Durham County

Durham recognizes mayor who helped bridge racial divide

All five of Durham’s living mayors came together this week to honor a man who helped bring together a divided Bull City more than 54 years ago.

On Monday night the City Council, including Mayor Bill Bell, celebrated Robert Wensell “Wense” Grabarek’s 98th birthday.

Former mayors Sylvia Kerckhoff, Wib Gulley and Nick Tennyson attended.

City Councilman Eddie Davis arranged the ceremony to honor a white man who worked to open businesses to black residents before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“I want to make sure that people know the kind of leadership that he put forward in a very tough period of time,” Davis said. “As a white man he could have just very much waited for the civil rights bill to pass in 1964.”

Grabarek was elected May 19, 1963, the same day as mass demonstrations in Durham against segregation at restaurants, movie theaters, hotels and other public accommodations, according to a City Council proclamation.

The demonstrations led to the arrest of hundreds of black residents and continued the next day when the protesters were met by counter-protesters.

The day after the election, Grabarek said, the police chief called him and asked him to come down.

As the mayor-elect walked between the black and white protesters, he saw people holding baseball bats, broomsticks and broken bottles.

At a demonstration outside the jail, he said, black leaders were trying to get sandwiches and cigarettes to those who had been arrested at a protest outside the Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard.

Grabarek helped make that happen.

“At that point, dialogue began for the initiation of biracial meetings to discuss a resolution to the concerns of the demonstrators,” the city proclamation states.

A few day later, Grabarek appointed a biracial group called the Durham Interim Committee.

Grabarek attended joint meetings of the NAACP, the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs and other groups at St. Joseph’s AME Church. He asked that demonstrations be suspended while the Durham Interim Committee worked.

After the committee met for 11 days, it announced that all hotel and motel operators and a significant number of food-service operators would serve their customers without regard to race, the proclamation states. Leading businesses in Durham also agreed to employee black citizens.

“Upon request by the White House, a copy of the Durham Interim Committee report was sent by Western Union telegram to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, via his assistant, Mr. Henry Hall Wilson,” the proclamation states.

The committee put its morality on the table and came to the right place, Grabarek said, a place that recognized the inherent “rights and dignity of all citizens.”

Grabarek, who works as a certified public accountant, said he hopes the history lesson transcends time.

“In all our challenges that Durham has in the future, let’s put our conscience to work,” he said. “Think it through. And we don’t need demonstrations and riots and bombings and killings. Let’s do it at the table.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges