Shaking hands with history

By Steve Unruhe

Guest columnist


Durham may want to move our future African-American History Month celebrations to May, following within weeks of each other the deaths of three giants: Chuck Davis, Ralph Hunt and Richard Hicks. Individually, each left a powerful legacy; together, they helped lay the foundation for the city we are building.

As a young white guy who had just arrived from California in the early 1980s, I was fortunate to meet each of these men, and naive enough not to realize I was shaking hands with history. These men were my introduction to Durham’s African-American community.

Their stories have been well-chronicled over the past month: Chuck Davis bringing African dance traditions to the national stage; Ralph Hunt bringing leadership to the city council and to state government; Richard Hicks leading Hillside into a new building while protecting its proud traditions.

These men were champions of Durham’s African-American community, and their stories are woven into the core story of modern America: The knocking down of our 400 year old wall of segregation and separation. Each in their way, they demonstrated how the battles of African-Americans to take their full and rightful place in society made all of our lives better.

I first met Chuck Davis when he sat down at a Ninth Street Bakery table in 1983. He was peaceful, he was loving and he was respectful – and he wasn’t leaving until he had successfully recruited one of our bread bakers, Ava McFarlane, for the troupe he was forming: The African American Dance Ensemble. For 35 years, we all responded to the Chuck Davis call of “Ago” with our “Ame.”

My introduction to Ralph Hunt was as a member of Citizens for a Safer East Durham, seeking the city’s support for closing the Armageddon Chemical plant in a neighborhood near the Driver Street church I attended. The neighborhood group of working class whites and blacks knew that Ralph Hunt would take the time to listen, that their voices would be heard in city hall.

Richard Hicks was still new to Hillside High when I met him in the hall on my way to a meeting of what is now called the Durham Association of Educators. I was president of the county teachers, Eddie Davis was president of the city teachers, and we were in the process of bringing together the two groups several years before the school systems merged. Richard Hicks personally walked me through the building, and talked me through some of Hillside’s history. For Richard Hicks, the essence of public education was the celebration and the challenge of diversity and equity.

Dancing side by side, making decisions side by side, sitting in desks side by side. The road to full justice and equity is still long, but these three men carried us far along the way. All of us.

I salute the lives of Chuck Davis, Ralph Hunt and Richard Hicks. This city we call Durham is their legacy.

Steve Unruhe, hookunruhe@gmail.com, is a retired high school math and journalism teacher. He now serves on the board of education for Durham Public Schools. The opinions expressed are strictly his own.