Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Durham, then and now

Going on 100 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois visited Durham, N.C., and liked what he saw. Besides being known for tobacco, and the site of Gen. Johnson's surrender, and Trinity College, he believed it should be hailed for "its solution to the race problem." In The Upbuilding of Black Durham: The Success of the Negroes and Their Value to a Tolerant and Helpful City (1912), he surveyed the town's thriving and self-sufficient black communities and interests, including a black-owned hosiery mill and the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. He praised white Durham for fostering an enabling environment:

A Southern community is thus seen to have it in its power to choose its Negro inhabitants. If it is afraid of ambition and enterprise on the part of black folk, if it believes that "education spoils a nigger," then it will get the shiftless, happy-go-lucky semi-criminal black man; and the ambitious and enterprising ones will either sink or migrate. On the other hand, many honest Southerners fear to encourage the pushing, enterprising Negro. Durham has not feared. It has distinctly encouraged the best type of black man by active aid and passive tolerance.

At the same time, Du Bois recognized that this "solution" was less than perfect: "To be sure, the future still has its problems, for the significance of the rise of a group of black people to the Durham height and higher, means not a disappearance but, in some respects, an accentuation of the race problem."

A less than perfect future unfolded in Durham, with, among other things, the destruction of the Hayti community at the hands of urban renewal, recently well told by Fitz Brundage. Du Bois witnessed the proudly renovated White Rock Baptist Church ("They are rebuilding their churches on a scale almost luxurious"). Martin Luther King spoke there in 1960. In 1967, it was demolished.

But in 1912, Du Bois kept the faith. Most of all, he believed in Trinity College and its leaders and benefactors, especially the Duke family who would soon claim its name: "The influence of a Southern institution of learning of high ideals; with a president and professors who have dared to speak out for justice toward black men; with a quarterly journal, the learning and catholicism of which is well known -- this has made white Durham willing to see black Durham rise without organizing mobs or secret societies to 'keep the niggers down.'"

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