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Durham’s Story

The history of African Americans in Durham County, like that of African Americans throughout the United States, is a harrowing, resilient one.

Many parts of Durham’s history have been marred by injustice. We don’t, and won’t, hide those facts. Despite formidable challenges, Durham's black community responded to the difficulties they faced with a strength and ingenuity that influenced the African American experience across the country. Durham is proud of, and shaped by the contributions of this extraordinary community.

Like much of the antebellum South, Durham was home to a number of plantations during the 1800s, including Stagville, one of the largest in the region. Approximately 900 slaves lived and worked on its 30,000 acres. The lives of these individuals are well documented: they worked as laborers, skilled craftsmen and artisans and built most of the plantation buildings. Within the slave quarters, rich cultural traditions were cultivated, including crafts, music, dance and social customs often continued from African origins.

Following the end of the Civil War, a contingent of Durham's African Americans were able to attempt to establish a safe haven from the continued injustice of sharecropping and Jim Crow, leaving plantations as free persons, and carving out their own communities and opportunities. They formed the Hayti neighborhood, which developed into a thriving business and residential district that received national acclaim for empowering African Americans, including written praise from W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Around the same time, efforts were made to provide educational opportunities for blacks, including the founding of Dr. James E. Shepard's National Religious Training School and Chautauqua, which later became North Carolina Central University (NCCU). It became the first state-supported liberal arts college for blacks in the nation.

In a display of incredible strength and fortitude, African Americans created an era of ingenuity (including John Merrick’s founding of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the largest and oldest African American-owned life insurance company in the nation in 1889 and the founding of Mechanics & Farmers Bank in 1907). Despite this, many others suffered from poverty and a lack of opportunity due to segregation and Jim Crow laws. In response, African American Durhamites made strides as leaders of the civil rights movement, and built businesses to protect and fortify their communities like many on what was then and is still known as Black Wall Street.

Another famous Durham civil rights advocate, Dr. Pauli Murray (1910-1985), advocated for gender and racial equality. As the first woman — queer woman, at that — to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and first African American to earn a JSD from Yale Law School, Murray was a trailblazer. You can find murals celebrating Murray's life across Durham, in addition to her childhood home, which was named a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior.

In the decades following, African Americans have made their mark on Durham as entrepreneurs, artists, educators, politicians, and engaged citizens. In addition to paving new opportunities and possibilities, they continue the legacy of the people and places that are a permanent part of Durham's heritage.