, Henry Beard Delany, the first black elected Episcopal bishop in the United States, and civil rights icon W.E.B. DuBois.

“Dr. DuBois always stayed with my brother Lemuel and his wife when he visited Raleigh,” reads page 202 of “Having Our Say.” “Papa was not aggressive enough by Dr. DuBois’ standards. He thought my father was a “handkerchief head” kind of Negro – the bowing and stooping kind. ... This was not fair, because my Papa had a lot of dignity.”

In 2008, I met Lemuel Delany Jr., who at 87 showed me a film clip of Cab Calloway taking a dip in the Chavis Park pool, which was Olympic-sized in those segregated times. Calloway, of “Minnie the Moocher” fame, was a guest at his father’s house, unable to stay in Raleigh hotels.

None of these stories are apparent driving down East Lane Street. But it happened there, and having the houses around to tell the story makes Raleigh all the richer.

  Comments