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Lasting Legacy: Black History In Durham

Estimated Read Time:
4 minutes

The history of African Americans in Durham is as integral to our story as the mortar and brick that built the Bull City.

Posted By Discover Durham Staff

Grit, fortitude, and the unapologetic pursuit of justice are lasting legacies of a community that influenced the progress of Americans toward equality from coast to coast.

We know Monday, January 20 is a federal holiday to honor the non-violent resistance and social mobilization efforts of an incredible figure: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But how much do you know about his connection to Durham?

Here, we're taking a look back at King's history in Durham; his legacy persists deep within our community.

How his story made Durham history

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was supposed to have been in Durham. We can only speculate about how fate could have determined a different historical outcome.

King visited Durham five times. He first spoke at Hillside High School in 1956 stating, “If democracy is to live, segregation must die.” But his most famous speech in Durham came on February 16, 1960, at the original White Rock Baptist Church. It was heard by an estimated 1,200 people at the standing-room-only event.

This is where King advocated nonviolent confrontation and other forms of direct action for the very first time, stating, "Let us not fear going to jail. If the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights, we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South."

King also spoke at the former Jack Tar Hotel in 1964 after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke that same day at Duke University and returned a week later to speak before 5,000 people at North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University).

This month and throughout February, we stand in the shadow of his dream blooming from the seeds planted here not long ago. We invite all to take part in these events dedicated to his memory and the communities King hoped, marched, and advocated for.

Special Events

NCCU Black History Month Celebration

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) will commemorate Black History Month with a series of events that are free and open to the public. The university will present film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, and musical and theatrical performances throughout February, including appearances by nationally noted activists, authors, scholars, and educators.

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NC MLK Black History Month Parade & Block Party

Free for the entire family, the first day of Black History Month will commence with “Acknowledge The Past, Improve The Future," the theme of the 18th Annual NC MLK Black History Month Parade & Block Party. Expect marching bands, step teams, dance groups, school and church groups, cars, trucks, businesses, civic organizations and more! The theme is inspired by a speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered entitled “A Look to the Future” on September 2, 1957. Professor, Emmy-Award winning producer and BlackSpace founder Pierce Freelon, and Joshua Gunn, Durham Chamber of Commerce Vice President, will serve as Grand Marshals.

The Case for Reparations: A Conversation with Professor Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen

Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen are co-authors of the forthcoming book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (UNC Press,2020). They will be discussing their book and making the case for reparations at the Carolina Theatre.


“A Creative Protest: MLK Comes to Durham” at The Museum of Durham History

This exhibit runs through April, and chronicles the connection Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to Durham. “A Creative Protest: MLK Comes to Durham” shows how
Dr. King made several visits to Durham between 1956 and 1964, and gave six speeches, including his “Creative Protest” address at White Rock Baptist Church in 1960. The exhibit will feature stories from local residents about Durham during the Civil Rights Era, their relationships with Dr. King, and reactions to his assassination.

Amending American Art: Making Space for Black History

The From Slavery to Freedom Lab presents a two-day conference on January 16-17 to explore iconic images and popular constructions of blackness in culture. View the curated content for free at the Nasher Museum of Art after the opening reception.


The Hayti Heritage Film Festival

This signature event commemorates over 25 years of celebrating Durham's African-American heritage and its historic Hayti community, which was a thriving enclave in the early 20th century. This annual film festival furthers that goal by showcasing diverse works by and about people of African descent. It includes both short and feature-length films from an international cast of directors, as well as classic feature films. The 2019 festival takes place February 13–15 at the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation/Hayti Heritage Center at 804 Old Fayetteville Road in Durham, NC.


Stagville Under the Stars

To celebrate Black History Month, Historic Stagville and Morehead Planetarium will present a free stellar program that focuses on the astronomy and night sky myths and legends told in African cultures, as well as the related stories told by scientists today. The program will begin with storytelling and be followed by guests looking through telescopes for a tour of the constellations our ancestors gazed upon. In case of inclement weather, the program will take place entirely in the Historic Stagville visitor center. Wear sturdy shoes and dress for the weather!

Performing Arts

Carolina Theatre and Hayti Present: Sweet Chariot

Sweet Chariot shares the narratives of previously enslaved African Americans by combining dazzling a capella spirituals with oral histories. Head to the Hayti Heritage Center for this free event and post show discussion, featuring a conversation with NC State University Assistant Professor of History, Ebony Jones, and Mary D. William, a folkorist and singer.


Book Harvest's Dream Big MLK day

On MLK Day each year, local nonprofit Book Harvest hosts Dream Big, a community-wide celebration of diversity, literacy, and books for all children held at Durham Central Park. You can continue to donate new or gently used children’s books, and volunteer to help sort and box donations well beyond the day as well. Visit www.bookharvestnc.org to learn more!

This is just a small sampling of events happening in Durham. For more amazing events see our entire events calendar.

About the Author

Discover Durham Staff