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Posts published by “Sevana Wenn”

A Durham Moment: ‘I don’t want us to be forgotten.’

Like any North Carolina barbecue connoisseur, Nelson Lee has a strong opinion on the eastern versus western-style debate.

“Eastern,” he says without hesitation, raising his voice to be heard above the steady whir of the food trucks. The chef’s handiwork is laid out in trays before him, the tantalizing scents of smoke and vinegar mingling in the air. Lee describes his culinary technique, which won over the panel of judges at the Inaugural Juneteenth BBQ Cook-Off at Durham’s 17th annual Juneteenth Celebration on June 18 and 19. 

“I don’t do the heavy sauce on my barbecue,” he explains. “I mainly put vinegar, salt, pepper and that’s mainly—and red pepper. That’s mainly what I mix in my barbecue.”  

Lee and his company, SSS Catering (“SSS” stands for “Simply Southern Soulful,” he says), will represent Durham at the National Juneteenth BBQ competition this October in Galveston, Texas. That’s where more than 250,000 enslaved African-Americans learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865. 

Across the parking lot at the Durham Bottling Co., the rhythmic beats of R&B music pulsed through the speakers on center stage. Stands featured local Black-owned businesses selling cigars, calendars, T-shirts and traditional African clothing in vibrant hues of magenta, turquoise and neon green.

One stand showcased an array of children’s books featuring prominent African-Americans, both historical and contemporary: Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass shared shelves with Barack Obama and Kamala Harris. Lorenzo Harris, a retired serviceman and teacher, and his wife Gloria, founded Oni’s Reading Rainbow, a mobile bookstore, after sensing a lack of representation in their daughter Oni’s K-12 curriculum. The couple’s mission is to expose Black youth to “things that they don’t get in their normal classrooms.”

They can come to places like this, like what my wife created, and learn something about themselves that they didn’t know,” said Harris. 

Durham-born R&B artist Ciana Parker, who performed her original songs on Sunday under the stage name 7even, said the holiday keeps Black history and culture alive.I don’t want us to be forgotten,” she said after singing to an enthusiastic crowd, eyes still shining from the rush of the performance.  

“We can be overlooked a lot because of the complaints that we make, and how strongly we feel about it, and our passion can look like anger,” Parker said. “So I’m glad that they have things like this every year, where everybody can just come together, eat, and listen to some music, you know, relax.”

Though most attendees were African-American, not all were. As dinnertime approached, Jennifer Boren and her wife and son stood waiting outside the Hot Diggity Dog food truck in a line that stretched across the gravel parking lot. “We got a big hot dog eater over here,” she said with a laugh, gesturing to her son. Outside the truck, a bright yellow sign promised to donate 10% of proceeds to families without life insurance. 

The three had traveled from Zebulon, North Carolina— nearly an hour away— to celebrate Juneteenth in Durham.

“We came here to support local businesses because in our family, being in an intersectional type of relationship— I am Latina, in the LGBTQIA+ community being a lesbian, and we’re also raising a child— we know the importance of Black culture and Black history,” said Boren. 

“We are educating our son that it’s important to not only give back to our community, but support the local vendors as well. So we were here for the good food, the positive vibes and of course getting the beautiful, awesome merchandise that they have here as well,” she said, dangling a handcrafted woven fan from her hand. 

As the sun set over the festival, families and groups of friends sat together in scattered patches of shade enjoying hot dogs, smoked pork shoulder, and pastel-toned fruit smoothies in enormous glasses.

Juneteenth celebrations weren’t always a part of Durham tradition. Phyllis Coley, the CEO of Spectacular Magazine, initiated the festivities in 2004 as a means to uplift the Black community, said her son Lawrence Davis III, the magazine’s president. 

“Slavery was put there to separate us, and so we could bring the community together, you know, on a topic that was meant to split apart,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, I think that Juneteenth is just— I feel like it’s us coming together with America.”

“Just being able to bring the community together over something that was so controversial— it’s beautiful to me.”

Above (from top): Durham’s Juneteenth Festival featured award-winning barbecue chef Nelson Lee, R&B singer Ciana Parker and a variety of good eats; Photos by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal

She helped make history: Former activist remembers Durham’s historic sit-in

The Greensboro sit-in of 1960 is famous, celebrated in museums and history books. Yet three years earlier, a group of seven young activists sparked the sit-in movement by refusing to leave a segregated ice cream parlor in Durham on June 23, 1957. 

As the 65th anniversary of the Royal Ice Cream sit-in approaches next week, Mary Clyburn-Hooks, one of two surviving members of the “Royal Seven,” reflected on her part in a critical episode of the Civil Rights movement. Hooks, now 85, recounted her story in a phone interview from her home in New Jersey.

 In 1957, she was living at the Harriet Tubman YWCA in Durham, which also provided housing for Black student nurses. Hooks soon befriended fellow residents Vivian Jones and Virginia Williams.

As the trio left the building one Sunday, they were intercepted by a group of activists. The group was led by the Rev. Douglas Moore, a classmate and contemporary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hooks, Jones, and Williams were invited to a private political gathering.

“These men were getting ready, Reverend Moore and other guys,” Hooks said.  “And so, they were saying that they were getting ready to go to [Royal Ice Cream Parlor] and did we want to ride with them. And that’s how we got to meet them. That’s how we got there.” 

Located at the corner of Dowd and Roxboro streets, the Royal Ice Cream Parlor was popular with the Black community. Yet the business forced its Black patrons to enter through the back door and eat at separate tables.

To me, they had moved in our neighborhood and I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t treat us better than that, than not letting us sit down,” Hooks said.

Following an evening church service led by Moore, she and her partners went to the ice cream parlor and sat at a booth reserved for white patrons. She remembers ordering “top-shelf stuff”: a generous serving of ice cream with chocolate.

To take up seats in booths reserved for white customers was to defy not only city ordinances but social conventions of the Jim Crow South.

They told [Moore] that if we were to get waited on, we would have to go on the colored side,” Hooks said. “But for some reason, we told them we didn’t want to go there. And there were some white people in there when we first went in. But after we sat down, they jumped up and ran out of the place and I saw them peeping back in there, I guess to see what we would go and do.” 

A busboy asked the activists to leave the booth. When they stood their ground, the manager, Louis Coletta, called the police. The Royal Seven were arrested on counts of trespassing and were fined $10 each plus court costs the next day. 

They appealed their case to Durham County Superior Court, but an all-white jury upheld the guilty verdict after just 24 minutes of deliberations. The North Carolina Supreme Court also heard their case and maintained the legality of segregated facilities. Despite another appeal, the protesters were denied a trial at the national level.

The community’s reception of the sit-in was mixed. Some believed that Moore’s actions were too risky and radical, especially at a time when the local NAACP was still fighting to dismantle segregation in public schools. More conservative civil rights activists feared that the losses in the courts set a dangerous legal precedent. 

I was shocked, because a lot of colored people thought it was terrible,” said Hooks.

Though the Royal Ice Cream sit-in did not bring about the end of legal segregation in Durham, it reignited the conversation about civil rights locally and inspired area youth to follow the Royal Seven’s example. Protests organized by Moore and prominent Black attorney Floyd McKissick sprung up in and around the city. In 1963, after six long years of picketing and protests, Royal Ice Cream Parlor was finally integrated. 

The North Carolina Office of Archives and History placed a historical marker at the site of the parlor in 2008, which states that the sit-in “led to court case testing dual racial facilities.” The seven are also commemorated in vivid color as part of the Durham Civil Rights Mural, located at 120 Morris Street. 

Hooks has never taken her rights for granted. “Every time I get a chance, I try to sit down somewhere,” she said.

Though the story of the sit-in may not be widely known, it remains an important part of civil rights history in the South. As Hooks said, “It got started in Durham.”

Above (from left): The Rev. Douglas Moore, Mary Clyburn-Hooks and others pray before entering the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in 1957. Photo courtesy of the Durham County Library’s North Carolina Collection. Center: A historic marker commemorates the Royal Ice Cream sit-in. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

Historic Harriet Tubman YWCA prepares for new role

After narrowly escaping demolition, a building that played an important role in Durham’s African-American history is getting a new lease on life. 

The red-brick structure on 312 Umstead Street was home to the Harriet Tubman YWCA from 1953 to 1977. Over half a century later, a new project— under the name Harriet’s House— will transform the building into affordable housing for low-income residents.

Harriet’s House is spearheaded by the Durham nonprofit Reinvestment Partners. The project is part of a broader effort to combat the effects of gentrification in Durham, said executive director Peter Skillern. 

See, single-family homes that sold for $20,000 are now selling for $200,000 just for the land underneath,” Skillern said in an interview. “And the redevelopment of Harriet Tubman YWCA is trying to preserve the history of Durham, while creating affordable housing in the midst of a gentrification that’s intense.”  

The renovation will create 15 studio apartments in addition to a communal space with offices, computers and a kitchen, according to Skillern. His group has renovated several other properties in the area.

During its operational years at the height of the civil rights movement, the YWCA provided housing for Black student nurses as well as community programming, social activities for youth and meetings for political organizers. Notably, it was home to three of the “Royal Seven,” who made history at the 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in in Durham. The group first met at the YWCA, according to Mary Clyburn-Hooks, one of two surviving members. Their activism set the foundation for the better-known Greensboro sit-in of 1960, which took place at a segregated lunch counter and was a catalyst for the decade’s sit-in movement.

Once a community hub, the Harriet Tubman YWCA declined in the decades following its closure. The building fell into disrepair and was adopted by squatters. After receiving several police reports about unsafe conditions, the city eventually issued a demolition order in 2015.

But in April, Durham community members met with officials to accept an economic development grant to fund the building’s restoration. The $1 million grant was issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The renovation process strikes a balance between maintaining a rich history and providing for generations to come. 

“We looked at, as a redevelopment agency, how do we intervene and help make a difference, to help preserve its history as well as stabilize it?” Skillern said.

Reinvestment Partners also plans to pay homage to the Y’s unique history through art, which will be displayed both publicly and inside the building. Harriet’s Place is currently in the predevelopment stage, with zoning, finance and design underway. Construction will begin in March 2023 and residents can be expected to move in by July 2024. 

The building might look deserted now, surrounded by a padlocked, chain-link fence. But there’s hope that in two years’ time, 312 Umstead Street will be full of life once again. 

Above: Photos of the former Harriet Tubman YWCA by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

Skating fans seek retread for Wheels

With its skating rink, go-karts, mini-golf and a snack bar, Wheels Family Fun Park was once among Durham’s most popular venues for parties and community-building events. 

Now, the city’s plans to build a swimming pool on the eight-acre property have sparked the concerns of Durham residents. At a Monday evening city council meeting, nearly a dozen gathered to express their hopes of keeping the rink alive for generations to come.

Wheels closed in 2020 after four decades of operation, and was later purchased by the city. Last month, city parks and recreation officials announced a $31 million project to install a swimming pool on the Hoover Road site. However, the plans left Durhamites with few answers regarding the fate of the beloved roller rink.

At Monday’s meeting, speakers highlighted Wheels as a safe space for marginalized youth. Allison Swaim teaches at Riverside High School, where the majority of her students are Black and Latino. As an assignment, she asked her students to design a Google map of their favorite places in Durham. Most included Wheels.

“I would love to see this become— stay—a public resource, that our community could have joy together in,” Swaim said. “So please look into what it would take to save this facility that already exists.”

Seven of the night’s speakers represented Bull City Roller Derby, a Durham-based skating group whose members spoke about the sense of community they’d found on the rink. Roller Derby member Erin Bueno says skating at Wheels helped her battle major depressive disorder and become more comfortable with her identity.

It saved my life in terms of helping me through my first depressive bout in 2018 and then also giving me a healthy outlet to again, transmute my feelings into something that’s more productive,” she said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And it gave me a way to find myself as a queer person.” 

The Raleigh-Durham Skaters’ Association, headed by Eddie Watson, also hosted events at the rink. Watson, who leads weekly skating classes in Raleigh, has seen increased attendance as the pastime surged in popularity during the pandemic. Some skaters are young women whose interest was piqued by TikTok trends. Others are elderly folks that have been skating for decades. “Between the people, the music, the atmosphere, it’s all creating the juices to inspire, or to just be a part of something,” he said in an interview.

On Monday, some council members seemed receptive to citizens’ concerns. After the meeting, council member Mark-Anthony Middleton called Wheels  “part of the DNA of Durham,” and said he was open to continuing the dialogue.

“I would love to see if we could preserve it,” he said.

Several speakers said that, as a year-round venue, a roller rink could draw in more revenue than a seasonal aquatic center. Middleton expressed that, though finances would be taken into consideration, value to the Durham community was of greater importance to him.

At a Thursday afternoon city council work session, Middleton said that making a decision about preserving the skating rink would be “premature.”

“It’s way too early to suggest we’re going to go into the skating business as a city, at this point,” Middleton said. “We might, but I think the staff should have the opportunity to look at this.” 

Council member Jillian Johnson also stressed the importance of getting more input.

“I think we should wait until we have a full picture of what the community wants” before we make a decision,” Johnson said. 

Mary Unterreiner, public information and communication manager for Durham parks and recreation, said in an interview that plans for the former Wheels site are still underway. 

Unterreiner said the department has sought community engagement for the project through pop-up events, presentations and a survey that received 500 responses from Durhamites. 

Outreach will continue this summer, and parks and recreation will present its recommendation for the site to the city council in September, she said. Construction for the aquatics center will take several years, and the facility will not be open to the public for an estimated three to four years, she added.

Unterreiner stressed that while funding has been allocated to the aquatic center in the proposed city budget, the pool and a skating rink are not necessarily mutually exclusive. 

“It is not an either-or situation,” Unterreiner said. “The two can absolutely coexist right now. It is a matter of priority.” 

“What we do know is, what we have the funding for is the aquatics facility—the aquatic center—at the Wheels Fun Park site. But that’s not to say that there couldn’t be a future where the existing amenities or the skating rink also exist. And that could be a really exciting feature.”

Above: Photo of the Wheels Family Fun Park — The 9th Street Journal. Photo of Erin Bueno The 9th Street Journal’s Ana Young.