Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Akiya Dillon”

A Durham Moment: ‘It’s the most precious gift I think I’ve ever received.’

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray wore many robes. Murray was an activist—a poet-turned-lawyer-turned-priest. She was a Durhamite—a child who grew up wandering the West End. She was a champion for gender equality—an inspiration for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Nonetheless, Pauli Murray was a misfit—a light-skinned Black girl of the “Jane Crow” (a term she coined) South. As she matured, Murray fell in love with other women and questioned whether she was a woman at all.

Murray’s life, in all its multiplicity, was the focus on a recent Saturday at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, which celebrated its tenth anniversary on June 18.Murray’s restored childhood home at 906 Carroll St. where Murray lived with the Fitzgeralds, her maternal grandparents and aunts, anchors the festivities. The white clapboard house, originally built in 1898, is now baby blue. The bordering streets and sidewalks have been embellished with pastel chalk illustrations.

At the center of the property is a canopy tent, which sheathes a stage ornamented with potted plants and rows of people seated in white folding chairs. Center board members rise from the chairs to share anonymous prayers for the future of the Pauli Murray Center.

“Just imagine yourself on the porch of the newly renovated Pauli Murray Welcome and Education Center,” a member reads. “My prayer for the center is to be a place where people learn to embrace their freedom, imagine possibilities for structuring their lives and relationships and find divine power for healing.” 

***

After the reading, visitors are encouraged to take a break and explore the property. At a table in the right corner of the yard, archaeologist Anna Agbe-Davies presents the fruits of excavation efforts that she directed at the Pauli Murray family home.

Agbe-Davies ​​represents UNC-Chapel Hill’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology. Before the Pauli Murray Center tackled restoring the home’s exterior in 2017, the labs excavated a fragmented pen, a gold zipper, a shattered glass door knob and more at the site. They also uncovered remnants of an inadequate drainage system on the lot—issues that are mentioned again and again in the Fitzgeralds’ complaints to the City of Durham in the early twentieth century. These excavation efforts, Agbe-Davies says, give us insight into what Murray’s life here may have looked like a decade ago.

Around the bend at the book shop, a plethora of works by Pauli Murray are on display: Proud Shoes, a nonfiction homage to the lives of the Fitzgeralds, Dark Testament, a collection of poems that speak to Murray’s dream of racial justice and equality and Song in a Weary Throat, an autobiography that documents Murray’s crusades as a civil rights activist and feminist. 

Pauli Murray’s niece, Rosita Stevens-Holsey, chats near the stage with visitors and other board members. Some shoppers who purchase her newly-published children’s book, Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist, seek her out for a signing.

Perkins & Will, the architectural design company leading the center’s renovation efforts, is last in the sequence of tables, next to a weathered home that will soon be converted into the Pauli Murray Welcome and Education Center.  

Scott Hefner of Perkins & Will discusses construction plans for a prospective welcome and education center on the property, which they hope will be open to the public by 2024.Visitors play with the 3D-printed neighborhood model and listen as Hefner describes the timeline. The listeners include a six-year-old boy named Andrew and his father William Tate from the nearby West End neighborhood.

“So the interior renovation of the historic house will be in the next month or two, ” Hefder begins. “And hopefully—” 

“I just want to learn a little bit more about this stuff!” Andrew interjects.

“That’s awesome,” Hefner continues. “So behind the Education and Welcome Center will be an amphitheater so that you can sit on these terrace steps and look down on any future performances.”

“And this part is very interesting!” says Andrew, pointing at the model.

“Yeah! So that’s going to be a multi-purpose room—a big room where the center can have events and talks,” Hefner says. “It’s going to be really flexible for anything that the center wants to do.”

***

After a break, Beth Ward, a longtime family friend of Pauli Murray, strolls to the center of the stage.

“So I was maybe 11 or 12 when I met Pauli,” Ward says. “She would stay with my family every weekend. And her dog, Roy, my best pal, and we would spend a lot of time together. As I’ve grown up and come to understand just how incredibly lucky and blessed I was.”

Ward recalls Murray’s final months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the 1980s. While Murray made haste to complete her final published work, Ward edited Murray’s manuscripts, did her taxes and handled correspondence.

“And I would help in whatever ways I could,” Ward says. “As you can imagine, it was a very heartfelt time and incredibly wonderful. My mother and I were with Pauli the day before she died.” Ward pauses in an attempt to stifle tears. 

As Ward speaks, volunteers stand at the left corner of the tent, near a table cloaked in fabric. At Ward’s command, they gently tug the cloth, revealing a vintage manual typewriter that once belonged to Murray. 

“And Pauli gave me her typewriter, which is here, and it’s the most precious gift I think I’ve ever received.” With that, the donation is official: Pauli Murray’s typewriter, formerly on loan at Murray’s alma mater, Yale University, will now reside at the Pauli Murray Center.

“I’ve been beyond thrilled with the work done at the Pauli Murray Center,” Ward says. “To the credit of the City of Durham, Pauli’s neighbors and the board, Pauli has started to come into her own; history is at long last starting to catch up with her.”

The audience hums affirmations and applauds.

“Pauli would say one person plus one typewriter equals a movement,” Ward says. “So this is the place for a movement. It’s a place for activism, for feeling and for reflection—all of the different parts of Pauli coming together.”

Sangodare Wallace of Mobile Homecoming Trust then takes the stage, begins singing and invites the audience to dance. She demonstrates a two-step routine, and laughter ripples through the crowd as they try to emulate Wallace’s movements. Wallace ushers the dancers down the path by the future welcome center, and participants sing out Murray’s name as they stride down Carroll Street.

***

Above (from top): Dancers take to the streets at the Pauli Murray Center’s 10th anniversary celebration; Murray’s restored childhood home; visitors check out 3D models of the center’s future plans; Murray’s former typewriter was donated to the center; Murray’s name decorates area streets during the celebration. Photos by Ana Young—The 9th Street Journal

On Juneteenth, Stagville’s past lives on at historic site — and in descendants’ memories

The Union soldiers had come down Old Oxford Road, chasing Confederate soldiers out of Stagville Plantation. They arrived at Stagville’s Horton Grove, which at the time was home to some 900 enslaved people.

“They told my great aunt, ‘Fix us some food,’” Ricky L. Hart says, repeating a story passed down to him in his youth. “So, the soldiers had this long feast. In the end, the soldiers finished eating and drinking coffee, and they were like, ‘Y’all free.’”

That’s how enslaved people at Stagville, one of the largest slave plantations in North Carolina, learned that they had been freed, recalls Hart, 59, a Durham native and fifth-generation Stagville descendent.

On a balmy summer day, as Durham readies for the Juneteenth holiday, Hart discusses what emancipation meant to his relatives 157 years ago.

When they heard that the Union soldiers were coming, some enslaved people threw parties, including at Stagville. Others didn’t know what to make of the news, Hart says.

“Because, for six, seven, eight generations before you, the plantation was all you knew. You didn’t know what freedom was.” 

Stagville is an immense property, he notes. Those forty-three square miles would’ve made fleeing a nearly impossible task.

“They didn’t have any concept of how big it was,” Hart says. “If you ran, you only ran for three or four miles. Then you stopped and walked. You still had 40 miles to go. So, you could be walking for weeks and still be on the site.”

And so, the Hart family stayed on after emancipation. Several members arranged share-cropping agreements with the Camerons. This guaranteed food for their families and offered the possibility of land ownership. The family resided in the Hart House—which Hart refers to as “number 13.”

When you arrive at Horton Grove, the Hart House is the first thing that you see. It stands out—the only painted house in the group adorned with a terracotta-colored metal roof. It was a multi-family home. Ricky Hart’s relatives cohabitated in the house in the early twentieth century.

“When you get upstairs, there’s a room to the right, and then there’s one to the left,” Hart says. “My grandfather, Willis and his family lived downstairs for a while. And his brother, Ephraim, lived upstairs with his family. So it’s like you got all these people living there. Your wife and your six children—all in one room.”

Hart’s uncle, Ephraim, was the last to leave the Hart House, departing in 1975 to resettle elsewhere. And long afterward, for ten years, Hart relatives held annual family reunions here. “I still got pictures and sign-in sheets… all kinds of stuff. The staff at Stagville were always glad to have us,” Hart says. 

 In 1976, the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company, which owned the land after the Bennehans sold it, donated it to the state. This circumstance birthed Historic Stagville as a North Carolina State Historic Site, where the Hart name comes up again and again in the site’s “Emancipation Tours.”  

***

The tours begin at the visitor’s center. To escape the clammy Carolina air, attendees trickle into a dimly-lit green shed. Among them are well-meaning parents, curious children and teenagers and an interpreter-in-training. The gift shop showcases books such as Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, along with soaps, lotions and candles from a local black-owned business. Thumb-tacked grayscale portraits of Stagville inhabitants are accompanied by brief biographies of the residents.

Vera Cecelski, the site manager and guide, ushers the assembly outside to embark on the emancipation tour. 

***

The tour starts at the Bennehan-Cameron family home, in the center of Stagville, a colonial framed structure with white columns, red-bricked chimneys and a gray, shingled roof.

Before the end of the Civil War, the Bennehan and Cameron families lived here, supervising slave activities and imposing cruel punishments. As the war drew to a close, for many enslaved people, freedom was a life or death wager. On a neighboring plantation, a young girl named Sarah witnessed Confederate soldiers threatening her family members, Cecelski says.

“She said they took each man in the yard, held them at gunpoint and asked them if they wanted to be free,” Cecelski says. “Sarah watched the murders of three of her uncles that day because they dared to tell these soldiers that they wanted their freedom.”

***

After emancipation, the Cameron family moved on from Stagville. But the name has not disappeared from the area.  Towards the end of the tour, a participant asks, “So, a lot of the places in the Triangle with Cameron names come from this family? Like the Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke?” The crowd giggles.

Cameron Indoor Stadium is actually named for a different Cameron family from outside North Carolina, Cecelski says. But the Cameron family that owned the Stagville plantation – that name persists, even as Confederate statues have fallen in Durham and on the UNC Campus.

“You can still see the Cameron name—probably the most prominent place is in Chapel Hill,” Cecelski says. “Cameron Avenue runs through campus and is named for Paul Cameron, who was the single largest slave-holder here at the time of the Civil War.”

***

Back at Horton Grove, Cecelski concludes the tour, standing in a grassy plot adjacent to Old Oxford Highway,   a plot Ricky Hart remembers once was planted entirely in tobacco. 

“When you leave today, whatever route you drive away from this place, you’re probably following one of the old roads or paths—roads that families took as they left this place and tried to find one where they could access true freedom,” Cecelski says. “So, I invite you to carry with you the following thought: if you head to almost any of the cities nearby—Durham, Raleigh—you’re heading to a place that has been shaped, in some way, by freed people.”

Ricky L. Hart, and so many others, she says, live to tell the tale.

***

On June 18, Historic Stagville, 5828 Old Oxford Highway, will hold its 15th annual Juneteenth commemoration. The site also will continue guided Emancipation Tours on June 19 and 25.

Above: Stagville descendant Ricky Hart, photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal

Center and below: The Hart House in Stagville’s Horton Grove; glimpses of former residents on a Stagville bulletin board,;and paths lead away from Horton Grove. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

Residents lambast Fayette Place plans

On a Monday evening, Hayti residents, community leaders and city representatives file into the Monument of Faith Church sanctuary. The room bustles with anticipation as attendees exchange greetings and scribble their names and addresses on public comment cards. The subject of the meeting is the Durham Housing Authority’s proposed Fayette Place project in Hayti; the goal, community reconciliation. 

Earlier this year, the housing authority stirred controversy after tapping Durham Community Partners to redevelop the Fayette Place site. The proposal calls for the construction of 774 affordable housing units on Fayette Place, a parcel of vacant land within the historically Black Hayti neighborhood. In 2017, the City of Durham awarded the housing authority a $4.2 million grant to purchase the plot, stipulating that the agency create a community engagement program for the project. However, Hayti residents argue that little has been done to include them. 

Mayor Elaine O’Neal opens the meeting and introduces City Attorney Kimberly Rehberg and Durham Housing Authority CEO Anthony Scott, who outline the details of the Fayette Place development. Using PowerPoint slides that feature tiny, indiscernible words, Scott explains the project’s timeline, the selection criteria used in scoring proposals, and the RFP (“Request for Proposal”) process that resulted in the selection of Durham Community Partners. Audience members interrupt Scott often, criticizing his presentation as inaccessible to the visually impaired.

“We can’t even see the slides! You’re talking, and we’re losing it,” says Lavonia Allison, a longtime Durham activist and former chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Anthony Scott closes shortly after, and the public comment period opens.

Some speakers have come to criticize the housing authority’s rejection of Hayti Reborn, a community revitalization project that was one of five proposals submitted to the housing authority for Fayette Place.

Hayti Reborn proposed a 2000-acre mixed-use commercial, retail, and residential space on Fayette Place, along with the establishment of an R&D fund to reinvest wealth into the community.

Anica Green wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Hayti Reborn logo. On the back, white lettering reads, “The more things change… The more they stay the same!” 

“The reason for inequality in this country is because we use white supremacist standards and processes to make people compete when there are inadequate equal resources,” Green says. “You are making multi-national, national, and international organizations compete with local, homegrown organizations.”  

Henry McKoy, project director for Hayti Reborn, says the process for choosing the Fayette Place developers was not transparent. 

“Hopefully some folks don’t think it’s just a kind of a sore loser syndrome here, right?” McKoy says. “We entered into this RFP. We weren’t accepted—so now we’re sore losers. But, the work that happened on this goes long before this RFP ever came along,” 

Allison is among the final speakers. While other speakers are asked to migrate to one of  two mics strategically placed between the sections of pews, “Mama E” orates from her seat—per the Mayor’s request. Her walker sits untouched in the aisle. 

“Those 20 acres have got to be used for the benefit of Black folk who have lost everything!” Allison says. “We can not turn it over to the housing authority. They have not been successful.” 

The mayor and fellow city council members close the meeting by expressing sympathy for the Hayti community. Still, Mark-Anthony Middleton, the Mayor Pro Tempore, explains that the housing authority’s RFP process has strict legal guidelines to prevent misconduct and favoritism. The city does not have jurisdiction over Durham Housing Authority contracts, he says, echoing earlier comments by the city attorney. 

“We don’t have the authority to cherry-pick an RFP,” Middleton says.“If I could do it for you, I could do it for a friend—or family member. You don’t want that.”

City council members, including DeDreana Freeman and Monique Holsey-Hyman, advocate for continued conversation. So does O’Neal, who grew up in Durham. “I’ve spent years walking down Fayetteville Street… We got to get to a yes,” the mayor says. 

The Durham Housing Authority will hold additional community meetings about the development this month and next. The first is scheduled for this evening  at 6 p.m. at the W.G. Pearson Center, 600 E. Umstead St. The remaining meetings will be held on July 14 and 28. 


Above (from top): Durham Housing Authority CEO Anthony Scott; speaker Antonio Jones; one of several speakers wearing Hayti Reborn T-shirts; longtime Durham activist Lavonia Allison. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal