The history of African Americans in Durham County, like that of African Americans throughout the United States, is a long one, including many landmark events since 1823, when Durham first became a place. A heritage marked by 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.
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, many of Durham's African Americans left the plantations as free persons, carving out their own communities and opportunities. They formed the Hayti neighborhood, which, through their efforts, 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).
Despite the progress of many African Americans, 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. Several early sit-ins occurred in Durham, spurred by Durhamite Rev. Douglas Moore. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared at one of them endorsing civil disobedience and later delivered his famed "fill up the jails" speech here.
Another famous Durham civil rights advocate, Dr. Pauli Murray (1910-1985), advocated for gender and racial equality. As the first woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and first African American to earn a JSD from Yale Law School, Murray was also 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.
Plantation archives at Historic Stagville reveal the early experiences of African Americans in Durham. More