Throughout February, in honor of Black History Month, Exploring Durham is featuring articles about some of Durham’s interesting African-American features.
Durham’s rich heritage is full of notable African American historical achievements. More than 100 years ago African-American luminaries Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois heralded Durham as a role model for the black middle class. Durham was an important place where racial equality took shape during the civil rights movement, and it continues to be one today, shaped by the struggles of the past.
Parrish Street in downtown Durham is known worldwide as Black Wall Street because so many African-American-owned businesses were located there. In 1898, North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company started on Parrish Street. Today it is the largest and oldest African-American life insurance company in the world. Mechanics and Farmers Bank was founded on this street in 1907.
Martin Luther King, originally scheduled to be in Durham, not Memphis, on the day he died, made his famous speech that spawned the rallying cry “Fill Up The Jails” at the first White Rock Baptist Church on Fayetteville Street. The church was demolished in 1967 to make way for “urban renewal” but the current church building dedicated in 1977 remains a place of worship today.
For years, the congregation was led by Augustus Shepard, whose son, James E. Shepard, founded what is today known as North Carolina Central University. A liberal arts college for African Americans, it was the first in the nation to be state supported, and a portion of the Durham Woolworth’s counter – site of the state’s first sit-in protest – is preserved in one of the campus libraries.
Pauli Murray, the first African-American female priest to be ordained by the Episcopal Church, was raised in Durham and worked in the church championing civil rights and racial equality and campaigning to end gender and sexual discrimination. Murray was sainted in 2012 for her advocacy as a feminist, civil rights activist, lawyer and author. Her legacy is being actively preserved in Durham by the Pauli Murray Project, and visitors can take a walk through her West End neighborhood.
Durham is lucky to have many of the places where these important events and people made history. There are bronze sculptures on Parrish Street commemorating the streets history, and the African American Heritage Guide for Durham is available at the Visitors Information Center at 101. E. Morgan St. on the Downtown Loop.
Learn More: Visit Durham’s History Hub for more information about Durham history.
The Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB) is Durham’s official marketing agency. For more information about things to see and do in Durham, visit www.Durham-NC.com and www.DurhamEventCalendar.com, or stop by the Visitors Information Center at 101. E. Morgan St. in Downtown Durham and pick up the Official Durham Visitor & Relocation Guide.