Benches with some history behind them

Jun. 15, 2013 @ 11:04 AM

When you take a walk around the five acres in downtown Durham that is Durham Central Park, you will notice a number of benches made by various local artists.  Each bench has a story behind it, most times in memory of someone special. On the walkway on the hill above Roney Street sits a wonderful set of two benches created by local artist, Joe Galas.  Here’s the story behind these benches.

In 2010, Joe Galas installed the set of benches in memory of two very special sisters, Margret Yvonne Whisenton and Lydia Lavinia Parker, as well as their ancestors. The two benches were commissioned by Margret’s sons, Carl and Kenneth Whisenton and Carl’s wife, Vera.  This area of the park was previously owned by  Margret Whisenton and Lydia Parker, until it was sold to the city of Durham in 1998.  

These sisters were longtime devoted public servants: Margret, a librarian for Durham Public Library, and Lydia, a teacher in the Durham Public School System.   They both loved Durham and were avid community volunteers:  Margret edited the Negro Braille Magazine for many years after retirement and Lydia volunteered at the Duke Eye Center and was an accomplished musician who played the piano and organ for White Rock Baptist Church in Durham.

This land came into the family when it was purchased by Capt. William Peyton Smith, great-grandfather of Carl and Ken, in 1923.  Capt. Smith was president of Smith Realty, a company that owned many properties, including multiple pieces in what is now downtown Durham. Research reveals that Peyton was also a multifaceted gentleman and businessman.  During the Spanish-American War in 1898, he served as a captain with Company H, Officers of the Third North Carolina U. S. Volunteer Infantry in the war, which was described as “the first Negro Regiment ever organized and entirely officered by Colored men.”

After the war, Peyton Smith returned to Durham and acquired his own local businesses and ventured into various phases of retail selling -- a grocery store, Smith’s Hotel and a beauty salon.  He also started the  Real Estate Mercantile and Manufacturing Co., which operated a merchandise store and tobacco factory that produced “New Durham” and “The 1900s”, two brands of tobacco.   As the captain of the Black Hook and Ladder Co. in Durham, Peyton Smith  was said to have “performed the more daring and dangerous fire maneuvers.” 

He was a master brick mason. Booker T. Washington wrote in his book “Durham: A City of Negro Enterprises” published in 1911, “I found that Peyton Smith, a general contractor, had put up some of the largest buildings in the city.”  Peyton Smith was a man of many talents!

As active members of the Durham downtown community, Carl and Vera Whisenton continue in the tradition of their ancestors. They volunteer at the Carolina Theatre, co-chairing a committee to establish an exhibit to commemorate the integration of the theatre 50 years ago in 1963.  Vera has served on the board of the Durham Central Park Inc. since 2010.  Durham is a better place because of the Whisenton family!

Ann Alexander is executive director of Durham Central Park Inc., a nonprofit organization that manages and maintains the five-acre green space in Durham at 501 Foster Street. For rental or event information, visit www.DurhamCentralPark.org