Durham 150: What 6 mayors have to say about their time leading the Bull City

Six mayors of Durham — the current mayor and all five living past mayors — came together Friday to kick off the city’s 150th anniversary.

All the former mayors will ride on a float Saturday (Dec. 8) during the Durham Holiday Parade downtown, which begins at 10 a.m. downtown. Current Mayor Steve Schewel and renowned jazz musician Branford Marsalis are the parade marshals.

“We are in an amazing time in Durham’s history,” Schewel said. The sesquicentennial is a chance “to face our history, good and bad.”

Schewel said there may be as many as 150 anniversary events in the coming year.

Wense Grabarek (1963-71)

Wense Grabarek’s first year in office was a turning point.

“When I was elected mayor, the entire country was involved in a state of chaos in the matter of civil rights,” he said. “We should all be extremely proud of Durham, because for all of our diversity and turmoil throughout the country and other cities, Durham desegregated voluntarily.”

A 1957 lawsuit by Evelyn McKissick led to the desegregation of Durham Public Schools. Sit-ins started in Durham with Royal Ice Cream in 1957, led by the Rev. Douglas Moore.

In the June 5, 1963, Durham Morning Herald, Grabarek thanked businesses “who decided “to serve all people regardless of race.”

“Our diverse togetherness is life to the soul of the city of Durham. May it ever be so,” he said Friday.

Wib Gulley (1985-89)

Wib Gulley served in the General Assembly after his years as mayor but remains a presence at Durham City Hall, speaking to the council this week about rezoning for a light-rail operations and maintenance facility.

Gulley also said downtown was in decline when he was mayor, and that the renovation of the old City Hall into the Durham Arts Council’s long-term home, the construction of the Durham Convention Center and work on the Carolina Theatre began to turn things around.

Gulley said he’s proud of beginning an effort of “wise growth” and the passing of two affordable housing bonds.

“If you said to me, ‘How’s it going?’ I’d say those challenges are enduring,” he said.

Sylvia Kerckhoff (1993-97)

Sylvia Kerckhoff became the first and only woman mayor of Durham, by “happenstance, almost,” she said. The League of Women Voters asked her to run.

“So I won, and won again, and then decided to retire,” Kerckhoff said, adding the job became more interesting over time.

“I will say, being there and being part of getting the ballpark was the real kickoff of downtown Durham,” she said. The Bulls began playing at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995.

Nick Tennyson (1997-2001)

In a heavily Democrat city, Nick Tennyson was the most recent Republican mayor, serving two terms. He went on to become secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation under Gov. Pat McCrory.

Tennyson was in office when anticipation of success around American Tobacco’s redevelopment and revitalization took hold, which he said was the biggest change during his tenure.

Political party in local government was not as relevant as today, he said.

“When I served, it was less of a take-no-prisoners world,” he said. “And the overwhelming majority of issues facing local government are more about confidence than credo.”

Former Durham Mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff, Mayor Steve Schewel and former mayors Wense Grabarek and Nick Tennyson talk after a press conference launching the 150th anniversary of the city’s incorporation. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

Tennyson said when he arrived in Durham in 1968 as a Duke University freshman, the city was celebrating its centennial.

“It is a great city. We should all be proud of it, and it’s taken a lot of work by a lot of people to make it so,” Tennyson said.

Bill Bell (2001-17)

Bill Bell retired from public office last year. As mayor, he oversaw the continued revitalization of downtown, including the opening of the Durham Performing Arts Center, which the city owns. His elected career spanned 30 years, starting with the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

“I live in Durham,” said Bell, who moved here 50 years for a job at IBM. “I tell people over and over again I’m in Durham by choice, not by chance. This is a wonderful place to be, and I’m so appreciative of the things that have happened.”

“I just really hope the community really gets involved in any kind of way [in the 150th anniversary],” he said. “Be a part of what’s happening because this is your community as well as anyone else.”

Every living Durham mayor, past and present: (left to right) Nick Tennyson, Sylvia Kerckhoff, Bill Bell, Steve Schewel, Wense Grabarek and Wib Gulley. Schewel is currently mayor. The mayors came together to kick off the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of the city. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

What’s next

A big community-wide celebration will be held Saturday, April 13, the closest weekend to the actual 150th anniversary of the city’s incorporation on April 10, 1869.

There will be four themes during the Durham 150 sesquicentennial observance: history and education; arts and leisure; innovation and entrepreneurship; and social equity and robust democracy. There will also be $100,000 in grant money available for Durhamites who want to plan an event.

Schewel and Bell are leading fundraising for Durham 150, and the City Council has appointed a Sesquicentennial Honors Commission composed of Joseph Blocher, Ernest Dollar, Michelle Gonzales-Green, John Schelp, Aya Shabu, Frances Starn and Andre Vann.

For more information, go to Durham150.org.

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