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Caballero suspends Durham mayoral campaign; O’Neal poised to win

Mayoral Candidate Javiera Caballero is suspending her campaign, clearing Elaine O’Neal’s path to become Durham’s first Black woman mayor.

Caballero, a City Council member, announced her decision in a statement released Monday morning. While her name will appear on the Nov. 2 general election ballot, she is no longer campaigning and plans to stay in her City Council seat.

Two weeks ago, many felt the race for mayor was close. Caballero held endorsements from the People’s Alliance PAC, Mayor Steve Schewel, and the Durham Association of Educators. O’Neal, a former judge and the race’s other major candidate, received endorsements from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Indy Week, Friends of Durham, and former Mayor Bill Bell.  

But then last week’s primary election brought surprising results. O’Neal toppled any illusion of equal support, garnering 68% of the vote, leaving Caballero in distant second place with only 25% of the vote. Both O’Neal and Caballero soundly beat the other five candidates on the primary ballot to advance to the November general election. 

Caballero became the first Latina city council member in North Carolina after she was appointed in 2018 to fill Schewel’s council seat. She was then re-elected to a four-year term in 2019. If she had been elected as Durham mayor, she would have been the first Latina to serve in the office in Durham or any municipality in the Southeast outside of Florida.

“I congratulate Judge O’Neal on her strong performance in the primary election. I know that we share many values. She has a long record of service to the community,” Caballero said in her statement. “It is my hope and expectation that she and I will work as partners to move our city forward.”

Schewel said he is almost certain O’Neal will win in November, and said there are multiple reasons why the primary’s margin was so large after the playing field seemed even. For one, O’Neal announced her candidacy back in January and Caballero filed on Aug. 13. He said the almost eight-month difference gave Caballero a late start she evidently could not overcome.

Further, O’Neal has prioritized fighting gun violence and violent crime in her campaign. As a Durham native and former judge, she claims to understand the community and the pain it’s endured as gun violence has risen over the past year. 

“Durham residents are really concerned about community safety and Elaine has really built her campaign around that,” Schewel said. “Elaine is a really strong candidate and has deep roots in the community and is highly respected.”

Schewel said he is proud of Caballero for her decision to suspend her campaign, and that it was the right thing to do. Going forward, he is throwing his support behind O’Neal to aid her transition to office.

“[O’Neal] is going to win in November, and she is going to be a great mayor,” Schewel said. “I’ve already spoken with Elaine this morning and let her know that I will be here to help her in whatever way I can.”

***

Correction: The story has been updated to indicate that Indy Week endorsed O’Neal, not Caballero, and that O’Neal announced her intention in January but did not actually file then, as the original version indicated.

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero poses during her campaign for mayor. Caballero suspended her campaign Monday. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

O’Neal to face Caballero in general election

Story by Rebecca Schneid and Olivia Olsher; Photos by Josie Vonk

City Council Member Javiera Caballero and former judge Elaine O’Neal coasted to an easy victory in Tuesday’s mayoral primary in Durham. The two candidates will compete in the Nov. 2 general election to replace two-term mayor Steve Schewel, who chose not to run again.

With all 56 precincts reporting, O’Neal had 68% to 25% for Caballero.

In the two contested races for City Council seats, the incumbents finished strong. Incumbent DeDreana Freeman had a commanding lead over Marion Johnson in Ward I and Mark-Anthony Middleton surged well ahead of fellow pastor Sylvester Williams in Ward II. But rather than bask in his victory, Middleton said it was important to focus on the critical issue of gun violence. 

“Not a lot of victory laps will be had tonight,” said Middleton. “Children tonight will be jumping into bathtubs because of gun violence. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The top two candidates in each race advance to the general election.

With only two candidates for Ward III, where current City Council member Pierce Freelon is stepping down, A.J. Williams and Leonardo Williams automatically progress to the general election.

City Council election results with all 56 precincts reporting – State Board of Elections

(See official election results here.)

There were more voting booths than voters at the precinct at St. Stephens Episcopal Church. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

Both mayoral candidates spent their day doing last-minute chatting with voters outside polling spots across the city. Caballero sat out front of the St. Stephens Episcopal Church in a foldable lawn chair, next to some signs, catching voters on their way into the polling site. She let them know she was a candidate on the ballot, and asked them to vote for her as they entered.

O’Neal stopped by Morehead Elementary School, where she was surrounded by her close friends and supporters wearing campaign garb, all cheering “Vote for O’Neal” at people who passed by. 

“It takes people, the people who came out of their houses and took a leap for me, and for that I am ever so grateful, and you just cannot take that for granted,” O’Neal said. “Next steps: to rest up and get back out there tomorrow.”

In photo at top, Elaine O’Neal did some last-minute campaigning on Election Day. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Durham primary early in-person voting begins, but slowly

But for the chatter of employees running one of Durham County’s five early voting locations, it was mostly silent outside Durham County Main Library Friday morning. 

Every once in a while, a Durham voter made their way down the steps of the newly renovated building, but it seemed that few people were voting in person. Only ten voters made the trek in an hour.  

Nellie Bellows turned out to vote because her husband told her to get it out of the way, she said. But she hasn’t really been hearing much about the elections from her friends. She cited COVID-19 and the isolation that has followed as a possible reason why people have not heard much about this year’s municipal election.

Early voting for the primary began Thursday and will run until Oct. 2. There are five early voting locations: Durham County Main Library, North Regional Library, South Regional Library, East Regional Library and North Carolina Central University’s Turner Law Building.

Durham residents will be voting for contested races in Wards I and II during the primary. They’ll also cast ballots to elect a new mayor to replace Steve Schewel, who announced earlier this year he will not be running for a third term. Seven candidates are vying for the office. The top two vote-getters in each primary race will move on to the Nov. 2 general election. 

Ashley and Cody Strahm, a married couple from Duke Park, went out on the hot, cloudy morning to cast their votes. The couple is passionate about local elections, they said, and heard about early voting through a neighborhood group email list.

“Everyone knows the national elections are important, but not everyone knows about the local elections, and we love Durham, so we think these elections are important because we want to continue to see it go in a positive direction,” Cody said.

Some citizens don’t feel there’s as much at stake in local elections since many of the candidates identify as Democrats, he added.  

“I think we all are progressive, so lots of people probably think there’s less on the line,” he said. 

When Duke graduate student Hananiel Setiawan visited the library to vote, he lamented how little his classmates knew about local elections. Ever since he moved to Durham for school in 2017, he has participated in every election. 

“People just take it for granted. Of course, there’s this Duke bubble, and some people don’t really think about Durham,” he said.

He said Duke’s Graduate and Professional Student Government, a group he is a part of, hopes to raise awareness about local government this year. They plan to invite the winners of the mayoral primary to come speak at one of their meetings.

Through two days of early voting, 648 early voting ballots had been cast, according to the Durham County Board of Elections unofficial count. That number falls well short of the over 27,000 ballots cast in the first two days of early voting for the high profile 2020 general election. 

During early voting, Durhamites can go to any site and register to vote through same-day registration and update their names and addresses if need be.

If you want to register, you will need to bring valid identification, including a North Carolina Drivers license, a government photo ID, or a document that proves the name and address of the citizen.

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: A sign marks the Durham County Main Library early in-person voting location, where a few voters cast their ballots in the municipal primary Friday morning. 9th Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid.

New to politics but fluent in Durham, judge Elaine O’Neal vies for mayor

For former judge Elaine O’Neal, running for mayor of Durham is not an issue of politics. It’s an issue of the heart. 

“I’m a daughter of this city, and I’m an example of what it can produce,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal has watched the city shift, grow and divide before her very eyes, she says. She saw the best and worst of human nature while serving as a district court judge from 1994 to 2011, and as Durham County Superior Court Judge from 2011 until 2018. 

Through these experiences, most notably her tenure as judge, O’Neal says she has witnessed a disunity in Durham like she has never seen before. That division motivated her to run for office.

“My plan was originally to retire,” she said. “But as I began to look around the political landscape from my perspective on the bench and lived experience here, I saw that a lot of young people were getting cut out of the conversation – like they’re invisible.”

O’Neal also worked as interim dean for two years at her alma mater, N.C. Central University Law School. Though she often says she is decidedly not a politician, she does have experience at the city level as appointed co-chair of Durham’s Racial Equity Task force organized by City Council last year. She and the 17-member team produced a 60-page report urging the city to set up a reparations program to address the racial wealth gap and to confront inequity in the legal system, public health, housing and education.

During an interview with The 9th Street Journal, she pointed right outside to Main Street, noting how within a few blocks, there are disparities between million dollar apartments and Title IX affordable housing complexes. She nodded her head towards the door, where across the street sat half a dozen unhoused people.

“We’re going to let Durhamites in wheelchairs sit on the street? Is that what we’re doing now? Is that who we are?” she asked. “That’s not the Main Street I know. We were more inclusive.”

The Hillside High School graduate is quick to admit that though she is an expert in law, she is not an expert on housing. She has put herself in “housing school,” as she puts it.

“What I’ve been doing is going to experts and learning more. So, do I have an answer on what my plans are about housing? No, because I’m still learning,” she said.

She also admits she’s not incredibly well-acquainted with the political sphere in Durham, something she says she must rectify if she is to win the office of mayor. 

What O’Neal does seem to know, though, is Durham its residents and the issues burdening them, from gun violence, to housing insecurity, to systemic racism, to poverty. 

“All of these issues are interconnected and layered,” O’Neal said. “I see so many young people in this city that want to do better, but there are these roadblocks, and they don’t know what the roadblocks even are or how to navigate them.”

The registered Democrat is staunch that building trust and unity within Durham’s various populations will allow her to achieve her goals.

She hopes to connect people in power with people who feel voiceless. She asks questions like: When was the last time that apartment building developers and houseless people actually sat at the table together and talked? To some, this might sound unreasonable and even completely unattainable. But not to O’Neal.

“We put a man on the moon didn’t we?” she said. “These issues will not be solved overnight. But will we find solutions? Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Mayoral candidate and former judge Elaine O’Neal speaks with a class of Duke student courthouse reporters. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Transportation is another prominent issue on O’Neal’s agenda. The city’s public transit system is less than perfect, and the 2019 demise of the light rail project only compounded shortcomings. If she is able to connect Durhamites with jobs in the newer technology businesses entering town, she says figuring out transit is an essential piece.

“What would it look like to have our own version of Lyft that is specifically designed to go into neighborhoods where we don’t have transportation to get them back and forth from jobs?” O’Neal asked.

She points to her work with gun violence in Durham as a top priority as well, noting her personal closeness to the issue. Her own 22-year-old cousin was killed by gun violence in November 2020, and that was not the first time gun violence personally affected her. She’s certainly not alone: though shootings in Durham reached a historic low in 2019, they rose with 319 people shot in 2020. As of Aug. 14, 158 people had been shot in Durham in 2021.

“I can go to the Southside. I can go to the West End. I can go to Braggtown. I can maneuver in places that most people cannot,” she said. “I know these people. They may not have agreed with my rulings in court, but they know where my heart is.”

She’s hopeful that economic growth in Durham will be a net positive for native Durhamites. Growth may bring jobs to Durhamites in need, she says, and thereby decrease both poverty rates and gun violence. 

Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell says that gun violence is one reason he endorsed O’Neal for mayor. A couple weeks ago, Bell met a man who said Judge O’Neal changed his life by putting him on probation instead of giving him jail time.

“The whole issue of public safety and crime is one of the most important ones in Durham right now, and she is the perfect fit for dealing with that issue,” Bell said. “She knows all sections of Durham.”

Some of Durham’s prominent political action committees are supporting her for similar reasons. Both The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham endorsed O’Neal.  Antonio Jones, the Committee’s chairperson, echoes Bell’s statements, saying that her presence in the community, her qualifications and her familiarity with life here pushed them towards endorsement.

“She was doing restorative justice work before it was a cool thing, before it was a fad. She wants to really get out there and see who has been left out of the growth,” Jones said. 

O’Neal was the first to announce her candidacy for mayor, announcing her candidacy back in January, before current Mayor Steve Schewel decided he would no longer be running for reelection. 

The move seemed like an obvious statement of dissatisfaction with the current political climate in Durham. O’Neal says she wasn’t trying to stir up drama or make an announcement – she just figured if she was going to run, she might as well get a head start.

“When people look at me, I just want them to see what Durham has produced,” she said. “All I can present is who I am, and Durham has to decide what it wants, because the options are very clear.”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate and former judge Elaine O’Neal speaks to a class of Duke student courthouse reporters. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Bars are back in Durham. How did they survive?

People fill the outdoor seating along Durham’s sidewalks downtown, on Ninth Street and everywhere in between. Friends dance with beers in hand. Music blares out, permeating the street. The night seems unrecognizable compared to its hard lockdown a year ago. 

Life is back at Durham bars.

Gov. Roy Cooper eased COVID-19 restrictions in late March, raising indoor bar capacity from 30% to 50% and lifting an 11 p.m. alcohol curfew. Before that, many bars went a full year without significant income and faced harsher limitations than other establishments, like restaurants and breweries. 

To keep taps flowing, some bar owners got creative. They changed menus, set up shop outside and asked regulars for support. But not every bar made it, and the ones that have stayed open aren’t all following COVID-19 restrictions. One Durham nightspot – Shooters II – has recently drawn official complaints about the breaking rules, city officials say.

When the pandemic hit, Kingfisher cocktail bar owners Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker recognized that restaurants could open up much earlier than bars under state health rules. So, they became a restaurant, transforming their parking lot into a burger joint, QueenBurger, in August.

Hunky Dory, a hybrid retail and bar space on Ninth Street, increased outdoor seating to accommodate beer-hungry Durhamites. Manager Taylor Bates said that by creating more standing space and spots outdoors and staying vigilant with cleaning and distancing, the bar has been able to bring back much of its customer base. New drinkers are coming in too.

Many of our regulars have been vaccinated, and our employees as well. And that gives everyone another layer of peace of mind,” Bates said. “It’s been so nice to have people come in and start having this normalcy back in their life.”

Crowdsourcing and fundraising have also saved bars. The Pinhook created a Patreon, where bar owners and employees sell art and host online events, like karaoke. Arcana Bar and Lounge opted for a similar strategy, selling tickets to virtual poetry shows, bi-weekly art shows, and recipe cards. 

“The Patreon contributions, combined with other employment, will hopefully be enough to allow us to reopen when it is right to reopen, without taking on crippling personal debt,” Arcana owners Lindsey Andrews and Erin Karcher wrote on Patreon in January. Andrews and Karcher are beginning a soft reopen for Arcana, according to an April 12 post.

Durhamites drink inside Flying Bull Beer Company, a Ninth Street spot with front and back patios that opened up during the pandemic. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Nicole Thompson has seen a significant increase in people venturing downtown as the states slowly lightens rules.

“It’s obviously been gradual and our nightlife looks a little different right now. People aren’t staying out as late, and they’re still wearing masks. But, people seem to be more comfortable,” Thompson said. “People want to be out again. They missed downtown, they’ve missed the places that they haven’t been able to visit in over a year.”

Running dry

For some bars, though, crowdsourcing and creativity weren’t enough. The Atomic Fern, which used to be located on Parrish Street downtown, fell victim to the pandemic’s financial burden. Despite Twitch streams, Facebook lives, and a GoFundMe started by a group of bar regulars, the business couldn’t pay rent. A landlord evicted The Atomic Fern in February, and the bar won’t be reopening.

Owner Kevin Slater pins the closure on state and city apathy. For bars like his with no outdoor seating and little indoor capacity, the government didn’t provide enough financial relief and legal support, he said

“Even if we were able to open up at 30% capacity indoors, that still ends up being only eight people plus staff. That doesn’t pay the bills,” Slater said. “We didn’t want to reopen. We’re in the middle of the pandemic, so we knew that it felt irresponsible to reopen.”

Slater filed a lawsuit against Durham and North Carolina for damages of $25,000 in January. Though he doesn’t anticipate his lawsuit going anywhere in court, he hopes to make a statement and point out the frustrations of small business owners. He said he feels that he and the bar community were ignored. 

“The government is saying now ‘Look we’re letting you reopen and now you can make money and you can pay your landlord,’ but, really, how sustainable is that? Bottom line: we’re all going to still be in debt,” Slater said. 

Stepping out of line 

Though most bars have been compliant with COVID-19 safety guidelines, Assistant City Attorney Anna Davis said some may have broken the rules. Davis said her office has only received a COVID-19 citizen complaint-driven report for one spot: Shooters, a favorite bar of Duke undergraduates.

Davis received multiple citizen complaints about unmasked crowds at Shooters in November. In response, she sent owner Kim Cates a letter right before Thanksgiving asking her to comply with COVID-19 health restrictions. 

After that, Davis said complaints mostly decreased. On April 5, however, Davis’s office received a report from the Durham Health Department citing violations at Shooters. The Duke Student Government president and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel expressed concerns too, she said. When law enforcement visited Shooters a week later to observe, though, they saw no restrictions violated, Davis said.

“It tends to be a game of Whack-a-Mole with these people,” Davis said. “They step out of line, but then once there are complaints, people get back in compliance.”

Schewel said nightlife crowds — specifically at Shooters — are one of the city’s greatest concerns as new variants of COVID-19 start spreading in Durham.

They’re loosening restrictions, but it’s critical that the city stays vigilant,” Schewel said, citing large crowds of indoor, unmasked young people. 

9th Street reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Mask-wearing bar-goers drink inside Boxcar, a Geer Street joint where visitors can play arcade games. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Downtown building still booms

If you haven’t visited downtown Durham much during the pandemic, here’s an update: the building boom did not stop while you were gone.

On Rigsbee Avenue, white cement trucks, pick ups, orange cones and workers cluster around a half-finished apartment building, its towering shadow covering the whole block. Next to American Tobacco Campus, yellow cranes sit near the early stages of three new buildings of commercial and residential space. Nearly an entire block off Fernway Avenue near West Village is vacant and fenced off, ready for more apartments.

“The qualities that have made Durham attractive to investors in the past remain through the pandemic,” said Bo Dobrzenski, senior development services manager of the Durham City-County Planning Department.

An apartment building construction site on the corner of Rigsbee Avenue and West Corporation Street is humming, despite vast economic disruption from the pandemic. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Most construction projects in the works in Durham fall into two categories: residential and industrial.

Durham residential construction skyrocketed over the past few decades, and it is expected to continue. From 2010 to 2016, more than 10,000 new housing units were added in Durham, according to the City-County Planning Department. And, over the next 25 years, the county’s population will grow to almost 450,000 according to the Durham-Chapel Hill- Carrboro 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, . 

A view of an apartment building under construction at East Pettigrew and Dillard streets. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

While some affordable housing such as Willard Street Apartments by the Durham Station Transportation Center is getting built, many residential projects are luxury apartment complexes, such as the Terraces at Morehead Hill.

Commercial construction is second to residential construction throughout Durham, said Dobrzenski. Although there has been an obvious decrease in the need for office space since people are working from home, Durham is still inviting to growing industries like the biological life sciences, Dobrzenski said. 

“Bio companies that are looking to grow – coming from New York, Boston, California – are still seeing Durham as a spot for great opportunities,” said Andre Pettigrew, director of the Durham Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “The cost of investing and the value that you receive remains very strong here.” 

During a Saturday shift, a worker hauls material from the Rigsbee Avenue site. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

The wider Triangle still has appeal to expanding businesses. Companies that have been developing and distributing coronavirus vaccines are active here, for instance, including ApiJect Systems Corp, which recently announced it will build a large factory for vaccine production in Raleigh. 

In addition, information technology, network technology and cybersecurity technology companies continue to invest and build in this area,  Pettrigrew said.

“We’re a highly educated area with great technology research infrastructure, both private sector, as well as governmental. The business fundamentals here are solid,” Pettigrew said.

There is a risk of small businesses being left out of the downtown Durham development boom. As large companies are still investing downtown, many small businesses are struggling, Pettigrew stressed.

“Our small business, especially those run by women and people of color, have been hit the hardest. What our community has to do is try to recalibrate and get small businesses back in alignment to help them grow,” Pettigrew said.

For instance, Durham has a very vibrant scene of Black-owned businesses, yet people of color are less likely to receive COVID-19 grants and aid, according to the North Carolina Justice Center. As a result, the Durham community has to work to ensure that this investment and growth downtown can bolster small business owners continuing to struggle to stay afloat, Pettigrew said.

Economic development experts such as Pettigrew hope that construction surge will bring opportunities for smaller, local construction businesses, for example.

“We have to ensure that these opportunities are connected to our small business community. And if we aren’t, we won’t realize this city’s full economic potential, ” Pettigrew said.

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: This apartment building in the making on East Pettigrew Street is expected to contain more than 200 apartments. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Changing things up to keep business alive during a pandemic

After entering Black Wall Street Barber Shop, it’s hard to know where to focus. Colorful art from around Durham covers the walls. A boisterous radio interview with Anthony Anderson booms over speakers. Then, there’s the soft, constant buzz of Akili Hester’s razor as he cuts and sculpts clients’ hair. 

In short: it’s local and it’s lively. Hester, the shop’s owner, worked hard in the four years he’s owned Black Wall Street Barber Shop to make it that way. Yet Hester has had to work even harder to stay in business through the coronavirus epidemic.

Trying to stay afloat was pretty difficult when you’re dealing with half of what you’re used to making and you still have to cover all of the same bills,” said Hester, whose shop is on Fayetteville Street near East Lakeville Avenue. 

The pandemic took things from nearly everyone. But it’s hit some Americans harder than others. 

A survey by a national business mentor group found that Black-owned small business owners were 90.7% more likely than white small business owners to have a direct relationship with someone infected by COVID-19. And despite seeking financial assistance at much higher rates, Black business owners were significantly less likely to receive both government and private funding, the SCORE survey, published in October, found. 

Akili Hester at work in his vibrant barbershop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

To make it through, Hester has applied his own creativity and some advice from the Durham Business and Professional Chain. “The Chain” has worked with and aided the Triangle Black business owners since 1937.

Hester has unique ties to The Chain. His father, Larry Hester, was once the organization’s president. And his stepmother, Denise Hester, chairs its communications committee. They founded M & M Real Estate Development and Consulting together.

The nonprofit ended in-person meetings once COVID-19 became a threat. But it continued with its outreach, mostly with a newsletter and a heavy social media presence. Through these media tactics, said Denise Hester, The Chain has been able to share grant opportunities and general business advice.

“On our Facebook page, we try to publish uplifting articles about what others are doing and service the information about what has been successful for other businesses,” she said. 

The Chain has also counseled local business owners to stay connected with customers even as the pandemic pushed them apart. 

Get in touch with your customer base,” was part of the guidance, Denise Hester said. “Business owners don’t always have time to mine accurate information of their customers, but maybe now with this time, they can really look at their analytics and see where their money is coming from.” 

Hester works within sight of a bull in a Durham city flag mask that Brandon Hampton painted inside the shop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

The Chain helped Akili Hester become aware of his customer’s needs, he said, and think critically about ways to improve his business.

For the barber, who shut down his business in early March after his wife caught COVID, some adjustments were obvious. That included mandatory mask wearing and limiting how many people can be in the shop at once.

By the time he reopened in June, he had lost about 50 percent of his clientele because many  customers were too scared to leave their houses, he said. Pre-pandemic, Hester would probably be cutting “10 heads,” a day, he said. These days he usually cuts a fraction of those. 

Seeing he needed secondary income, Hester started a side T-shirt and clothing shop called Bull City Merch, which exists online and in his shop. He designs the shirts himself, often adding text that promotes community unity.

“I started to notice that I would cut someone’s hair, and that would be about $20, but then they would buy a few T-shirts and that would be like $40. Even now, as business is starting to pick back up, selling the shirts has really helped me keep the lights on,” Hester said.

He markets the shirts to all of his customers, including those who can’t yet return to his shop. 

“I had the idea for the “Bull City Strong” T-shirts even before COVID, but I think they work even more now,” Hester said.

Akili Hester, flanked by Durham musicians, throws up his fist in a video boosting Bull City Merch.

He  filmed a short music video showing them off. After years doing video work for the North Carolina rap music scene, Hester hired music artists to help with the video, including members of The Materials, a Durham-based soul group. 

Their words echo Hester’s message of unity. He and the others proudly throw up their fists and tell their audience to “buy black.”

The T-shirt designs have been received well, consistently selling 10 to 15 shirts a week,  said Hester,  who gives barbershop clients discounts.

Sometimes Hester’s creativity sparks ideas in others. Local muralist Brandon Hampton was so inspired by T-shirt designs that he painted one inside the barbershop. It’s a bull wearing a mask that looks like the Durham city flag – a physical manifestation of the “Bull City Covid Era” messaging that runs throughout Hester’s merchandise.

Looking forward, things seem to be looking up for Hester. He’s hoping to get started on more video projects for his YouTube channel, including a project to interview Black small business owners in Durham. 

He’s also working on opening a new barbershop near where Black Wall Street Barber Shop stands. He intends to sell Bull City merch there too.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you got to play a part in your own rescue,” Hester said.

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Akili Hester outside Black Wall Street Barber Shop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Low supplies delay coronavirus vaccinations

By Rebecca Schneid
and Dryden Quigley

Durham County and Duke University have paused offering new coronavirus vaccination appointments due to a limited supply. 

County officials intend to begin scheduling new appointments by the end of February, but are unsure of an exact date. An unspecified number of people will be required to delay existing  appointments. But officials say that will be a small number and delays won’t exceed five days.

People with dates on the books, including spots for second doses, will get vaccinated, health officials stressed.

“Durham County has a baseline allocation of 600 first doses for the next three weeks, and we are uncertain when our allocation will increase. It is best to halt scheduling until we are confident we will be able to fulfill additional appointments,” Public Health Director Rodney Jenkins said in a press release.

People lucky enough to have appointments did get shots this week. That was evident Friday, as people complied with health precautions to gain entry to the county Department of Public Health vaccination site on East Main Street.

Visitors were screened in the parking lot by answering a few questions and then were handed tickets from staff members that allowed them to enter the building.

A woman collects a ticket needed to enter a vaccination site at the Durham County Department of Public Health this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

After getting dose number one, Durham resident Juan Santiago said he was “very relieved.” He also landed an appointment for a return dose two, in three weeks, he said.

Before climbing into an Uber, Santiago stressed he does not plan to stop wearing a mask or stop staying mostly at home.

This vaccine shortage is not unique to Durham. All over the state, distribution sites have exhausted their resources, state officials say. On Tuesday, state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen released a letter explaining that federal allotment of vaccines to North Carolina dropped from 260,000 to 120,000 this past week. 

The federal government is incentivizing states to use all of allotted vaccines, Cohen said, noting that states with large unused vaccination supplies could receive reduced quantities. In response, vaccination providers worked especially hard this past week to clear the states’ backlog of vaccines, she said. 

As of Tuesday, North Carolina had distributed 95 percent of its first doses. The recent success pushed North Carolina from 40th to 22nd place on a Center for Disease Control and Prevention ranking on how many first doses states administer.

Durham early this week announced plans to open a mass vaccination site capable of vaccinating 17,000 people
weekly. The timeline for the opening of the site was still being determined, officials said.

Health care workers, longterm-care residents and staff, and people aged 65 and older are eligible to receive coronavirus vaccines in North Carolina. Durham County has distributed about 36,000 vaccines so far, according to the NCDHHS.

A sign points the way to vaccines at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability. Due to the pandemic, Durham public schools have not met in person since March 2020. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

North Carolina has had over 746,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases with Durham County making up 19,000 of those cases. Durham County has also had 173 deaths attributed to the virus. 

There may be a shortage of vaccines in Durham, but there is certainly no shortage of want. Despite demand not meeting supply, eligible Durham residents have been contacting helpline or online services to try to get appointments.

People were also crowdsourcing on social media forums like Reddit and other digital platforms to find out where they could get doses as quickly as possible.  Some traveled if needed to get their shots, including to Granville and Cumberland counties.

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher contributed to this report

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: One woman wheels another into Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center at Duke University, one of three sites in Durham dispensing coronavirus vaccines this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama 

School is online, but programs bring some kids together to learn

Once the Durham Board of Education decided in July to move school online, members began planning learning centers – supervised spaces where students unable to stay at home could attend virtual classes. 

“We knew there would be children whose parents are essential workers, or who didn’t have anyone at home,” board member Natalie Beyer said. “We’ve been reading about what other progressive cities have been doing to take care of children, so we pushed hard for it.” 

Currently, Durham Public Schools funds four learning center sites: at Eno Valley and WG Pearson Magnet elementary schools for students in grades pre-K through 5, and at Carrington and Shepard middle schools for students in grades 6 through 12.

Local non-profits have set up similar centers in Durham too. Some residents have organized informal sites – a case of parents helping parents in the face of these unpredictable times. As of this week, DPS centers serve 300 students.

Like most things throughout this pandemic, launching these spaces required creativity and caution. By combining state guidelines and listening to their students, public school administrators created strategies to guard against COVID infection and help children learn.

Kezia Goodwin takes the temperature of a student in a classroom at Kate’s Korner. Photo by Henry Haggart

Days at the centers do and do not look like school days. Students arrive at around the same time, about 9 a.m. Once inside they remain in a classroom pod of 10 students. District staff supervise them as they attend online school through each student’s respective Google classroom or zoom link. When the day ends, parents or other caretakers pick them up.

Early on, educators faced challenges, including keeping track of students’ different, and sometimes conflicting schedules, said Tracy Super-Edwards, coordinator of extended learning for DPS. 

“The students are from many schools, all in one classroom, you know. Even though you have 10 students, they could be from 10 different schools and different grade levels, and the educators have to juggle them all,” said Super-Edwards, who oversees the DPS centers.

Initially, the DPS sites drew few students, possibly due to family’s uncertainty that the sites could keep kids safe from COVID-19, according to Super-Edwards. But now, since neither staff nor students have been diagnosed with COVID, interest has grown and the centers are nearly full.

“I think now that we’ve been doing it now for a couple of months, there’s more validity behind it,” Super-Edwards said. “Parents see it’s working, see they’re kids love it, see that they’re safe, and so now we have a lot more students trying to get in.”

Kate’s Korner hosts a DPS Foundation HOPE Learning Center, a program for public school students whose families struggle financially, live in foster care, or have parents who are essential workers. The site has adopted multiple strategies to keep children and staff safe. 

Like DPS, Kate’s Korner keeps students in small pods, requires masks, and screens kids by taking their temperature before they enter every day. They have cleaners do a full COVID spray-down cleaning weekly.

“We do a lot of hand washing, a lot of sanitizing, and managing keeping kids out of each-other’s space, which is difficult. Some people might say [the COVID spray] is a little extreme, but you know we’re keeping everyone safe,” said Kezia Goodwin, Kate’s Korner founder.

Kate’s Korner was set to open initially as drop-in child care center, but after COVID hit and derailed Goodwin’s plans, she jumped at the opportunity to help the DPS Foundation’s plans to help the community.

Through partnership with Durham county, the DPS Foundation, The YMCA, and Student U, a Durham education nonprofit, Kate’s Korner doesn’t charge students who enroll. 

“With time, energy and effort that we were giving them, the students are getting there, and we’re helping them improve. We’re serving kids with some of the least opportunity” Goodwin said.

Durham Museum of Life and Science, through its Museum Clubhouse, also has opened an alternative to attending online school at home.

The program is an extension of a camp they produced over the summer, taking what they had learned and expanding it with educators and more enrichment programs, leading kids through exhibits and fun themes throughout the week, said Carly Apple, director of STEM learning at the museum and overseer of the Clubhouse.

This program charges tuition, with the cost varying depending on how many days a week students participate. Enrolling four days a week between Oct. 19 and Nov. 13 cost museum members $952 and non-members, $1,048, according to the program’s website.

“Some days, students are more fidgety than other days; some days they need more or less attention. We try to give them activities so they’re not just at their computers all day,” Apple said.

One of the most important aspects of these centers is the chance to socialize, Apple said.

“We have a way to give kids safe socialization, which is something that we value. A lot of parents are worried about isolation with their kids. This was a way that kids could safely, I mean as safely as possible, they could interact with other kids,” Apple said.

Apple said the kids can play games socially distanced, and take daily tours of museum exhibits, ways to keep active and social.

Angela Caraway helps a student with online classwork at Kate’s Korner. Photo by Henry Haggart

Every day, the staff is learning from the needs of their students and adapting their policies throughout the months. The general, yet surprising, consensus among these administrators, though, is that kids are good at wearing masks.

“They’re much more mature about it than a lot of adults I know,” Apple said. “They adapt so quickly, and sure we have to remind them sometimes about small stuff and make sure the masks fit, but they’re just really good about it.”

That said, sometimes they need a break. At the DPS learning centers, staff have marked squares on floors distant from others where students can pull down masks for a minute or two when they need a break.

An unintended benefit of the centers is that they are giving at least some in the school district confidence that is possible for children to safely attend school in a COVID-adapted world. 

“Our staff and our kids are healthy, so I think the fact is that if you put the safety measures in place, and you follow them daily, you have a great chance of preventing spread,” Goodwin said.

“These kids who should be in school, need to go back to school,” she added.

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca. schneid@duke.edu

At top: Ashley Polk, a teacher at Kate’s Korner, helps a student during an online class. Polk said assisting students with the technical side of remote learning is what takes up most of her time at work. Photo by Henry Haggart

With Wellness Wednesdays, Durham schools tune into student health

Days of monotony inside, constant Zoom links and screens, all the while worrying about your and your family’s health. This is the reality of this school year – one unfathomably different than any other.

For faculty at Burton Magnet Elementary School, bolstering the mental health of their students has always been a priority. Since returning to online classes almost two months ago, they’ve had to innovate new ways to get that done.

“Seeing teachers on Canvas or on Zoom is not the same as somebody touching your shoulder and saying you can do it, telling you that you did a good job,” Principal Kimberly Ferrell said. “We can’t provide the same support we could when face to face.”

Anticipating this struggle districtwide, Durham Public Schools developed new tools to promote social and emotional learning and mental health. Wellness Wednesdays is one initiative: one day of the week when students and staff are urged to focus on holistic wellness.

Wellness Wednesdays look different depending on a student’s grade and school, but DPS and each school provide activities focused on personal growth.

There are both live Zoom sessions to learn about aspects of social emotional learning, as well as documents stuffed with ideas offline, independent activities that students and families can tackle for their mental and physical health. 

A few Burton Elementary faculty members lead a session on Wellness Wednesday focused on physical health. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

For October, many schools scheduled anti-bullying programming in tandem with Bullying Prevention Month.

Emotional learning has been a part of priority four of DPS’s five-year strategic plan, focusing on “strengthening school, family, and community engagement,” said Laverne Mattocks-Perry, DPS’s senior executive director of student support services.

The transition to virtual learning this fall presented an opportunity, Mattocks-Perry said, to focus more intentionally on social emotional learning and holistic wellness of students. 

“Everything that we’ve been reading from practitioners tells us that all of the things going on – the economic factors related to COVID-19, civil unrest, abrupt adaptations in how we operate daily as a school – that has been classified as a traumatic childhood experience,” said Mattocks-Perry.

Matthew Hickson, director of online learning, and others reached out to local mental health agencies and conntected with community groups around Durham to work up programming.

On Wednesdays, the district uploads a new document for students, teachers, and parents to look at on the district’s new social and emotional learning hub: EMBRACE.

For example, DPS partnered with Growga to hold weekly yoga classes for students, accessible on the EMBRACE website. They partnered with Triangle United Soccer for a weekly soccer lesson and with other organizations for outdoors activities and cooking tips.

“We really want Wednesdays to be a time for our students to really take a step back. You know, they’re in this intense environment, and so we want all of them to take these days and use them as a time to reflect,” Hickson said.

Elementary schools often have much more structured Wednesdays to ensure heightened support, Hickson said. Burton Magnet Elementary School, located in East Durham off South Alston Avenue is an example.

Burton teachers and administrators continue to bring material support to their students, despite school remaining online. Distributing free books from nonprofit Book Harvest is one example. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

Burton is a magnet school where a majority of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, many of whom were displaced by the crisis at McDougald Terrace last spring. Mental health support there doesn’t stop on the internet.

Using both DPS’s guidelines and their own creativity, Burton Elementary’s leadership spent about eight weeks before school resumed training on the new mental health virtual resources.

“We can’t provide the type of support that we normally give as part of the process. So we came up with a list of activities that we found ways to connect with his students online,” said Tameko Piggee, a Burton social worker.

Burton designed a check-in system that lets students alert teachers about how their minds and bodies feel. They place themselves in color zones in Google Docs: blue for boredom, exhaustion, sadness; green for positive emotions, feeling ready for the day ahead; yellow for feeling out of control and in need of some support; and red to signal extreme emotions, anger and aggression included.

After students pick their spots, school social worker and counselors can identify students in need of aid and reach out.

Teachers are constantly looking out for students who are struggling but aren’t necessarily speaking up about it, said school counselor Ponsella Brown. 

“There are times when we will get messages from teachers. So, we go into the classrooms, virtual through the breakouts and work with students who are dealing not only with COVID-19,” she said. Housing crises can crop up, so can illness and death in families.

School staff still try to help with students’ more physical needs, despite the pandemic. Many students began quarantine without desks, sitting on floors or couches to do work. So, with the service organization Triangle Park Chapter of Links, they provided 80 desks for Burton students.

After the Durham Board of Education decided on Sept. 24 to keep schools remote the rest of the semester, Ferrell said they are ready to keep using Wellness Wednesdays and their own tools to educate and take care of their students online indefinitely.

“The nuance of this new environment for some of our families, was scary,” Ferrell said. “But, we know we’ll always have a relationship with our community. And they trust us.”

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Students can view dancing and other activities during a break from virutal classroom lessons on Wednesdays. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School