Durham County

Pioneering civil rights activist and Carolina Times publisher Louis E. Austin honored with history grove

Carolina Times publisher Ken Edmonds is pictured in Solite Park Saturday next to the Louis E. Austin History Grove marker honoring his grandfather, Austin, the founder of the newspaper.
Carolina Times publisher Ken Edmonds is pictured in Solite Park Saturday next to the Louis E. Austin History Grove marker honoring his grandfather, Austin, the founder of the newspaper. The Herald-Sun

Pioneering civil rights activist and newspaper publisher Louis E. Austin purchased The Carolina Times in 1927 — transforming the newspaper, which still publishes today, into one of the most powerful voices for black North Carolinians during an era of intense racial segregation.

The Museum of Durham History honored Austin’s legacy of being a voice for the black community in Durham on Saturday with the dedication of the Louis E. Austin History Grove at Solite Park, located at 4704 Fayetteville Road.

Austin, who ran The Carolina Times from 1927 until his death in 1971, gave the paper the motto “The Truth Unbridled” — and he used the paper as a mouthpiece of the civil rights struggle.

The Carolina Times was the most important African-American newspaper in North Carolina, and it was often distributed across the state and to the rest of the South, said Jerry Gershenhorn, a professor of history at North Carolina Central University.

“The black press in general kept the civil rights movement alive. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the white press wouldn’t write about the black community except for, the most part, crime,” said Gershenhorn, who is also the author of a forthcoming book about Austin.

“Louis Austin was the voice of the black freedom struggle, I would say, in the state of North Carolina.”

Besides his role as publisher, Austin was a noted activist and community leader — spearheading influential boycotts as well as suing the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over segregation in 1933.

In addition, he helped start the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs — later renamed the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People — and was the president of the Durham chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

This is the 12th history grove that the Museum of Durham History has helped erect across the Bull City. The museum has placed other historical markers for Durham residents such as Mechanics and Farmers Bank President Richard Fitzgerald, historian John Hope Franklin and politician Becky Heron, among others.

“One of the aspirations of the museum is to recognize individuals, organizations and neighborhoods that have made Durham a better place,” said Steven Channing, a founding board member of the Museum of Durham History.

“Louis Austin has to be in the top tier of those who had a better vision for Durham — a Durham of equal rights for all citizens.”

The event was attended by members of Austin’s family, former Carolina Times employees and a host of local politicians, including Mayor Bill Bell, County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs and N.C. Rep. Mickey Michaux Jr., D-Durham, among others.

Addressing those gathered, Michaux told a story about the time he and Austin invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak to the Durham Business and Professional Chain, the black chamber of commerce, in 1956.

Michaux told Austin he wanted to invite King — who at the point was a rising figure in the civil rights movement — and the newspaper publisher helped arrange a phone call.

“Sure enough, Dr. King called back and said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to come Durham anyway because I’ve heard you’ve made great progress, and I want to see if I can learn something,’” the longtime state representative recalled.

King’s visit to the black chamber in 1956 was the first of five appearances he would make to the Bull City in his lifetime.

“Louis Austin was a man of history, Louis Austin was a man of destiny — and had it not been for him, many of the things that have happened in Durham would not have happened,” Michaux said. “I think he would be proud of the Durham of today because of the progress that we have made over the years.

“You’ve got to remember we came up during the days of deep, deep, deep segregation, and the division between the people of the town was immense. He would be extremely proud, but he would also warn us that we still have a long way to go.”

Kenneth Edmonds, the grandson of Austin and the current publisher of The Carolina Times, said the historical marker was good to have.

“He’s being remembered for the things he did,” Edmonds said. “He continued a fight for justice and equality.

“It was his Christian upbringing that gave him the fortitude to say, ‘If we are all equal in the eyes of God, then we are all equal in the eyes of God right now —and segregation be damned.’”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes