As Durham turns 150, how should the figures of the city’s past be remembered?

The sun sets behind iconic symbols of the downtown Durham skyline.
The sun sets behind iconic symbols of the downtown Durham skyline. ctoth@heraldsun.com

Over the past few weeks, following the report of the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials and the removal of Silent Sam, there has been a robust public debate about what can and should be done with the toppled confederate monument and other physical reminders of the Confederacy.

That debate forces us all to confront decisions that people made a century ago. But we also get to make our own decisions for the future. What monuments, remembrances, and legacy do we want to leave for future generations? One hundred years from now, what will we have created? Who will we have chosen to honor, and in what ways?

Those questions are particularly important for Durham right now. The city turns 150 this year, and as part of the sesquicentennial celebration, Mayor Steve Schewel has convened an Honors Commission to identify particular historical figures in Durham who should be lifted up and celebrated as part of the 150th anniversary events, and to suggest how they could be honored.

As co-chairs of the Commission, we see this as an exciting opportunity to think positively with Durham’s history and focus on who should be celebrated, why, and how. It is crucial that we as a community engage with the legacy of the Civil War. But the War should not be the only lens through which we read our history.

Since the end of the War, countless Durhamites have fought to expand social equity and robust democracy. How should they be honored? This is a city that has long been a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. What of the visionary business leaders who reshaped entire industries? We are home to an astounding heritage of teaching, research, and learning. What about the educators? Those who have excelled in arts and sports? Those who have worked to protect the environment?

Durham has produced remarkable leaders in all of these areas, and they are all worth celebrating. The task of the Honors Commission is to decide who among them should be especially singled out, and how.

This is a challenge, but in a good way. Durham is large and diverse. In choosing among the many figures who have shaped the city’s development, we want to ensure broad representation of the people, neighborhoods, and historical periods that have helped make this place so vibrant.

In addition to identifying honorees, we must figure out how to commemorate them in ways that are engaging, powerful, fun, memorable, and appropriate both to the individuals and to the larger mission of honoring Durham’s history. Statues are not the only options. Songs, dances, murals, place names, poems, and the like provide alternative “monuments” for future generations.

It would be an understatement to say that the debate over the Confederate monuments, here and elsewhere, has generated a lot of ideas and discussion. We hope some of that energy can also be directed toward the broader project of deciding how we want to define our history for future generations.

We are eager to hear public input. You can contact us at DurhamHonors@gmail.com or at our website www.DurhamHonors.org. Nominations should be in by March 7.

Joseph Blocher & Michelle Gonzales-Green; Co-Chairs the Sesquicentennial Honors Commission for the city of Durham. Also signing this commentary were commission members Ernest Dollar, John Schelp, Aya Shabu, Frances Starn, and Andre Vann;.