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Mother, granddaughter and daughter left in the dark after COVID-19 hit nursing homes

Before the federal government banned most visitors from nursing homes on March 13, Sally Palmer and her daughter spent many hours by her disabled son’s side at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. 

Once shut out, Palmer struggled to maintain contact with staff, a frightening time since she intended to remove her immunocompromised son if coronavirus reached the facility.

The virus did strike, but Palmer did not know until after her son was rushed to the hospital following seizures that two doctors later told her were likely linked to COVID-19 illness, she said.

Justin ended up on a ventilator at Duke Hospital for 11 days.  

Nursing homes have been the epicenter of Durham County’s lethal COVID-19 cases. Deaths at three facilities account for almost 72% of the 68 COVID-19 fatalities in Durham County to date. Statewide COVID-19 cases linked to nursing homes account for 46.3% of deaths.

That tragic statistic doesn’t convey all the suffering related to the outbreaks.

The 9th Street Journal talked to three women — a mother, a granddaughter, and a daughter — who said they were cut off from loved ones in Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation and Treyburn Rehabilitation Center after COVID-19 first struck these facilities.


Palmer’s 39-year-old son, Justin, is blind, immunocompromised and has cognitive impairments from a traumatic brain injury.

Palmer was ready to pull Justin from Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation if the coronavirus struck there because she was dissatisfied with his care before the pandemic, she said. Due to his medical conditions, he chokes very easily if he is not monitored during meals.

“He started being taken to the hospital every three weeks or so because no one was able to watch him,” said Palmer.

Immediately following the ban on visitors, Palmer and her daughter, Brooke, called the facility every day to check whether there were any signs that coronavirus had reached the home. In the week prior to Justin’s hospitalization, Palmer called four times to ask an administrator and nurses if there were any signs the virus was present. Both times employees told her all was well, she said. 

On April 9, Justin was rushed to Duke Hospital after suffering four seizures in 24 hours, his mother said. Five days later, Durham County Public Health Department reported 54 positive coronavirus cases at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation.

A few days after Justin was admitted, he seemed to be improving despite testing positive for COVID-19. But then he started to struggle to breathe and was put on a ventilator for 11 days, his mother said. Two doctors told Palmer his seizures were a side effect of COVID-19, the coronavirus illness, she said.

“He couldn’t breathe on his own for a while and there were days there where I thought he wasn’t gonna make it but he did. He did, he did, he did,” she said.

Michelle Baldwin, the executive director of Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation, declined to comment about Palmer’s recounting of events when reached by phone. Maximus Healthcare Group, the owners of Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email. 

As of July 10, 17 deaths and 111 coronavirus infections have been reported at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation, which is licensed to 126 beds, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The facility was taken off the list of ongoing outbreaks on June 30.

Justin did not return to Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation. After his hospitalization, he stayed with his sister until they found a new facility home for him, a specialized home for patients with traumatic brain injuries in Johnston County, about 60 miles from Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation. For now, he’s at his sister’s home. 


In mid March, Kayla Driver’s grandmother, Mary, checked into Treyburn Rehabilitation Center for what was supposed to be two weeks of physical and occupational therapy. One day, therapists stopped coming to her room, which she was not allowed to leave, her granddaughter said. Neither woman was told why, Driver told 9th Street.

Source: North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Graphic by Victoria Eavis

After the granddaughter called asking about coronavirus, her grandmother asked a staff member if the virus was in the facility. She was told people who tested positive were in rooms on a different hall, Driver said. 

Her expected two-week stay turned into three and a half weeks. “She was upset because she had wanted to come home and they weren’t helping her get where she needed to be,” said Driver.

Luckily, Driver’s grandmother left on April 10 without contracting the virus, just four days before Durham County reported Treyburn’s first four cases. 

Treyburn Rehabilitation Center reported 105 cases and 22 deaths at its 132 bed facility as of July 10, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Treyburn’s cases continued to rise this week: The number of resident cases increased by four from a July 7 state update. 

Since the start of the outbreak, staff at Treyburn took pains to keep residents informed about the ways coronavirus was changing operations inside the facility, said Susan Kaar, vice president of compliance and quality management at Southern Healthcare Management, which manages Treyburn. 

The facility was split up into three sections. They included an observation unit where new patients and suspected cases stay for two weeks in single rooms, a COVID-19 unit where people with confirmed infections  also stay in single rooms, and the rest of the residents, Kaar said. 

Staff are assigned to one wing only “so you don’t have staff going from one section of a building to another section of a building,” Karr said.


Rodney Lowe did not survive COVID-19 after the coronavirus reached Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Lowe, 64, has been a resident of Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation since August 2017, following a stroke in which he lost mobility in his right side and the ability to speak well.

Lowe was one of the 54 people at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation whose positive coronavirus test results were announced by Durham County on April 14, according to Lowe’s daughter, Wendy Lowe Bouda. But Lowe Bouda did not know, she said, until 10 days later when a staff member, she said, called to say he had a fever and was dehydrated. 

On April 24, Lowe Bouda, a pediatric nurse who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, called and asked a facility employee whether her father had the new coronavirus, she said. The staff member said she knew nothing about that, according to Lowe Bouda. At this point, Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation had reported 111 cases of coronavirus, according to Durham County.

A few hours later, a facility nurse practitioner called Lowe Bouda, she said, and said her father had tested positive for COVID-19. In fact, Lowe Bouda said, her father was among the 54 people from the facility who the county reported had tested positive on April 14.

Two days after Rodney’s family found out he was infected, he died at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. 

“I could have made my dad more comfortable sooner if I had known it was not just a dehydration issue and it was COVID,” she said.

Lowe Bouda later learned from the family of her late father’s roommate at the facility that the roommate died of COVID-19 too, the day before Lowe Boutda was notified that her father tested positive with the virus.

9th Street asked to speak with Baldwin, the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation executive director, about Rodney Lowe specifically when reaching out by phone and email. But Baldwin did not respond. 

Losing contact

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) did not direct nursing homes to report coronavirus cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, residents or families until May 6, 68 days after the first major nursing home outbreak occurred in the was confirmed inside a U.S. nursing home. 

In a memo that went into effect on May 6, the federal agency officially started requiring the facilities to report cases to the  Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and family members, in addition to the state and local health departments these facilities were already required to report to.

The memo noted that CMS did “not expect facilities to make individual telephone calls to each resident’s family or responsible party to inform them that a resident in the facility has laboratory-confirmed COVID-19.” It also stated: “However, we expect facilities to take reasonable efforts to make it easy for residents, their representatives, and families to obtain the information facilities are required to provide.” 

Not all long term health care facilities in Durham County have had coronavirus outbreaks, according to county records. Since the virus struck Durham, five out of 10 Medicare and Medicaid-certified homes here have reported them. Two had only one death between them. 

Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation and Treyburn, were the only homes among the five with outbreaks to receive the lowest possible ranking of  l out of five stars, during recent inspections by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services inspections, in June of 2019 and February 2020.

Treyburn has followed all federal guidance on required disclosures, including complying with the within-a-calendar-day deadline for disclosing to family members after a single virus infection was confirmed or three or more residents or staff developed respiratory symptoms within the same 72 hours, said Kaar, the Southern Healthcare Management vice president.

Changes in normal programming made within facilities to prevent or reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus must be disclosed to patients too, she said.

Being disconnected from family during a COVID-19 outbreak can have serious consequences for vulnerable residents in any long term care facility, said Lynn Friss Feinberg, a senior strategic policy advisor at AARP, the national nonprofit that advocates for older Americans.

She and a colleague published an article in the “Journal of Aging and Social Policy” in April noting how family members give the most practical support to older adults with serious health conditions.

“Family members of people living in nursing cares provide vital support for their loved ones in these nursing homes, ” Feinberg told 9th Street. “They’re really the eyes and ears of the comfort and safety of their loved ones.”

9th Street Journal reporter Victoria Eavis can be reached at

At top: The late Rodney Lowe,  a former Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation resident who died from COVID-19. Photo used with permission from Wendy Lowe Bouda

Coronavirus drops new obstacles on precarious path to sobriety

Responses to the coronavirus outbreak are disrupting all sides of substance abuse treatment in Durham.

Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, Durham’s best known addiction treatment program, has stopped accepting new residents for the first time since it opened in 1994. 

Restrictions imposed by government emergency orders forced the non-profit, recently home to 456 people, to shut down two “social enterprises” that help pay for its long-term residential treatment. TROSA’s moving outfit and thrift store are shuttered, businesses that account for $9.5 million, half of its annual revenue, according to its website. 

Other substance abuse treatment outfits have also temporarily reduced or ended operations, limiting their ability to help people free themselves from drug and alcohol dependence. Others have found ways to adapt.

Recovery Community of Durham, located in the Hayti Heritage Center, serves many people who are homeless. Normally, it does intensive outreach, offering clients access to technology, counselors, rides to counseling appointments, and referrals for mental health, substance abuse, housing, and employment.

But RCOD has been forced to end most operations, other than walk-in hours. “I would estimate foot traffic has decreased by 80% which has been devastating for us,” said Robert Thomas, chairperson of RCOD’s board of directors.

What’s more, clients are telling staff that they can’t reach programming that helped them in the past, including getting to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which have all gone online. 

“I just talked to a client this morning and she started back using. She said she couldn’t get to no NA meetings because she didn’t know how to do Zoom,” said Michelle McKinney, a peer-support specialist and outreach coordinator at RCOD. 

McKinney told the client to go to Durham Recovery Response Center, a short term care center for mental health and substance abuse crises, to seek detox treatment. But RCOD clients who already struggled with transportation, have even less mobility now because RCOD can no longer provide rides. 

The Durham Rescue Mission, a Christian shelter, suspended its Victory Program following Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 23 executive order that banned gatherings of more than 50 people, said chief operating officer Rob Tart. The 12-month recovery program usually enrolls 65 to 70 people.

Durham Rescue shut down its thrift store too, which typically generates for approximately 50% of the annual budget, Tart said. 

As of Monday, Durham Rescue shelters housed 332 men and 88 women and children and continued to accept new residents, according to Tart. The women’s division is housed in the mission’s Good Samaritan Inn, where staff have sectioned off singles for residents who show signs of coronavirus infection. 

Durham Rescue Mission has temporarily suspended its addiction treatment program but continues to offer shelter to hundreds of men, women and children. Staff have sectioned off rooms for residents showing signs of coronavirus infection. No residents have tested positive for the virus as of Thursday, a mission leader said. Photo by Corey Pilson

Residents have been free to come and go, but upon re-entry, staff take their temperatures, according to Tart. Inside, residents still cook meals, clean dishes, and tidied their surroundings. But now they must also wipe down door knobs and sit only two people at a time at eight-foot round tables.

As of Thursday morning, no residents had tested positive, Tart said.

“We are not able to hold our group meetings or classroom meetings. That has been the biggest hit to the clients,” Tart said. Individual counseling persists in person and over video chat, however. Tart said he fears that some residents may be retreating back to their substances due to the lack of programming the Mission can now offer.

Durham County is normally home to 96 weekly English and Spanish-language AA meetings. Most continue over the video conferencing platform, Zoom, due to COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders, according to a local AA district committee member, who identifies herself as A.E.

A.E, who uses initials to remain anonymous like AA suggests, said she has been sober for 38 years. She started “going to” meetings every day when Durham’s AA meetings went online. Her home meeting in Durham usually attracted around 60 people; over Zoom, it draws around 80.

Greg, who uses a first name to maintain his anonymity, said he has been to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Texas, Connecticut, Vermont, Las Vegas, and Australia while complying with stay-home orders, thanks to Zoom capabilities. Still something is lost.

“There’s still something about being in a room, face to face with another person, an alcoholic,” Greg said.

The pandemic is also bringing disparities that have always existed to the fore. Not all people struggling with substance abuse have access to technology, for instance.

“AA really should be open to anyone, but to participate in an online meeting, especially now that the libraries are closed, requires you to have a smartphone or a computer and the ability to navigate them,” said B.R., a member of a district 32 subcommittee.

Some people are seeking mental health resources from the Recovery Response Center for the first time following job losses due to the pandemic, said Joy Brunson Nsubuga, center director. Staff are particularly concerned about clients they’d just starting working with before coronavirus struck. 

“You have to try and keep people on level ground and if that ground was already shaking, it’s shattered for them now,” said Reta Scarlett, another RCOD peer support specialist and outreach coordinator.

Not only are some clients unreachable by phone or email, some can’t be found at all“I don’t know what is going on with some of these clients, especially the homeless clients. I know they used to be under the bridges, but now they’re not there anymore,” said McKinney. 

Working for one of TROSA’s enterprise is a key part of the non-profit’s therapeutic community-based approach to addiction treatment, where people enroll for two years rather than the more common 30-day, 60-day or 90-day schedules.

Those accepted to TROSA, including some who are referred by criminal court judges, gain more privileges and vocational training over time if they remain clean from drugs and alcohol. TROSA residents who worked for the closed operations  are being transferred to “non-public facing jobs,” according to a TROSA announcement.

People experienced with addiction treatment note how important it is to have face-to-face support when working towards sobriety. It’s not just the loss of human contact during meetings that threatens people’s sobriety, they say, it’s the isolation that has become a fact of life under stay-at-home orders as well.

“Isolation is one of the most difficult obstacles to serenity and sobriety,” B.R. wrote in an email, adding this “could easily be considered to exacerbate the alcoholic’s typical propensity for isolation.”

Given uncertainty over how long this period of isolation will last, members of the addiction-treatment community could continue to encounter unique hurdles.

At top: Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers moving trucks, normally visible on roads across Durham, are parked and locked up. TROSA shut down its moving operations to comply with coronavirus emergency orders. Photo by Corey Pilson

Coronavirus outbreak cancels American Dance Festival 2020

The American Dance Festival, one of the world’s most celebrated dance institutions, canceled its 2020 summer season Tuesday due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Founded in 1934 in Vermont, ADF has brought modern dance to the Piedmont of North Carolina since 1977, when it relocated to Duke University. Over that long history, ADF has never canceled a full summer season, not even during World War II, said executive director Jodee Nimerichter. 

“To this degree, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it,” Nimerichter said.

Along with innovative choreographers such as Mark Morris, Rosie Herrera, Liz Lerman, and Shen Wei, ADF brings approximately 300 students to Durham each year from across the United States and the globe.

“Part of the beauty of this season was that multiple companies were going to incorporate local community members and ADF students into the pieces,” Nimerichter said. 

Charles Anderson was one of three choreographers who was scheduled to work with ADF students through its Footprints program. “It’s sobering,” he said of Tuesday’s news.

Anderson, the head of the University of Texas at Austin dance program, attended ADF first as a student in 1992 and has been on faculty for almost four years. He has been trying to secure a position as a choreographer for Footprints for decades, he said. 

Wei, a MacArthur fellow, founded his company at ADF 20 years ago come this summer. He was also scheduled to be a choreographer in Footprints alongside Anderson.

ADF’s financial losses from not staging what would have been its 87th season are unknown, Nimerichter said. But some funders are already trying to help stabilize the organization.

The Harkness Foundation for Dance, for instance, is considering allowing ADF to reroute funds intended for specific programming to be used for general operating support, she said.

The cancelation of ADF’s season, beloved by many in Durham, is just a droplet in a tsunami of local, national, and international cancelations. On March 11, Duke canceled all sponsored events through May 7. That includes the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, another one of Durham’s creative cornerstones.

In an announcement on their website, Full Frame organizers on Tuesday said they are still committed to awarding cash prizes to selected films. The winners will be announced at the end of April.

In the past few weeks, it has become clear that artists are among the many hit hard by the public health threat coronavirus poses and numerous stay-at-home orders. 

“It’s hard to swallow, but it’s the right thing to do,” Nimerichter said of ADF’s news. “The goal is to honor some of these amazing performances in the coming years.” 

At top: Monica Bill Barnes & Company. Photo by David Wilson Barnes

Durham public schools to start student lunch delivery

Starting Monday, yellow school buses will once again stream to all corners of Durham County. This time they won’t be carrying children, they’ll be delivering needed food. 

Durham Public Schools is launching a meal delivery and pick-up program that will provide lunch and a snack to schoolchildren every weekday until at least March 30.

Meals will be made available at “Grab and Go” sites at 17 schools and 50 “mobile sites,” mostly apartment complexes and recreation centers. 

In an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, all North Carolina public schools are closed until at least March 30.

The unplanned closures leave gaps in more than lessons and test-taking. Approximately two-thirds of Durham Public School (DPS) students qualify for free and reduced school lunches, compared to the state average of 57% in 2018 .

Durham school leaders want to continue the meal programming until schools are reopened, but whether that happens depends on if they get funding, said Board of Education member Natalie Beyer. If the federal government does not come through, the public schools will have to look for local funding to continue, she said.

Beyer said school board members hope to have answers on funding by Thursday. 

Durham is not alone in mobilizing food delivery while public schools are closed. Many surrounding counties have similar plans, according to a News & Observer report.

Organizers identified low-income neighborhoods and housing complexes and designed the plan to serve “our most in-need and vulnerable students,” Chip Sudderth, the school system’s chief communications officer explained in an email.

The locations of displaced McDougald Terrace families, who left their public housing apartments for hotels across the city in January, were also taken into account when strategizing the site locations, Beyer said.

This past weekend, the Durham Public School Foundation and other nonprofits delivered meals to families that needed them immediately. DPS needed 34 volunteers and they got over 600, according to a tweet from Durham County Public Schools.

The foundation shared photographs of volunteers wiping down steering wheels and car interiors.

In the midst of this coronavirus outbreak, social distancing will be a mandatory ingredient at meal pick ups. Sudderth said the district is advising people visiting the mobile sites to not gather in groups larger than 10.

“Crowds and lines will not help this situation, and DPS staff will wait to serve until students are organized,” he wrote.

Along with the food, students will receive school work packets. The contents aren’t intended to teach new material and do not require access to the internet or technology. 

This meals program is not completely unprecedented. The school district has summer meal programs, Beyer said. The USDA-funded summer meals program ensures students still receive breakfast, lunch, and snacks even when school is not in session. 

The impromptu program won’t fill all the gaps that opened after schools closed. DPS has universal free breakfast which students will not receive this week, said Beyer. Surrounding counties such as Wake and Johnston counties are including breakfast in their programs, however.

At top: A screenshot of a portion of the sites where Durham Public Schools are making food available for students. The entire list is here.

With concert cancellations, Durham venues livestream local artists

If you had tickets to a concert in the next few months, you’ve likely gotten an email that it’s been postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Durham music fans can still access some live shows even while confined at home. 

Rebecca Newton, President and CEO of the Carolina Theatre of Durham, is starting a “Virtual Listening Room” this month in response to the flood of live music cancellations. 

Co-created with the manager of the Wake Forest Listening Room Mike Allen, the project aims to keep local artists afloat by live streaming their performances. 

The Virtual Listening Room is still in its organizing stages, but the first show is scheduled for Thursday, March 26. For $12, viewers can tune in to see local bands Violet Bell and Al Riggs livestreamed from the Blue Note Grill (the bands are playing separate time slots to avoid contact). Newton and Allen will not be taking a cut of the proceeds.

Newton expects to have four high quality cameras working simultaneously. It will be an “Austin City Limits kind of quality,” she said.  

A screenshot from Country Soul Songbook’s performance at NorthStar Church of the Arts.

Both Newton and Allen emphasized that musicians who do not have another job besides playing live shows could have an especially hard time making ends meet since restaurants and bars in North Carolina have shut down for all but take-out service. Many other cities and states have enacted similar executive orders to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19.

Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez of the band Violet Bell are concerned about how they’ll make a living during this time.

“We are a two-earner household and both of our primary sources of income have been canceled,” said Ross.“We find ourselves as a household completely without income and with a very hungry child.”

Ross said that Violet Bell will accumulate $15,000 in losses from canceled gigs in March and April. Those dollars are a significant chunk of the couple’s income, since spring is a popular time for shows, Ross said. 

But she has faith they’ll make it through. 

“I think artists are creative people who have been used to making ends meet for a long time,” she said. Ruis-Lopez has recently started teaching online lessons for violin, viola, mandolin and guitar. 

Music venues are feeling the strain from the loss of business, as well. 

Kym Register, owner of the bar Pinhook and lead singer of Lomlands, is suffering losses as a musician and a business owner. They estimate that Lomlands lost $4,000 in gig cancellations spanning through May. 

“Our whole business model is to get as many people in a room to enjoy art and to be together,” said Register. They have had to lay off all Pinhook employees so they can apply for unemployment benefits, but Register plans on hiring them back.  

Many artists are trying to raise money via Patreon, a monthly donation platform where fans can support artists and other businesses.  

But moving shows online doesn’t come without technical difficulties. When NorthStar Church of the Arts streamed Country Soul Songbook’s live performance last Sunday, viewers had trouble seeing and hearing.

After about two hours of delays, the band, which combines country, folk and soul, started up again. Lead singer Kamara Thomas’s yodeling came through crisply over laptop speakers. 

The performance was captivating, and Country Soul Songbook made an effort to address the audience often. But viewers were frequently reminded they are in the middle of a pandemic: Singers cleaned the microphones with sanitizing wipes and the bassist wore a single rubber glove.

As of Tuesday, cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 were reported in all 50 U.S. states. The longer social distancing continues, the more activities seem to be moving online: Everything from museum tours to drag shows are going virtual. 

Register is trying to find the silver linings amidst the chaos and confusion, like creating communities for people in a time of crisis.

“‘Community is so much more than physical space’ is my tagline right now,” they said.

At top: Another screenshot from Country Soul Songbook’s performance at NorthStar Church of the Arts.

Foodie Durham must shut down dining rooms

Gov. Roy Cooper is requiring all North Carolina restaurants and bars to confine their businesses to take-out sales starting at 5 p.m. today.

This is a public health move other states are deploying  to squash the growth curve of lethal COVID-19. It is also potentially a huge blow to the economy of Durham, which even outsiders know as the “foodie capital of the South.”

This is a reputation built by local owners of smallish spots. West Main Street in Durham is crowded with such restaurants and bars whose business will be hurt by the COVID-19 shut down.

In the stretch of Main Street between Albemarle and North Gregson, sit a number of Durham staples, including James Joyce, The Federal and Maverick’s. 

Fergus Bradley, a managing partner at the three restaurants, today said each will be open for take out. 

Patrons enjoyed outdoor seating at James Joyce Tuesday, while they could. Gov. Roy Cooper is requiring restaurants statewide to only sell take-out food. Photo by Corey Pilson

Both James Joyce and Maverick’s already do take-out independent of third-party delivery apps. They plan to add curbside pickup too, allowing customers to stay in their cars when picking up meals.

Cooper’s big news isn’t the only blow, Bradley said. “Fifty percent of our business over at Maverick’s is catering, and that was all cancelled,” Bradley said. 

Mavericks’ business was harmed last year too, by the deadly explosion in April.  “We were just beginning to get ourselves up out of that hole,” Bradley said.

In the days after the explosion, Maverick’s had no power, but gave first responders  free meals. The smokehouse is trying to be a resource in the community amidst the current pandemic. 

In the past couple of days, staff has given local children free hot dogs around lunchtime, a Maverick’s staff member said. Wednesday, they will host a free breakfast taco breakfast for children. 

At the same time, the business is trying to adapt. Bradley said he is in conversation with suppliers to possibly turn Maverick’s into a general store to sell essential items like toilet paper, sanitizing supplies, milk, eggs and bread.  

“It’s devastating. We want to make sure that we put our people first; our regular customers and our staff,” said Bradley, looking up at the James Joyce sign. 

St. Patrick’s day is usually a day of large crowds at bars and restaurants, but not this year. 

James Joyce, an Irish pub, had a celebration scheduled with bagpipes and all. Unfortunately, it had to be cancelled.

But the pub was not deserted. Almost every seat at the bar was taken and there were people occupying every table on the patio. 

The Social, another Durham favorite when it comes to event space, is closed until further notice, said Bradley who is also a partner there. 

At top: Expect to see many more “Closed” or “Take-Out Only” signs as Durham restaurants comply with Gov. Roy Cooper’s order to shut down their dining rooms. This one is posted at Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub. Photo by Corey Pilson

Gray Ellis: Family lawyer, transgender man, state Senate District 20 candidate

In his state Senate campaign, Gray Ellis did not land an endorsement from either of Durham’s most influential political action committees.

But the local lawyer hopes that voters will educate themselves on individual candidates, rather than passively voting with a local PAC. 

“The bottom line is I spent my career working with people, not with PACs, not with a political agenda. I’m focused on people, service to people,” said Ellis. 

In Tuesday’s primary, Ellis is running against fellow Democrats Pierce Freelon, a former mayoral candidate and arts organizer, and Natalie Murdock, a Durham Soil and Water Conservation supervisor with work experience in multiple facets of public policy. 

Because it’s extremely unlikely the district will elect a Republican in November, whoever wins will very likely become a state senator. 

Ellis is the first openly transgender man to run for the General Assembly in North Carolina. If elected, he would be the first openly transgender senator in the United States, he says. 

Ellis transitioned seven years ago, at age 40, and experienced no negativity in Durham following this “very public” change in identity, he said. He wants voters to consider all of him.

“I’m a lot of things, I’m a dad and a partner, I’m an attorney, I’m a volunteer, I’m a philanthropist, I just happen to be a trans guy too,” he said.

Gray Ellis speaks at a campaign event. Photo from Gray Ellis for North Carolina State Senate, Facebook

On many issues Ellis aligns with Murdock and Pierce, endorsed by The People’s Alliance and the Committee on the Affairs of Black People, respectively. But one of his major platforms sets him apart: a passion for mental health treatment reform. 

As a family law attorney, Ellis said that he often sees “families falling apart” because one or more of the members has a mental health issue and they do not have adequate access to treatment. 

“Not only am I seeing that in my day-to-day practice, but I’ve dealt with that in my own extended family, having grown up with someone who has significant mental illness,” said Ellis, who grew up in Columbus County and has lived in Durham for over 20 years. “We need to make it a state priority.”

Ellis often says: “I am someone who believes we have a lot more in common than we do different.” In the North Carolina General Assembly, he could work with Republican lawmakers to get legislation passed, he said. 

Despite recent resistance to gun-control legislation in the GOP-controlled state legislature, Ellis said he thinks he could find support on both sides of the aisle for common-sense gun legislation. Mandatory safety training for gun buyers, broader background checks, registering guns, red-flag laws, and banning assault rifles are all necessary, he said.

Ellis was endorsed by the Victory Fund, a national organization dedicated to electing openly LGBTQ people, as well as LEAP Forward and Durham’s Partners Against Crime.

“I know he will be a voice on LGBTQ issues as they arise. It is a lot harder to knowingly vote to discriminate against people when you’re sitting next to them,” said Annise Parker, the president and CEO of the Victory Fund. 

Equality NC, which works to defend the rights of the LGBTQ community in North Carolina, has endorsed all three candidates.

Longtime Durham state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. resigned from the District 20 seat early this year after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed him to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

McKissick has praised Ellis’ law training, though the former senator said he also sees value in his replacement having previous government service, which Ellis so far lacks.

“When 95% of what you’re looking at is laws, being a lawyer can be a major advantage. I think it’s important to have other perspectives, but it’s really important to be able to read a law,” said McKissick, also a lawyer. 

A North Carolina State University graduate, Ellis originally moved to Durham to attend law school at North Carolina Central University. Nearly 18 years ago he founded Ellis Family Law, which has offices in Durham and Chatham County. 

Ellis is also the vice president of the non-profit Meals on Wheels of Durham, an organization that delivers meals to the elderly with limited mobility. Four years ago, Ellis started the Feed the Need gala to address a long waitlist for meals, he said.

Ellis emphasized his work and personal experience at last week’s candidate forum. Photo by Corey Pilson

During a candidate forum at Duke last week, Ellis said he believes that his upbringing in southeastern North Carolina will help him work with senators from more rural areas. 

“I’m from Whiteville, North Carolina. I grew up on a pig farm,” he said, making his point by deepening his southern accent beyond his usual speaking voice. 

Ellis also says his age is an asset. He is 47 and Freelon and Murdock are both 36. “I’ve got life experience and I’ve got the professional experience that actually translates to the job,” said Ellis.

At last week’s candidate forum, Murdock closed by citing numbers to call attention to the lack of young black women in the North Carolina General Assembly.

“Four. There are only four black women in the state senate. Zero. I’m 36 years old, there are zero black women in the house or senate that are under 40,” she said. 

Ellis followed up.

“If you want to talk about underrepresented — zero in human history,” he said, making a circle with two fingers. I will be the first, if elected, trans senator in U.S. history.”

9th Street Journal reporter Jake Sheridan contributed to this report.

At top: Gray Ellis at the North Carolina Senate District 20 Democratic Forum held at Duke University last week. Photo by Corey Pilson.  

Once a plantation, Stagville helps African Americans find traces of enslaved ancestors

Durham native Wilma Liverpool walked into Stagville State Historic Site on a recent Saturday with a single piece of paper in her hand and many questions. 

The folded paper was a photocopy of the court document that freed her enslaved ancestor, Franky Liverpool, in 1803 after her owner died. The document described her as a woman of “yellow complexion,” meaning that her mother or a grandmother was likely raped by a white man, Wilma Liverpool suspects. 

Clues to many injustices were stored in the document. Franky’s last name floats above her first name, inserted with a caret. “An afterthought,” Liverpool said.

The Liverpool family has celebrated Franky’s birthday every year since they discovered this document a couple of years back. But they still wonder about their other enslaved ancestors. 

Wilma Liverpool holds a copy of a document showing Franky Liverpool was freed from slavery in 1803. Photo by Victoria Eavis

That’s why Liverpool went to Family History Day at what was once a large plantation. There staff and exhibitors shared resources available to African Americans trying to find information about enslaved ancestors, whether they were held in captivity at Stagville or not. 

The vast majority of people enslaved in the United States were prohibited from reading, writing, attending school, legally marrying or owning land or a business. Paper trails for those basic aspects of life now serve as the inroads into personal genealogical research for most Americans.

When African Americans attempt to trace their family tree, many often cannot dig deeper than the late 1860s. It was only after the Civil War ended that the U.S. census started recording African American people as more than just numbers. 

According to the U.S. National Archives, the 1870 census was the first to record African Americans by name and it often serves as the first official record of a surname for former slaves. Their age and place of birth was also recorded in that census.

Before the Civil War, more than 900 enslaved people lived at Stagville, making it one of the largest plantations in North Carolina. The Cameron and Bennehan families owned the 30,000 acres of land. The historic site occupies a small portion of that land. 

Because written records of enslaved people are so scant, sometimes the only trace of those who endured forced labor and captivity over generations are anonymous. That is the case with this fingerprint in a brick preserved in a building at Stagville. Photo by Corey Pilson

Records of enslaved people were just tallies on a census listed under a slave owner’s name at some plantations. But the Camerons kept detailed records of purchases and sales of individuals, records that help their descendants trace their ancestors today.

People attending the family history event learned about Stagville’s records and more. Representatives from UNC Greensboro’s The Digital Library on American Slavery briefed visitors about their newest project, People Not Property: Slave Deeds of North Carolina.

Slave deeds are property deeds that slave owners filed with county courts that contain invaluable information about enslaved people. These individuals may only be recorded by number, but more often they are listed by name and age, which provides crucial information for historians and genealogists.

Jennette Thompson was one of the visitors in search of answers about her family tree at Stagville’s Family Day. Photo by Corey Pilson

The UNC project focuses on compiling and digitizing slave deeds. People Not Property: Slave Deeds of North Carolina is projected to make those records accessible to the public within the next year, said Brian Robinson, a curator at UNC Greensboro. 

Stagville’s table displayed large handwritten family trees of the families who were enslaved at the plantation. The diagrams were drawn into a large booklet that took up most of the table. They were cumbersome to flip through, but guests went at the awkward task with intrigue and determination.  

One visitor was Jennette Thompson. Thompson’s great grandmother, Bertha Meeks, was enslaved at Stagville, she said. She suspected that she may also be related to the Justice family, another family enslaved there, which is why she wanted to look at the site’s records. 

Staff members are moved by the quests. “You see the excitement in their faces,” said Khadija McNair, Stagville’s assistant site manager said about the people who dive into the records. “They’re finding out about who they are as a person.” 

A rendering of the Hart family tree displayed at Stagville. Photo by Victoria Eavis

Not every former plantation site delves deep into the atrocities that happened on their land the way like Stagville does, said site manager Vera Cecelski. Today, a number of former plantations maintain the big white house and willow tree trope, advertising themselves as picturesque locales to host events and weddings. 

“Stagville is a plantation site that’s focused on telling stories about slavery, enslaved people, and  the history of white supremacy in an honest and ethical way,” said Cecelski.

Despite outreach events such as Family History Day, both Cecelski and McNair voiced concern that some Durhamites don’t know that Stagville exists. 

“Right now a real goal for our site is to have a deeper engagement with Durham and to have more people in Durham understand that Stagville is here as a resource to engage with,” Cecelski said. 

Nonetheless, the open house was a bustling day. 

“Tell ‘em freedom is on the rise!,” Wilma Liverpool exclaimed as she left. “Look out!”

At top: Stagville State Historic Site displayed a ledger that logged precious information about people once enslaved there. One entry reads: Aggy, daughter of Daniel and Molly, born August 1781. Photo by Corey Pilson


One year into NorthStar’s quest to grow spirituality and community with art

All who entered NorthStar Church of the Arts one night last month passed an artist’s rendering of Colin Kaepernick. A halo-like shape circled the activist quarterback’s head; a rope noose hung around his neck. Nearby was a mixed-media image of a crying woman with a slave ship nestled in her hair. 

At the launch of the newest issue of Southern Cultures, a Center for the Study of the American South quarterly, every seat and slab of wall was full. 

The following night the doors opened to the scent of generously buttered popcorn and squeals of small children running at top speed. The room was not pushing capacity, but a bright energy surged for a Dolly Parton birthday party. NorthStar had four hours blocked off for Dolly trivia and a “9 to 5” screening. 

NorthStar Church of the Arts is a venue housed in a Gothic Revival former church near Durham’s Central Park. Phil and Nnenna Freelon, accomplished in architecture and jazz respectively, founded it to be a “sacred space” where arts and the spiritual connect.

Dolly Parton is a saint on a candle displayed during her birthday celebration at NorthStar Church of the Arts. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

“We are trying to bridge the gap between what religion and art does for people. I feel called as an artist to pick up the slack that religion is dropping the ball on,” said Kamara Thomas, a member of NorthStar’s board.

Nearly one year after its official launch, NorthStar is forging its identity. An arts venue to showcase local minority artists first and foremost, it sometimes invites people in to bop to “Jolene.”

“NorthStar is very much a product of Durham. Durham is a creative queer, black, diverse, multicultural, intergenerational, historic city, and NorthStar is also all those things,” said Pierce Freelon, son of the founders and NorthStar’s artistic director. 

Heather Cook, a good friend of Pierce Freelon’s, had attempted to acquire the NorthStar building. But the Freelons got there first not knowing that Cook, active in arts programming for years, had her eye on it. Now she is NorthStar’s executive director. 

In 2019, more than 5,000 people attended 102 NorthStar events, generating $18,000 in ticket sales, according to numbers shared by NorthStar. Dollars are important because a primary goal is to raise money to pay local artists, Cook said. 

The venue’s website poses questions, including, “What if church was a place where artists were praised and poets were prophets?” In step with that, NorthStar hosts poets like Jaki Shelton Green and Dasan Ahanu, as well as organizations such as SpiritHouse, a longtime black-women led cultural group that supports people contending with racism, poverty and more. 

Heather Cook, NorthStar’s executive director, in her office. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

NorthStar also opens its doors to help people in crisis. After the Durham Housing Authority evacuated hundreds of families from unsafe McDougald Terrace last month, NorthStar became a meeting spot for volunteers trying to help displaced public housing residents and a drop-off point for food and clothing donations. 

NorthStar’s vision is guided by Durham icons like civil rights pioneer Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to become an Episcopalian priest, and  Baba Chuck Davis, the founder of the African American Dance Ensemble. Both pushed the bounds of societal and artistic norms, Pierce Freelon said. 

“NorthStar feels very much at home being outside of the box as a celebration and a manifestation of Durham’s diverse history and future,” said Freelon, a state Senate candidate this year. “We want to uplift different prophets  that may not fit within the construct of the biblical canon,” he said. 

Angela Lee, executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center, praises what’s happening at the corner of North and Geer streets. “Their mission and what it’s doing to help to promote culture in Durham is significant,” said Lee, who runs Durham’s oldest and largest church-turned-hub for black culture. 

In year one, NorthStar had a different celebrant delivering a monthly “Sunday service” in the mornings. This year the black feminist couple Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Sangodare are NorthStar’s celebrants in residence. 

They will lead discussions of work by figures like Murray, who was also a poet, labor organizer, and activist lawyer, and Octavia Butler, the acclaimed science-fiction author. Their next service will be at 11 a.m. on Feb. 16. 

NorthStar announces its mission in many ways, including with posters. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

For all this momentum, NorthStar is still developing. It relies deeply on volunteers since Cook is the only employee  member. In 2020, a major goal is to hire more, Cook said.

Like all houses of worship, NorthStar is a place to confront grief as well as joy. Phil Freelon, known building designs across the United States, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, died in July. After his funeral, the Freelon family held a reception at NorthStar.

After Freelon’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), his family made clear he had hoped others would  help his family support NorthStar.

Instead of sending flowers in sympathy, his family asked mourners to donate regularly to NorthStar “so that the same creative and spiritual energies that nurtured him throughout his life, may positively impact others, especially in his adopted home of Durham.”

At top: Charly Palmer’s mixed media piece “400 Years” was among the art displayed for last month’s launch of the latest issue of the journal Southern Cultures. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

Correction: This story was corrected to state that Heather Cook is NorthStar Church’s of the Arts only employee.





Rebecca Newton to depart from a stronger Carolina Theatre

As Rebecca Newton prepares to end her short tenure leading the Carolina Theatre of Durham, she is satisfied with what she accomplished for the downtown landmark.

“I had three objectives when I joined. Lift the profile, raise a substantial amount of money and get more of the community involved,” Newton said.

The theater’s board of trustees announced last month that Newton will retire as president and CEO of the nonprofit that runs the theater in June 2020. In her two plus years in the position, she led the theater through one of its most successful periods in the 93 years since its conception, according to a board of trustees statement. 

“I’m not the right person to take it to the next level,” Newton said of her departure in an interview at her office. The theater needs a long term person, someone who can be out on stage giving every curtain speech. But at this stage of her career, she is not that person, she explained. 

Ellen Reckhow, a member of the board of trustees at CTD as well as a Durham County Commissioner for over 30 years, is adamant that there is no animosity between Newton and the theater’s trustees. The theater has had a substantial amount of administrative turnover in the last decade and would benefit from stability with a president and CEO who can stay put the position for “at least five years,” Reckhow said. 

Rebecca Newton is well known among many in Durham due to her long local music career. A talented instrumentalist and singer, she led the popular band Rebecca & the Hi-Tones for 30 years, all while maintaining a tech career in online safety. Newton released her first solo album Blue Shirt this summer. 

Carolina Theatre saw consistent and significant growth in many dimensions of programming under her leadership. Newton helped increase the number of children who visit the downtown landmark for student programming from 10,000 kids a year to 15,000. The theater also landed the two largest development grants in history totaling $188,000. Overall attendance also increased.

The theater has not always been the thriving venue it is today. Towards the end of 2015, it stared bankruptcy in the face due to a $1.7 million dollar deficit in part because of poor accounting practices. The theater eventually reached an out of court settlement with an accounting firm, according to a 2017 Durham Herald Sun report

Rebecca Newton explaining an exhibit on segregation that existed until the early 1960s at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis

Newton said she takes pride in her ability to “pull the trigger” on decisions that are necessary for the community. For instance, when Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina was left in ruins by a recent hurricane, CTD put on a benefit concert Music Folk for Ocracoke on October 14th. “It doesn’t matter if we don’t make the money sometimes. It was the right thing to do,” she said. 

Newton’s focus on the community is tied to the fact that she is a Durham native. That, she said, was a huge factor in her success at CTD. Before almost every performer, Newton gives a short curtain speech. “I go out on that stage and people say, ‘Hey, there’s someone I know.’ It’s someone from your larger family taking care of something you love,” she said.

In a WUNC-FM interview earlier this year, Newton spoke about familial difficulties during her childhood. As CEO, she took the initiative to host a free viewing of the movie Resilience and a follow up forum all in order to create an accessible space to learn about adverse childhood experiences. 

Reckhow said that Newton’s legacy will be defined by this increased versatility of the theater’s offerings. Newton turned CTD into a space not only to be entertained, but to learn about new subjects,” Reckhow said. 

Carolina Theatre, a cultural hub long before the downtown Durham’s recent renaissance, has undergone a series of renovations over the years. One project built a wall around the third balcony, making it hard to imagine there were ever seats at that level. That was where people of color were forced to sit before the theater was desegregated in the early 1960s. 

Before she departs, Newton hopes to replace this yellow wall with glass, so people will have a window into the theater’s racialized past. There is already an exhibit on the segregation of the theater on the mezzanine level, but this would be more of an experiential display that forces patrons to confront exactly how people of color were once marginalized within the walls of the theater. 

Upon retiring from CTD, Newton hopes to keep bringing the local community together. Lighting up, Newton describes work with a partner to create “a sort of Durham City Limits that promotes local curated musicians… the ones who are on the cusp of going big time.”

Always the organizer, Newton has already rented performance space at the Carolina Theatre of Durham for some of these artists.

At top: Rebecca Newton inside the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis