Durham County

Celebrating the centennial of ‘Our Kelly Bryant’ – Eddie Davis

R. Kelly Bryant, who helped tell the stories of thousands of prominent and lesser-known African American men and women, died in 2015. He was 98.
R. Kelly Bryant, who helped tell the stories of thousands of prominent and lesser-known African American men and women, died in 2015. He was 98. News and Observer file photo

As fans of college football are aware, the last season’s top championship was won by Clemson University, a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

This year’s Tiger team is being led by a phenomenal quarterback named Kelly Bryant. Young Kelly Bryant is so good that some commentators speculate he even may contend for the Heisman Trophy.

Every time I hear broadcasters mention his name and each time I see his name in the sports pages, I have to work hard to distinguish this young student-athlete named Kelly Bryant from Durham’s venerable and iconic community historian and activist, R. Kelly Bryant.

When “Our Kelly Bryant” passed away in December 2015, he was 98 years old. Even during his athletic heights, Mr. R. Kelly Bryant probably was not as agile or as fast as his Clemson namesake. But one thing is certain: his nimble mind, his wellspring of Durham history, and his dedication to multiracial cooperation rose to the Heisman level.

If Mr. Bryant had lived a little longer, he would have turned 100 years old on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. Although reaching the century mark is noteworthy, Mr. Bryant’s legacy extends far beyond the symbolism of triple digits.

The bright blue lights that arch across the Durham Freeway illuminate the R. Kelly Bryant Bridge, which had its origins as a walkway from one side of Durham to the other following the controversial installation of this highway in the 1960s. Today, with all of the discussion about monuments, memory, and memorials, the blue lights of the Bryant Bridge say “hello” and “farewell” to thousands of residents and visitors each and every day.

The R. Kelly Bryant Trail will connect the bridge to several points south for pedestrians and bikers. Retrospectively, Mr. Bryant helped to connect one side of town to the other. In the future, the light-rail stop near the bridge will help to make connections between one section of the region to the others.

Many who are aware of the famous 1957 sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream parlor learned about that civil rights action because of the historic state marker placed at the corner of Roxboro and Dowd Streets. Mr. Bryant provided the long-term tenacity that brought about its installation.

Mr. Bryant’s career as an accountant at the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company must have played a vital role in his attention to detail. He was a fierce collector of items that would develop into valuable historical documents. His collection of printed funeral obituaries of famous and not-so-famous African-Americans in Durham has been viewed as a pathway to the confirmation of people and places in the North Carolina Collection at the Durham County Library. These programs are being digitized for widespread use by historical researchers and by genealogists worldwide.

His accounting skills prompted several local, regional and statewide organizations to call on him to manage their official minutes and/or their financial records. The Prince Hall Masonic Lodges, the Hampton University Alumni Association, White Rock Baptist Church, the local Boy Scouts of America, the Durham Business and Professional Chain, and the Friends of Geer Cemetery all depended upon the trust and the integrity that Mr. Bryant exhibited.

Mr. Bryant was particularly attracted to the upkeep and the awareness of the Geer Cemetery. This burial ground is the resting place for many enslaved African-American born before the Civil War. Many others buried there lived through emancipation, Reconstruction, and through the disenfranchisement and Jim Crow periods.

Mr. Bryant’s great-grandmother, Mrs. Margaret Faucette, who founded White Rock Baptist Church, is among the souls at Geer.

Hopefully, the centennial of R. Kelly Bryant will cause folks to remember the legacy of this “giant.” Perhaps it would be fitting on today and in the future for new residents of Durham to be introduced to Mr. Bryant by watching a three-minute video about Black Wall Street that was produced by the Museum of Durham History. See it at bit.ly/2xim4i2

Virginia Bridges, who now writes for The Herald-Sun penned a very good remembrance of Mr. Bryant upon his death in 2015. See it at bit.ly/2ygYaR0

Happy 100th birthday, Mr. R. Kelly Bryant. Thank you for being the celebrated “quarterback” for so much of Durham’s important history.

Eddie Davis is a member of the Durham City Council.