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Contemporary African Americans

From the arts and education to politics and business, African Americans continue to lead Durham in innovative directions. Continuing the legacy of the historical figures covered in our African-American Heritage Guide, these persons perform amazing work in their fields. There is far more than we could ever hope to cover in depth, but here is a quick glance at just a few of Durham's prominent, contemporary African Americans:


  • As principal of Hillside High School, John Lucas Sr. shaped many young minds and helped educate a generation of Durham's students until his retirement in 1986. His work had such an impact that he was honored in the naming of Lucas Middle School in 2012.
  • A Durham native and former dentist, Dr. Thomas Bass Sr. served on the Durham City Board of Education for two decades and acted as chair for six years. He was honored by the Durham Committee and the Durham branch of the NAACP.
  • Phail Wynn Jr. is the vice president of Duke University's Office of Durham & Regional Affairs. He was also the first African-American community college president in the North Carolina System, serving in that role at Durham Technical Community College, where he was named president emeritus upon his retirement.


  • Holding the office of Mayor since 2001, Mayor Bill Bell may be the most visible example of the political contributions made by Durham's African Americans in recent history. He's presided over the city during years of prosperity and launched an antipoverty initiative in 2014 to ensure that it continues. He also served as the first African American to chair the Durham County Board of Commissioners, a position he held from 1982-1994.
  • MaryAnn Black made history as the first African-American female to chair the Durham County Commission. She served in that role for six years and was a commissioner for 12. She is also a social worker and now heads the Duke University Health System's Office of Community Relations.
  • Cassandra Quinn Butts was raised in Durham before going on to obtain a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She then joined President Obama's staff as the deputy White House counsel and was later nominated to become the ambassador to the Bahamas.
  • Jeanne Hopkins Lucas was the first African-American woman to serve in the North Carolina Senate. She was re-elected six times and also served as Majority Whip. 


  • Paul Jeffrey is an accomplished jazz saxophonist and composer who performed and recorded with greats like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. He is a professor emeritus at Duke.
  • Jeffrey's colleague, 9th Wonder, is another musician with Durham ties. 9th is a Grammy-winning hip-hop producer and member of the beloved 2000s Durham group Little Brother who has gone on to teach about hip hop and culture at Duke and Harvard before opening the Hip-Hop Institute at NC Central University, the school he once attended, in Fall 2014.
  • Nnenna Freelon is a six-time Grammy-nominated jazz singer, composer, producer, and arranger who released her first album over 20 years ago. She is also an advocate for arts education and the mother of Pierce Freelon, a Durham-based hip-hop artist.


  • Founder of Durham-based The Freelon Group, which joined Perkins + Will in March 2014, Phil Freelon is a nationally acclaimed architect who has designed buildings around the country, including codesigning the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. He has won numerous awards for his work and has taught at several colleges, including Harvard and MIT.


  • Nancy Pinckney is a professor at NCCU who teaches dance, as she has for decades, and who previously led the dance department. She also founded the Black College Dance Exchange and won a Hayti Legacy Award.
  • Chuck Davis has led the Durham-based African American Dance Ensemble for more than 30 years. The Dance Heritage Coalition named Davis one of America's 100 "irreplaceable dance treasures" and he has been awarded an Artist of the Year Award by Dance USA.


  • Durham has a long history of African-American enterprise that continues today with individuals like Kim Saunders, former president of Durham-based M&F Bank and current president of the bank's holding company. Saunders led the bank through the recession profitably and oversaw a record for profitability in 2013.
  • Another example is Andrea Harris, the president of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development. Harris has been awarded the Abe Venable Award for Lifetime Achievement in promoting minority business.


  • Nathaniel Mackey is another of Durham's acclaimed artists. The poet won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2006 for his collection Splay Anthem and was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets in 2001. He is also a faculty member at Duke and was awarded with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2014.

This list is only a small selection of the notable African Americans in Durham that will continue to grow over time. If you'd like to submit someone for consideration, please email us at webmaster@durham-cvb.com.

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