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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

A gallery no more, Pleiades promotes a grassroots Durham arts scene

A familiar sign on the gallery that helped ignite downtown Durham’s arts scene is gone.

What was once Pleiades Gallery is now 5 Points Gallery. This chic space showcases the work of Triangle-based creatives, many of them with long ties to what came before. 

One Pleiades co-founder, Renee Leverty, is not among the list of artist’s names displayed on the gallery’s window. She has stepped away, taking the name Pleiades with her to pursue projects not confined by the four walls on Chapel Hill Street.  

This was not a nasty split. “The division couldn’t have happened any better,” Leverty said. 

Renee Leverty is leading the next chapter of Pleiades Arts. Photo by Anna Carson Dewitt.

In April 2013, Leverty and Kim Wheaton, co-founders of Pleiades Gallery, left the Hillsborough Gallery of Art to open a Durham gallery to try to bring more local art to Durhamites. Pleiades wasted little time setting that mission in motion. In just a few months they opened their first community-focused show, Truth to Power. 

The first Truth to Power coincided with the “Moral Monday” movement — a series of protests against policies advanced by the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly. The juried show featured political art addressing government stances on everything from LGBT+ rights to fracking.

Both the show and the gallery became a staple in the Durham art scene, especially during Third Friday Durham, a monthly event when local arts venue host receptions for visitors.

In 2017, Leverty decided to shift her focus and founded the community-oriented nonprofit, Pleiades Arts. She wanted to uplift the voices of even more diverse artists, she said. 

Fast forward to 2019 and both Truth to Power and Pleiades have evolved beyond their original form. Successive Truth to Power exhibits have focused on singular political themes such as climate change, racial and gender bias, and environmental pollution. The latest show highlighted social justice activism in the Triangle and was the last in the Pleiades Gallery.

The moniker “Pleiades” now labels an active nonprofit. To support its mission, the Durham Arts Council awarded Pleiades Arts $2,200 in cash grants for 2019. Leverty has moved the nonprofit into an office in the arts council building — a gift worth $3,225.60.

“The relationship between Pleiades Arts and 5 Points Gallery is positively mutual,” Leverty said. Jenny Blazing, a member artist at 5 Points Gallery, described the changes with the two entities as an expansion of the arts in Durham.

“We are supportive and energetic around our artists who make statements with their work,” Blazing said. “We’re happy to share in the cultivation of Durham’s burgeoning arts scene.”

5 Points Gallery promotes itself as North Carolina’s “premier” fine arts gallery. Its grand opening exhibition is running alongside a solo exhibit and highlights the creative prowess of 15 Triangle artists. 

The future of the nonprofit, as Leverty explains it, will be more flexible by design. She envisions a “more grassroots, ground-up” group aimed at creating “work in response to what is happening in our community, state, and country.”

Be You, Bloom by Shoshanna Carroll will be featured in Queer Lens: Queer Identity in Arts.

Next week she’ll help install an exhibit called Queer Lens: Queer Identity in Art. In keeping with its new mission, Pleiades is working with the LGBTQ Center of Durham. The show is funded in part by the Durham Arts Council and the North Carolina Annual Arts Fund. The project invited any LGBTQ+ artist in North Carolina to submit artwork regardless of skill level.

The show’s purpose is to “highlight the diverse perspectives, identities, and creations of the LGBTQ+ community, centering the voices of black and brown artists in particular.” Queer Lens will run at The Fruit from Sept. 27 to Sept. 29 before moving to the LGBTQ Center of Durham from Oct. 7 to Oct. 31.

Beyond Queer Lens, the Pleiades Arts Board intends to stage Truth to Power 2020, at a location not yet determined. The nonprofit is always looking to partner with artists, advocates, and activists who want to tell their stories, Leverty said. 

“What we’re interested in is anybody that wants to partner with us to create these art experiences that are accessible and authentic,” she said.

Image at top is Chance Meeting by Michael Tice, one art piece to be featured in Queer Lens: Queer Identity in Arts, which opens Friday at The Fruit in Durham. 

Resurrecting Durham’s nearly-lost African-American cemetery

Growing up, I always believed it was disrespectful to walk across graves. At Geer Cemetery, it’s impossible to avoid. Geer is one of Durham’s oldest African-American cemeteries. About four acres large, the cemetery holds more than 1,500 people, but most of the graves are unmarked—a 1992 canvas counted about 100 graves.

The first burial took place 12 years after the end of the Civil War, in 1876. An 11-year-old child died after falling from a mule or a horse while working on the Geer farm and was buried on the land. His name is lost. In 1877, according to a handwritten county deed, white farmer James B. Geer sold the land to a group of three African-American Durhamites—prior to the formation of Durham County from parts of Wake and Orange counties in 1881—so that it could be used as a cemetery for African-Americans.

The project began in 2004. Jessica Eustice, an adult basic education adjunct instructor at Piedmont Community College and Durham Tech, born and raised in Durham, chose the house she lives in now partially because its proximity to Geer Cemetery reminded her of another abandoned cemetery near where she grew up in western Durham.

When there would be a storm blowing up in the afternoon in the summer, and the ozone is all in the air, and it’s just this moment of wind and anticipation, I would stand by the screen door and look down toward the cemetery and feel like the wind was blowing the spirits up out of it,” Eustice said. “And I always wondered about that. Maybe I was influenced by Casper the Friendly Ghost or something!”

The Friends of Geer project, website and Facebook group began as a project for course Eustice took at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies in 2003. When Eustice and her husband first moved into the neighborhood, the cemetery, which is off Colonial Street in Duke Park, was nearly impassable.

“Back in those days there was all this wisteria all over the place and poison ivy,” she said. “I mean, it was just like a jungle. It was really a jungle in there.”

The names in the cemetery are those of Durham’s oldest and most prominent families: Mangums and Markhams and the Geers, all three of which can also be found in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery. One of the most well-known burials at Geer is Edian D. Markham, who founded St. Joseph’s AME Church in Durham and organized Durham’s Hayti district.

Through the cemetery there’s a pine needle path where the poison oak and English ivy have been mostly cut back. It’s covered, partly, in grainy yellow Chapel Hill gravel—part of an Eagle Scout’s project last year, Eustice said. He also added two small benches along the path.

A toppled gravestone at Geer Cemetery (Frances Beroset

“So now it’s almost a park,” she said. “Not quite, but it could be one day. Like a memorial park where people could go and sit and get some fresh air and visit with the ancestors.”

Today, certain sections of the cemetery are still inaccessible if you aren’t willing to risk poison ivy and oak, but progress has been made. New solid marble markers label the three different parts of the cemetery. Piles of tree branches sit waiting to be collected. Someone has left real flowers on an overturned grave. Most of the gravestones, if they have any epitaph at all, read “at rest.” One reads “Just sleeping.” Massive oak and maple trees shade almost all the graves in Geer Cemetery.

A stark contrast is just a few minutes to the west, the sunny, 120-acre Maplewood Cemetery.  Most graves here are carefully marked with a massive headstone and footstone, some with towering obelisks and elaborate mausoleums, including those of the Duke family and the Mangums. Peppered intentionally with Cypress and magnolia trees, the paths are paved. All of the grass is freshly mown. An ostentatious memorial to Julian Carr and his family greets visitors. The City of Durham established Maplewood cemetery in 1872, only four years before the founding of Geer Cemetery, and most of the graves in the historic section of Maplewood date to around the same time.

On the day that I visit Maplewood, city of Durham workers are cutting down damaged trees and hauling them away. The city only operates two cemeteries: Maplewood and Beechwood. Beechwood is a historically African-American cemetery where many prominent city residents are interred, including the founder of North Carolina Central University, James Shephard. Beechwood opened to replace Geer Cemetery in 1924, though the last burial at Geer occurred in 1944. Some graves were moved from Geer to Beechwood at that time. As of now, nobody owns Geer, but Eustice thinks the city should take responsibility.

I know the city is relatively uninterested in their cemeteries,” Eustice said. “But yeah, I think the state law specifies that if a cemetery is abandoned, the city in which it’s abandoned should take it over. The cemetery is full of sunken graves, and of course, people walking in there could fall in the grave and be injured. There is nobody that’s gonna be responsible for that, so the city should be, they should do something either to prevent that from happening or to take responsibility if it does.”

The city is empowered to take responsibility for abandoned cemeteries by N.C. General Statute 160A-344, but the law doesn’t say that it must—only that it may assume control of a cemetery “the trustees or owners named in the deed or deeds for the property have died, or are unknown.” The Durham Cemeteries Management department did not respond to requests for comment.

Eustice has ceded some of the reins of Friends of Geer to Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia, who has taken steps to contact descendants of the people buried at Geer Cemetery, repairing some fallen headstones, and showing people how to clean the headstones so they aren’t damaged.

“She’s really getting things going, and the relatives are responding in really positive ways. So I think there’s a lot more energy around the whole preservation project of Friends of Geer than there ever has been before,” Eustice said.

Though Eustice isn’t Christian, she said the historical value of the cemetery and its spiritual significance to others, is what motivated her work on Geer Cemetery over the last 15 years.

Southern history has a lot of influence on my life and my thinking, and so just the fact that the cemetery was all but abandoned, is really a very big contrast between Geer [and Maplewood],” Eustice said. “It was such a concrete representation of the erasure of African-Americans in American history. And so my whole interest in it is it’s a concrete way of teaching American history.”

Photo at top by Frances Beroset.

The enigma of Union Member House, Durham’s hottest new club

If you’re a yuppie, or soon-to-be yuppie, on Facebook in Durham, it’s hard to escape the somewhat mysterious advertisements for something called Union Member House.

If you google “union member house durham nc,” the first result is a blog post titled “Is Union Member House the Coolest New Hangout Spot in Durham?” The interior design of the club depicted in the advertisements seems designed for Instagram: a green vintage sports car, a shelf of coffee-table books. A pink fluorescent cursive sign mounted on a wall of green plants reads “Come as strangers, Leave as friends.”

And that’s the idea. Actually, the idea is for Union, as founder Sonny Caberwal calls it, to be a “third place,” which isn’t home or work. In practical terms, Union Member House isn’t that enigmatic. It’s a social club: pay $250 a year as an entry fee, and you gain access to the club. During the day, it’s like a coffee shop. At night, it’s dinner or a bar. It host events for networking. When I interviewed Caberwal recently, people were having a book club at a table nearby, discussing Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”

Caberwal has always connected people. As an undergraduate at Duke, and as a Sikh from Asheboro, he says he disliked going to parties with only white people or only black people. He took it upon himself to “throw parties where different people would come together.”

Caberwal says Union is the 10th startup he’s been a part of, and the fourth he’s led. Most recently, Caberwal founded a company called Bond, which would mimic a handwritten note for $3.50. All you had to do was type the message and your recipient’s address into the site and enter your credit card information.

“Being nice to your customers isn’t just the nice or right thing to do,” he told a “It’s also good for business.” The site closed last month.

Caberwal, who graduated from Duke in 2001, says that his newest effort came about because in the modern age, most people are “poorly networked,” and because of that, social clubs are more important.

“A library can be a social club, a church can have a social club aspect to it, fitness groups,” Caberwal said. But whereas the hallmark of traditional social clubs, Caberwal is aiming for something different. “We live in a world where we try to be more equal-access as a society, and yet social clubs continue to have an exclusionary tone to them. The Wing is for women. WeWork is for entrepreneurs, Soho House is for… creatives. Country clubs are for, you know, people who like golf and tennis and live in a certain area.”

Union Member House certainly doesn’t look like how I imagine a country club—there’s a lot of concrete and exposed brick, for one. Artistically mismatched leather and velvet furniture form little seating areas throughout. And it’s actually in a basement, so every few minutes, the light from the windows gets blocked as a truck rolls past on Roxboro Street outside. Still, when I tried to describe Union Member House to my mother, she replied, “That’s a country club for yuppies who live in a city.” I put that to Caberwal, but he says Union Member House is different. Comparing the club to Crossfit, he says Union Member House is not for everyone—but it is for anyone who wants it.

“If you apply to Union, you will get in,” Caberwal said.

To claims of exclusionism—after all, $250 isn’t cheap—Caberwal says he’s working on ways to make it more accessible, but also that Union is already more accessible than it seems.

“We’re certainly more accessible than the YMCA. We’re more accessible than your parking pass. We’re more accessible than buying Starbucks every day,” he said. “So at the price point that we’re offering, $20 a month, and staffing people—there is a huge financial undertaking to build an institution that’s just dedicated to connecting people, without any financial incentive for us, and I don’t ever want there to be incentive to the connections that we provide people.”

Nonetheless, Union Member House has already been a target for criticism, first for a photography exhibit it initially called “Do It Like Durham,” also the slogan coined by activists who toppled the Confederate statue—the club later posted an apology note on Facebook explaining that the person who titled the exhibit wasn’t aware of its connection an existing movement—but also for the name of the club itself. The average Union Member House member is almost certainly not a union member.

“I think names should represent what you do, and I think that there are a lot of meanings of union, but the goal of Union is to bring people together,” Caberwal explained. “We’re doing it in college towns, and I thought it was like student unions, but really it’s about bringing people together. That’s our No. 1 goal.”

A storytelling event at Union Member House (Photo courtesy of Union Member House)

But why union members? Surely to most people the combination of the two words signifies members of a labor union.

“It is a challenge, it’s a challenge that people are like, hey it’s a worker’s union. My last company was called Bond, and bond means lots of things to lots of people. A bond is literally a financial instrument; it can also mean a relationship,” Caberwal said. “Union can be a labor union, it can also be a marital union, you know? For many people, and calling it Union Member House is particularly challenging, and probably not the best long-term name, right? Because like, a union member, that’s like even more loaded. It’s not intentional. My goal is to make it inexpensive, my goal is not to make it free. The reason I don’t make it free is because people don’t put effort into free. You have to put effort into making community.”

Part of the reason Union Member House came about, Caberwal says in the interview and in a letter posted on its site and Facebook, is because last year he experienced some unexpected health complications—a growth in his lymph nodes—and began to “re-evaluate.” Caberwal canceled a move to New York, enrolled his two children back in school at Durham Academy and asked his wife, who he says is “really cool,” if they could stay in Durham and he could try to do Union Member House full time for a year. The building previously housed the Durham Masonic Lodge, and later the Durham Health Department, but has been empty since 1992. According to the UMH website, a second location is planned to open in Austin, Texas, in 2019, and a third in Madison, Wisc., in 2020.

“I feel less risk around what will happen if we do this, than like, what will happen if I don’t try? I just want to try,” Caberwal said. “And if it doesn’t work out, I take that as a sign too.”

Caberwal, who describes himself as a “fairly scrappy entrepreneur,” views his role as setting things up for other people to succeed. He doesn’t see the club as his life’s work, and suggested that he plans to eventually hand it over to new management.

“Union is not my thing,” Caberwal said. “I don’t view it that way. My role as a founder and a leader is to empower and support talented people. So if you were to ask, ‘what are the things that keep you up at night?’ It would be people. People are the asset and the focus. And my job is to find and support great people. So I don’t think of this as ‘my task.’ I have a dream and a goal.”

Union Member House employed eight people in late November of last year, according to the tour guide when I toured at that time, around when they opened. Caberwal says he can’t disclose how many people are employed there now, but he says there are four people whose full-time job is to facilitate connections between people.

Of course, facilitating connections between people is Union Member House’s whole mission. It’s neither a standard coworking space nor a country club, but it functions as both—a place for people willing to pay for access to an attractive space where you can never be totally sure whether you’re at work or not. Caberwal isn’t really concerned about people who take issue with the name or concept. He’s selling connections, and he’s confident that there are buyers.

Photo at top courtesy of Union Member House.

Cocoa Cinnamon and the art of the coffee shop

During a recent visit to Cocoa Cinnamon’s Geer Street cafe for my customary rose petal-garnished latte, a woman came in, got in line, and after a moment, whispered to me, “What is this?” I told her it was a coffee shop, and she nodded, ordered a pastry, and left.

It’s not clear what she was expecting when she walked in, but I can understand the confusion. Even Cocoa Cinnamon’s owners approach their shops more as art projects than just another place to get coffee.

“We are artists,” Areli Barrera de Grodski told me recently at a table at the Lakewood location. “Leon was an installation artist before this, and a lot of his artist friends were like, ‘Why did you stop making art?’ And he’s like, ‘I haven’t.’ This is an installation, and this is very much all of our energy and our selves are being poured into these shops. Roasting coffee is an art in itself.”

Barrera de Grodski looks the part of an artist: she wears a pink biker jacket over a black shirt, statement earrings, a bunch of rings and a button with a little drawing of a hand giving a middle finger on it. If you drink coffee in Durham, you’ll likely recognize Barrera de Grodski from a visit to Cocoa Cinnamon, one of the city’s most recognizable and ubiquitous local coffee businesses. She and her husband, Leon Barrera de Grodski, co-own the business, which has grown to three coffee shops and a roastery, which resides behind glass at Cocoa Cinnamon’s most recent location in the Lakewood neighborhood.

The name, Areli Barrera de Grodski explained, came to her husband in a dream.

I call it the beta waves right before you’re awake and still kind of asleep,” Barrera de Grodski said, laughing a little. “I also call it the god mind—it’s where all the creative juices come and it’s just like you’re not even in your own body, everything’s just flowing. ‘Cocoa Cinnamon’ came to him in that state.”

The counter at Cocoa Cinnamon Lakewood (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Neither of the Barrera de Grodskis have any business schooling, and Areli’s discussions of the business focus more on aesthetics and experiences. She described the concept behind a series of paintings she plans on adding to the Lakewood location once they have enough to pay a local muralist, a history of coffee from two perspectives: indigenous people and Westerners.

“The name was inspired by the spice trade routes and the history of human migration,” Barrera de Grodski said. “It’s just looking at everything we work with and looking at its origins and its history and the cultures and the people that are involved in all of this. That’s what inspires our menu, and I think the idea of stories and relationships and coffee being this catalyst for conversation is what drives our business.”

Despite scrappy origins as a bicycle-borne coffee cart, the business now employs at least 38 employees—a few new hires are so new they aren’t in the shop’s system yet. And Barrera de Grodski said she wants the shop to start careers for their employees, not just jobs.

The couple’s journey in business began shortly after they were married in 2010, when they began selling chocolates that were made in Barrera de Grodski’s mother’s kitchen in Cherokee, N.C., but inspired by her native Tijuana, Mexico.

That was really fun for me to learn the history of chocolate and find out where it actually came from,” Barrera de Grodski said. “It just really rooted me in my own identity and culture.”

When the couple decided to move to Durham in 2011, they knew they wanted to open a coffee shop, but that they wanted to have a “genuine relationship” with the community around Geer Street before opening. The words “bike coffee” came to Leon Barrera de Grodski in a dream, too. So, with $75 in their bank account and no credit but a drive to succeed, they bought a rickshaw, went to Seven Star Cycles downtown and got help from friends and community members to engineer a bike, christened bikeCOFFEE, that could carry an espresso machine. Their first model didn’t exactly work out.

“The bike is built, and it’s like 400 pounds by itself,” Barrera de Grodski said. “Leon starts riding it around and like, flips it. He was like, ‘There’s no way we’re going to add a 500-pound espresso machine on the back of this.’”

Instead, they settled on serving pour-overs and iced coffee instead of espresso. The Barrera de Grodskis ran bikeCOFFEE for a year, selling outside of Fullsteam Brewery and Motorco just as Durham’s food-truck scene was exploding. They then started a Kickstarter for their first shop. The Kickstarter netted 640 backers, exceeding their goal, and got a city grant. The first location opened in 2013 in a former garage on Geer Street after help from neighbors and a lot of elbow grease.

“I miss that era… it was very bootstrappy, And we’re still bootstrapping it, I’m not going to lie,”  Barrera de Grodski said. “During that time, though, there was a different excitement in Durham. As soon as we opened the Geer Street location downtown, literally a year later all these development things started happening. There was a boom, Durham started getting all this attention and then all of a sudden all these investors are interested in changing up the scene.”

Barrera de Grodski knows that the city changing can also be labeled gentrification. Even in their early days, they tried to make sure they weren’t just catering to the burgeoning hipster-yuppie population.They would do tastings around town, in particular attempting to reach out to the Latino population in honor of Areli Barrera de Grodski’s heritage and the demographics of the neighborhood into which they and their business had moved.

“I tried to do a tasting in Spanish… that didn’t go so well,” she said. “People were just looking at us like, ‘What are you doing?’ The concept of having a tasting… also like, who are you? Even though we lived in the same apartment complex. They saw us, and they always saw us toting shit up and down the stairs, and they were all friendly, but when we invited them to come taste hot chocolate and coffee and tea… maybe like one or two people came.”

Cocoa Cinnamon has struggled with the same tensions, on a bigger scale, as the business grows. The Lakewood location was previously a “quinceañera hotspot,” and the storefronts around Cocoa Cinnamon have turned over rapidly.

“I know that in this neighborhood has changed drastically over the past two years. And I know that opening up a coffee shop is like the first sign of gentrification,” Barrera de Grodski said. “We’re aware of our role in that, and it’s really important to us to create as much of a positive impact as possible in the neighborhoods that we’re moving into, trying to undo that negative impact.”

Areli Barrera de Grodski poses with 4th Dimension’s coffee roaster, which she calls her “baby.” (Photo by Katie Nelson)

With that in mind, Barrera de Grodski hired mostly Lakewood residents to work at the location, including some staff who speak mostly Spanish. The business pays a living wage, $13.35 an hour. The shop also accepts requests for donations of gift cards or drinks to support Durham non-profit work, which they distribute by committee once a month.

Meanwhile, the business continues to grow. The couple’s newest project is 4th Dimension Coffee, which supplies the cafes and others nationwide with roasted coffee beans. The Barrera de Grodskis trade off responsibilities every so often, so Areli is mostly in charge of 4th Dimension, while Leon manages the shops. The name 4th Dimension is confusing, but Barrera de Grodski notes that they chose a different name so people would understand the coffee isn’t cocoa or cinnamon flavored.

“Leon and I just talked about that this morning. We have our deepest conversations right when we wake up,” Barrera de Grodski said. “He had this dream about how to get people to realize that 4th Dimension Coffee is Cocoa Cinnamon. The reason we named our roastery 4th Dimension is because it’s our approach to coffee. It’s inspired by the Dada movement and surrealism, in terms of being able to see something from different perspectives and different points of view, and needing the information of other things to get the whole picture.”

The whole picture of Cocoa Cinnamon, then, is something like one part world history project, one part art project, and a lot of coffee with a rose-petal garnish—optional, but recommended.

Photo at top by Katie Nelson.

A ‘Best of Enemies’ Durham tour

“How in the hell does anyone believe a story like this?” C.P. Ellis asks in “An Unlikely Friendship,” Diane Bloom’s 2003 documentary in which he stars.

For good reason. In the 1970s, Ellis was an outspoken voice for white supremacists in Durham, an “Exalted Cyclops” with the local Ku Klux Klan. He often butted heads with Ann Atwater, a fearless civil rights activist and community organizer in Durham’s poorest black neighborhoods.

But in 1971, the two agreed to co-chair a charrette, an intense series of community meetings focused on easing racial conflicts in schools. Their encounters bloomed into an unlikely alliance that have been chronicled as a novel, a play, and now, a film.

Starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, “The Best of Enemies” opened in theaters nationwide last week. Even though the movie was filmed in Georgia, it is mostly true to real events in Durham. Not all city schools were segregated in 1971, but Durham was under a federal court order to eliminate racial segregation where it remained.

Several locations in the film depict places still standing today. Here are some of the spots where the real drama played out:

C.P. Ellis’ service station
2620 Angier Ave.

C.P. Ellis told interviewers he joined the local Ku Klux Klan after meeting klan members who stopped by his service station after their afternoon meetings. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Now L & D Grocery & Grill, this was once the location of Ellis’ gas station which he proudly purchased after years of saving. “I was having a tough time financially, getting enough money together to buy a tank of gas to put in there,” Ellis said in “An Unlikely Friendship.” The station became a popular spot for local klansmen to grab a drink after their nearby meetings. It was through conversations with these customers that Ellis eventually joined their chapter and came to leadership, feeling he had finally found community. He was ostracized by former friends after publicly denouncing the klan at the final night of the charrette. By 2002, long after he became a union leader for Duke University maintenance workers, not much had changed: “I bet you I could walk up to that corner in East Durham right now, and there wouldn’t be two people to speak to. That’s how long this lasted,” he said in the documentary.

East End Elementary School
515 Dowd St.

After fire struck East End elementary school in 1963, parents were furious that the city started double sessions rather than move their children to nearby schools attended by white students that had room. A school boycott followed, part of black families’ push to get Durham to fully desegregate the city’s schools. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

The original East End Graded School, built in 1909, was the third elementary school founded for African-American students in Durham, according to Open Durham. The structure above, built on the same site, dates to 1932. A fire badly damaged East End in 1963, not right before the charrette as the new movie suggests. It is true that the school’s parents were angry that the city ran two shifts of classes at the school rather than move their children to schools with white students after the fire, according to Osha Gray Davidson’s book “The Best of Enemies.” The book, the inspiration for the new movie, also reports that the fire was arson. Today, the building houses the Bethel Family Worship Center.

North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company
411 W Chapel Hill St.

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis said repeatedly that they hated each other before the charrette. Bill Riddick brought them to a cafeteria here to begin their unlikely collaboration to try to improve the city’s schools. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Charrette organizer Bill Riddick of Raleigh arranged the first official meeting between future co-chairs Ellis and Atwater at the NC Mutual cafeteria, though the pair already knew each other from contentious faceoffs in city council meetings. (In one encounter, Atwater nearly pulled a knife on Ellis but a friend stopped her.) “[The cafeteria] was kind of neutral. It wasn’t in the African American neighborhood, and it was far enough removed for C.P. Ellis to come,” Riddick in “An Unlikely Friendship.” At first, Ellis was unwilling to sit at the table.

“CP was pacing the floor ‘cause Bill and I were the only blacks there [..] and he didn’t want anybody to see him sit down with no blacks to eat,” Atwater said in Bloom’s documentary. Eventually, Ellis pulled up a chair though both he and Atwater remained leery of each other throughout the duration of the meeting. For Riddick, the confrontation was a troubling omen for the charrette to come. “After that first meeting I actually went home saying, ‘This is crazy. This is absolutely crazy. I don’t think I want to do this. I mean, I can make a living easier than this,” he said in the documentary.

N. Harris Elementary School
1520 Cooper St.

Ellis brought a Ku Klux Klan robe and publications to display during the charrette, which Atwater prevented black teenagers from destroying. She told them to read to better understand those trying to keep them down. Black Durham residents sang gospel music together after meetings, which drew Ellis closer to them. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

The Save Our Schools charette met at N. Harris Elementary School for 10 days from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It was sponsored by the AFL-CIO through a grant from the Emergency School Assistance Program, a fedCongressional measure to aid in school desegregation, it was the first charrette in the South to be administered on a community-wide basis and hosted a 1,000-person audience at its final meeting, according to the documentary. “[A charrette] just seemed to me to be a fascinating tool to solve community problems” Riddick said in “An Unlikely Friendship.”

While racial tensions made for heated debate and unrest, some community members took the opportunity to foster understanding. When Howard Clement III, then chairman of the Durham Black Solidarity Committee, called Ellis “brother,” it was reported in the Washington Post. When Ellis exhibited a Klan uniform and informational pamphlets at the school, Atwater stopped a group of young boys from destroying his display. “I said, […] ‘You can peep his hole card by reading. You won’t never know where he comes from if you don’t read it and see what’s in the writing,’” Atwater said in Bloom’s documentary. Ellis saw the exchange. “When I went back in the office he says, ‘You ain’t as bad as I thought you was.’ And he started from that day changing about me” she said in the documentary.

The charrette also became an opportunity for fellowship. Black attendees began playing gospel music after meetings and soon Ellis joined in. “When he was tapping his feet I said, ‘We ‘bout got him.’ And when he was clapping his hands I said, ‘I know we got him,’” Atwater said in “An Unlikely Friendship.”

Ellis stunned people on the charrette’s final night. “C.P. Ellis took his Klan card out and said that if schools are going to be better by me tearing this card up, I will do so.’ And, as my grandmother said, my eye tooth fell out. I did not believe I heard that,” Riddick said in the documentary. Atwater remembered Ellis losing “a lot” due to his decision, but he gained a friend in his former foe that would last his lifetime. Atwater spoke at his funeral.

Photo at top by Katie Nelson.

It started with a hat: Crazy Towel Guy’s long journey to fanaticism

Hidden on a quiet suburban road in north Durham is a white brick house with bright blue shutters. The open garage reveals a matching blue sedan. When the blue front door opens, a tall string bean of a man is standing, smiling, in a blue sweatshirt that nearly camouflages his torso against the blue front door.

All the blues are Duke blue.

This is Herb Neubauer, Duke University’s beloved “Crazy Hat Guy.”

Wait. That’s not right.

Neubauer’s story certainly starts with a hat: a blue leather fedora bought on a quick trip to Tijuana during an L.A. excursion to see a Duke basketball game. Back in Durham, the hat made Neubauer’s head sweat in the relentless heat of Cameron Indoor Stadium. (There was no air conditioning in the 1990s). The story continues with a towel, innocently brought into the stadium to mop his sweaty scalp.

And then, a fire: It raged through Neubauer’s apartment in 1994, incinerating his extensive Duke ticket collection, more than 250 Duke T-shirts, and his beloved leather hat. He replaced the towel and kept it tucked in his jeans for every game.

Not long after, he earned the name that he’s best known for today, whose call of duty is issued by thousands of students who stand across from his perch in Section 7, Row G, Seat 8.

“Crazy Towel Guy!”

It begins as a murmur from a blue student mob of smurfs and cookie monsters and jerseys and baby dolls and pigtails and mohawks and tutus otherwise known as the Cameron Crazies.

Next a little bit louder: “Crazy Towel Guy!”


He stands, looks around, and pumps his arms until he gets enough response out of the crowd around him. He waves the towel in circles over his head.

Herb Neubauer winds up the Cameron roar with his trusty towel, to the delight of the fans around him. (Photos by Bill Adair)

The enthusiast

As a student who enrolled at Duke in 1959, Neubauer’s first passion was football.  

In 53 years, he missed only two or three football games, even while living and working in Richmond, Virginia.

“I was wild. We’d stay ‘til the end of the games. When everybody was leaving when they had bad streaks during the bad years, we’d give ’em hell,” he says. When his friends started to leave, he’d beg them to stay. “WHERE YOU GOING!?,” he’d say. “HAVE ANOTHER DRINK!”

The Rockingham, North Carolina native studied business administration, a major now extinct. He took jobs in Charlotte, Richmond, and Denver. After joining Food Lion, he worked his way up the corporate ladder.

In 1980, Neubauer purchased his first season ticket to Duke basketball. This was the same year that Mike Krzyzewski started coaching the Blue Devils. Just seven years later, Neubauer’s executive status and Food Lion stocks, as well as health concerns, allowed him to retire and settle back in Durham “to be a full-time Duke sports fan.”

Now “77 years young,” Neubauer has attended all but one home game of the men’s basketball team, and countless others on the road.

Neubauer has watched every Duke sport at least once. During a 2009-2010 binge, he attended 238 matches that included every home game for every Duke team, including rowing, fencing and javelin throwing. That took a lot of driving between Durham and Duke athletic sites. Although no one keeps records on such a thing, it’s safe to say probably no one else has accomplished that feat. And, safe to say, it was a one and done.

“I almost got killed a couple of times on the highway, but it was something I had to do once. My wife said, ‘Do it again, and you’ll be single’,” says Neubauer, who keeps the binder documenting every game he attended, sorted by sport. 

Neubauer has been married to Judith Villare Neubauer, a native of the Philippines, for 23 years. The two met as “pen friends.” Neubauer found her photo in an Asian magazine, wrote her a letter, and soon enough, she came from overseas and the two were married. Neubauer says he fell for her because of her knowledge of sports: “That’s my life. I’m a sports junkie. Somehow she picked me.”

The two honeymooned in Orlando, to see Disney World — and a Duke football game.

The philanthropist

Judith, a manager at Belks in Crabtree Valley Mall, is one of 10 brothers and sisters. The couple has 47 nieces and nephews. Being part of a large family inspires Neubauer’s compassion. In his 13 trips to the Philippines, Neubauer says he was so struck by the poverty that he vowed to make a change. He rebuilt Judith’s mother’s home and aspires to send at least one of every siblings’ children to college.

Neubauer supports a scholarship of his own for Duke athletes too. He sold Crazy Towel Guy towels, co-signed by Coach K., to help feed the homeless in the Durham area in 1998. With the help of students, he was able to sell 2,000 towels and raised more than $25,000.

Extreme sports fans sometimes say they would die for their favorite teams. Neubauer almost has – multiple times. He’s suffered three heart attacks and had other scares; but it hasn’t kept him from his seat in Cameron.

Neubauer had an ESPN team following him, filming a fan special in 2002, when he began to suffer from arrhythmia. When in the hospital for treatment, his doctor recognized him and joked that Neubauer would wake up a Carolina fan.

During one game in Cameron, he suffered what paramedics thought might be a heart attack. As he was being carted out, he kept looking over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the scoreboard. Neubauer had select words for hospital administrators when he realized that the hospital wasn’t showing the game.

The sentimentalist

Duke basketball has changed – and Neubauer has too. Two decades ago, he could catch a lift on the team plane to games. He attended banquets, killed beers with Laettners and screamed from behind the bench with Hills. This year, he hasn’t done more than take a photo with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, because he “doesn’t want to bother them.”

With the increasing commercialization of college sports, season ticket prices have increased as the accessibility of players has decreased. In the same way, Neubauer notes how the dynamic within Cameron Indoor has shifted, especially when it comes to his call from the Crazies.

It’s a small change, but an important one to a fan obsessed with tradition. In the mid-1990s, they called for him like clockwork, twice in every game, “always at the 11-minute mark.”

Now it’s random, unpredictable. Are the Crazies, with all their traditions and routines, forgetting Crazy Towel Guy?

“This year, it’s sort of scary… I just don’t think they really understand,” Neubauer says.

Undergrads Steve Hassey and Peter Potash, leaders of a student group that keeps Crazies in line, see it differently. “We intentionally delay chanting,” they wrote in a joint email. “We want the jolt of energy he provides to carry over and inspire the team as they resume play. Just like ‘Everytime We Touch’ and the banners in the rafters, Crazy Towel Guy is a staple of the Cameron Indoor experience.”

Still, it seems we’ve reached the twilight of the Crazy Towel Guy Era, just as it is with the Age of K.

At his home, Neubauer flips through one of his many scrapbooks featuring an endless amount of photos of him with volleyball, tennis, basketball players, coaches, former athletes and the legendary coach.

“He’s a great man,” Neubauer says of Krzyzewski. “I wish I’d lived as good of a life as he does… What a void it’ll leave when he leaves.”

Speculation is rising over when Coach K will retire. People wonder about Neubauer, too.

He has it all planned out. It’s going to be big, just like his personality. But as long as the Crazies keep calling, and his health stays intact, he isn’t going anywhere.

Thankfully so because to so many, including Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta, “He’s a Duke treasure.”

Besides, he’s already purchased plane tickets to Minneapolis for the Final Four.

(Photo at top by Bill Adair)


Elusive euphoniums, Simonetti’s sousaphone at Durham’s well-stocked, private tuba museum

Just southeast of Duke University winds Chapel Hill Road, a street lined with sprawling Maplewood Cemetery, many faded pastel homes and one single-story house that Ronald McDonald could have painted.

That glaring yellow and red rambler houses the V & E Simonetti Historic Tuba Collection, the world’s largest privately owned tuba museum, says owner Vince Simonetti.

Simonetti is patriarch of the collection’s tuba family that numbers 330. He’s got Berliner Pumpens, Ophicleides, and Saxhorns. Some made by Conn, Wurlitzer, and Vocedalek. He even has a serpent instrument, a black woodwind that truly looks just like an anaconda, that dates to 1830.

Simonetti’s tuba collection is an offspring of the Tuba Exchange, which once sold new and used tubas. He and his wife Ethel Simonetti ran the business in that same house for 27 years  before selling it in 2011.

“We had a very good business,” he says.

Vince and Ethel Simonetti ran the Tuba Exchange in the same spot for 27 years  before selling the business in 2011. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Regrettably, Simonetti says, he was getting too old to run it. But reaching his seventies could not force him to sever all ties with the tubas. “I just couldn’t part with them,” Simonetti says.

So he kept hundreds and has purchased more for his collection, which he welcomes others to visit and enjoy.

Tubas through time

The museum is a no-frills enterprise. Simonetti doesn’t pay curators or shoulder high utility costs, as evidenced recently by the broken central heating and 65-degree chill. Instead, he spends his money on more instruments from Russia, from China, from Germany, from America.

Tubas line the walls and the floors. Ceilings too. They look like, well, a lot of plumbing. Some form rows. Others rest on hangers screwed to walls. One’s dead weight appears to have opened a hairline crack on the wall.

Some tubas appear to be aging along with Simonetti. Their brass shimmer fades as they lie dormant. But Simonetti breathes life into many. Not only does he play their conical tubes, he knows where they were made, their bell positioning, how many valves each carries, and the shape of their valve ports.

Visit and he’ll deliver an hour-and-a-half rehearsed presentation of tuba history and minor variations among instruments. His nasal voice fills the museum, which otherwise is silent save for creaky floors and cars rolling by.

“These are called piston valves.” Simonetti says, pointing to a button-looking tuba part. “There is another type of valve used on a brass instrument. If you press this key, it turns instead of going up and down like the piston of a car. But if you press this, it adds this much tubing to the overall length.”

Simonetti’s fascination with the tuba is more about its distinctive design than its mellow sound. When he first saw a tuba as a 13-years-old in Hawthorne, N.J., he thought it looked like it had been hit by a truck.

“I instantly became infatuated with it,” Simonetti says. “I used to draw pictures of it in study hall.”

When alone, Simonetti plays and otherwise tends to his prized tubas, which are displayed within nearly every available square inch at his museum. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Sharing the wealth

Open to the public only from 3 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the collection attracts about five or six visitors per week, Simonetti says. That’s fortunate. Not many more would fit in around the rows and rows of tubas.

Local, well-mannered preschoolers have visited. So has the brass section of London’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Meg Hourigan, a saxophonist with the all-female You’re Not Listening Brass Band, came upon the Simonetti collection while surfing the web to learn more about her rare 1920s sousaphone.

What she found was probably the internet’s “most detailed list” of sousaphone models, she says. So she drove to Durham during a North Carolina road trip in August 2017.

“I was in North Carolina to see the eclipse in the western part of the state. A five-hour detour was a drop in the bucket,” says Ms. Hourigan, who lives in Connecticut.

When not educating visitors, Simonetti spends hours polishing tubas, reading tuba history in Clifford Bevan’s “The Tuba Family,” or recruiting new tubas to his collection. He raves about his most recent get, the 1830 serpent he bought for 2,000 pounds from Scotland.

Next he wants a seven-foot pit tuba and a triple C or triple B flat tuba, he says. But he has a problem: The collection is running out of space. Admission is getting more selective than the Ivy League. He can take five, maybe six each year.

“The tuba would have to be something totally unique,” he says.

Just as unique as a tuba collection in the middle of Durham.

(Photo at top by Katie Nelson)


‘The Best of Enemies,’ a new movie about Durham, wasn’t filmed in Durham

A new film that celebrates a pivotal event in Durham’s history has an important asterisk: It wasn’t filmed in Durham.

Set to hit theaters nationwide April 5 after a special showing at the Carolina Theater March 19, The Best of Enemies chronicles the unlikely encounters between civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and then-KKK leader C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) as they co-chair the committee to desegregate Durham schools in 1971 following a court order.

But while the film tells an important story about Durham, the vast majority of its filming did not take place here. Instead, audiences will see small-town Georgia – the Bartow County Courthouse, Ross’ Diner in Cartersville and the Macon-Bibb Government Center – as stand-ins for the Durham of the early 1970s.

Astute Films, which co-produced The Best of Enemies, found everything it needed in the Atlanta area.

Astute Films’ Harrison Powell told the Atlanta Film Chat podcast that Atlanta’s setup as a “series of small neighborhoods” helps films of all themes and settings make the city work for them. In the case of The Best of Enemies, the small towns of Macon and Cartersville offered both retro-looking architecture (or the potential, with a paint job) and an advantageous location close to the city.

So it was easy to make Durham from scratch.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told The 9th Street Journal that the shooting location of the film is less important than the story it will tell.

“I knew Ann Atwater and Claybourn Ellis and had personal relationships which each of them. And I’m very excited that they’re going to be celebrated,” he said.

Moreover, the film’s themes of cross-cultural, cross-racial, and cross-ideological friendship and collaboration tie into Durham’s plans for its sesquicentennial celebration.

“I think it would’ve been nice if it was shot here. [But] this is going to tell a story that the world ought to know. For that I’m very excited,” Schewel said. “I’m excited that it’s Durham’s 150th birthday and it’s really appropriate that the film will be a part of that celebration.”

Hollywood films are all about illusion, of course, and filmmakers go where the tax breaks are.

“It’s not as unusual for a project that may be set in one place to film in another,” said Guy Gaster, director of FilmNC, the state’s film commission. “North Carolina certainly had their fair share of those projects as well, including Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which actually filmed in our state and not in Missouri.”

Indeed, North Carolina has brought in major pictures over the years including The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3 and Dirty Dancing. According to a 2014 study, the film industry spent more than $1 billion here between 2007 and 2012, including $58.3 million in tax revenue for the state after tax credits.

But the state’s popularity as a film location has diminished since 2014, when the General Assembly downsized North Carolina’s lucrative tax incentives to a more limited grant program.

Much of the filming business North Carolina may have attracted is now lost to Georgia. In 2008, the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act launched Atlanta into prominence as an entertainment production and industry hub. Today, its film industry ranks just behind Los Angeles and New York. With generous tax credits and write-offs after release, the incentive program is cost-effective for productions while mitigating risk for investors.

Georgia’s incentive policy has a momentous impact on films’ decision to come to the state.

“From what we see, it’s because of those film tax incentives. That’s the biggest factor,” said Emily Murray, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

The film industry’s economic impact in Georgia has soared from $241.5 million in 2007 to $9.52 billion in 2017.

“Film productions bring in business as far as catering, local jobs for stylists, makeup artists, construction workers, electrical workers,” said Murray. “And then while they’re there, they’re sometimes buying hotel rooms, they’re paying the location fees, they’re working with the city to close roads and paying those fees, they’re working with local businesses.”

Gaster of the North Carolina film commission noted that these kinds of ripple effects are among Durham’s losses at not seeing The Best of Enemies filmed in town. But, he said, “Durham will still benefit because the project has been made to look like it is Durham. There’s still the Durham story.”

(Photo at top: An image from the film’s trailer depicts Durham in 1971.)  

‘This Is a Target-Rich Environment’: Inside the Rhine Research Center’s Parapsychology Probes

Five minutes from Duke Hospital, in a quiet office park that also houses the offices of U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a real-estate agent, a financial coach, and a dentist, the Rhine Research Center is open for its eighth decade of business.

At first glance, the space could pass for the home of any other association—cookie-cutter office chairs, fluorescent lights, and shelves of old volumes collecting dust. It’s the details that suggest something different. A bust of J.B. Rhine, the center’s long-deceased founder, glowers at visitors across from a kitschy glass goblet full of bent spoons, and every now and then the phone rings, with someone calling to report a paranormal experience.

John Kruth stands in the “receiver’s room” at the Rhine Research Center. This is where research subjects attempt to perceive observations made by people in another room, a process that is being revised. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

John Kruth, the executive director, sits at a table with his laptop and cell phone. Wearing glasses, a goatee, two silver rings and a turquoise collared shirt, Kruth doesn’t look like a stereotypical scientist. HIs phone’s ringtone is a Star Trek sound effect. He refers to the movie “Ghost” a lot, usually in a derisive way. Kruth has spent the past ten years researching in a field most people believe to be pseudoscience. The Rhine Research Center investigates parapsychology: extrasensory perception, psychokinesis, precognition, hypnosis, and energy healing, among other phenomena. He feels like he’s found his calling, and his work at the Rhine is only getting started.

Kruth has had an interest in parapsychology since his childhood growing up in Pittsburgh, but says conversations with skeptics inspired him to wonder how to communicate about parapsychology with people who don’t know anything about it. That’s when he realized he needed a science degree, and earned an M.S. in research psychology.

“I actually grew up in a family and a community where it was very well accepted, these types of activities. I was practicing hypnosis and meditation from the time I was a very, very small child, and did visualization techniques, had different people in my family who were healers and doing energy healing, so it was not uncommon for me,” Kruth says. “But when I tried to talk to other people about it, they thought I was nuts!”

Kruth moved to Durham from Philadelphia in the 1980s because the Rhine was located here, but it took him years to first walk through the door. Kruth has now been at the Rhine for 10 years and executive director for seven, and he says he’s doing what he’s wanted to do his whole life: researching parapsychology and communicating the findings to as many interested people as possible.

The Rhine Center is still one of the leading parapsychology laboratories in the country. It’s also one of the few left. But there was a time when the laboratory was cutting-edge science and one of Duke University’s claims to international fame. Parapsychology arose from late-19th century English research into communication with the dead and apparitions. In 1930, Duke became the first American university to grant parapsychology a foothold, largely under the leadership of William McDougall. A British eugenicist and well-known social psychologist, McDougall became head of Duke’s psychology department in 1927 and brought with him to Durham two telepathy and clairvoyance researchers, though they were botanists by training: Joseph Banks Rhine (who Kruth calls “J.B.” in conversation) and his wife, Louisa E. Rhine.

In 1933, Duke awarded the first American doctorate in parapsychology. The student, John F. Thomas, later published the thesis as a book called “An Evaluative Study of Mental Content of Certain Trance Phenomena.” For his thesis, Thomas tested different psychic mediums, primarily a woman named Gladys, to see how accurately they could transmit messages from his own wife, who died nine years before he received his doctorate. Thomas’s research found an overall success rate of 92 percent.

Two years later, with the support of University President William Few, McDougall created the country’s first parapsychology lab, appointing Rhine, “mop-haired ex-Marine sergeant,” as director. The lab quickly captured a great deal of media attention, with The Chronicle reporting in 1937 that “nearly every important journal in England and France during the past year has given accounts to the researches in extra-sensory perception carried on by Dr. J.B. Rhine.”

After McDougall’s death in his home on East Campus in 1938, Rhine dreamed of cleaving the lab from the psychology department, where his colleagues found him to be overly self-promotional. In 1947, the Rhine Lab split from the department but continued on campus with support from the Duke statistics department, which generally found his analysis to be sound. In 1962, Rhine established the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in a big building a stone’s throw from campus. Though he retired from Duke in 1965, he continued working until 1976, searching for a suitable successor. Rhine died in 1980. His last words to his wife Louisa were reportedly, “The work must go on.”

The work goes on. Sometimes, there are experiments in the labs upstairs. At other times, the center hosts educational events, plus two monthly meetings: the psychic experiences group and the dream studies group. This month, its very Web. 2.0 site advertises two events, one called “Are you an Empath in a World of Chaos?” and the other “Healing through Qigong – Creating Balance.” Four days a week, the book collection, one of the largest parapsychology libraries in the country, is open to all. There’s a small section on aliens, a lot on ESP, plus a complete set of the Journal of Parapsychology, a peer-reviewed journal published in Durham since 1937. On the website, 15 donors have donated $1,040.00 toward a $5,000 fundraising goal to “keep the library current.” (Dr. Sally Rhine Feather, J.B. and Louisa’s daughter, celebrated her 89th birthday in January and is executive director emerita of the center.)

The Rhine Research Center Past collects past issues of the Journal of Parapsychology, which it publishes. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Along with Rhine’s bust, the library is decorated with old technology like Zener cards and the goblet of bent spoons. The cards, which you might remember from the opening scene of “Ghostbusters,” were developed by Karl E. Zener, a Duke professor, for use in ESP experiments. The spoons are leftovers from the Center’s “PSI games,” which Kruth describes as a more entertaining throwback event when compared with the rest of the Center’s business. Kruth says about a third of the participants in PSI games are able to usual visualization techniques to find the strength to bend the spoons. Some people bend so many that they leave them behind at the Center.

“Typically it gets soft, and they become very easy to manipulate and bend,” Kruth says. “My first thought is, oh, they’re using their strength. But the first time we did a session here, we had a woman who was walking from station to station, she had an oxygen tank. Every time we got there she would have to sit down—she was very weak, she was an older woman. And when it came time for the spoon bending, she had two bent spoons. And I was like, ‘There’s no way she used her muscles to do this. This woman can’t even stand up for more than 10 minutes at a time.’”

The center has a sense of humor about itself, but Kruth wants people to know that the research itself is serious.

“I always say this is a target-rich environment,” he says, smiling. “There’s a lot of opportunity, there’s a lot of things that could be studied. There aren’t a lot of parapsychologists in the world who are trained in the scientific aspect of it, and who are trained in the language of math and statistics and the scientific method, and who can also understand the phenomena really well.”

Kruth says that the scientific community can be “dogmatically materialist” in its thinking, and that this paradigm is also generally accepted by the public. Because of this, Kruth says, he doesn’t try to win over dyed-in-the-wool skeptics. But many people are eager to share their own psychic experiences when they find out what he does for a living. Others, he admits, can be derisive.

“One of my very good friends who I spend a lot of time with, as soon as she found out I was here, she was like, ‘You don’t believe that crap, do you?’” Kruth remembers. “She was completely on the materialistic side, but she had no scientific background, had no knowledge of any of the studies, no information about anything that was being done.”

Kruth can’t identify when he first developed an interest in parapsychology. It’s always been a part of his life. Growing up, he and his siblings played with a set of Zener cards, pre-Ghostbusters fame. They would warn friends not to read the answers in Trivial Pursuit silently before they guessed, because otherwise, the Kruth siblings would “get the answer from somewhere.”

“We played games a little different from other people did,” Kruth says with a laugh. He also practiced self-hypnosis and visualization as a child. He recalls a trip to a baseball game where, amid the chaos of a van filled with kids, he sat quietly.

“Somebody asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m doing my visualization for the game. I’m visualizing what’s gonna happen,’” Kruth says. “It surprised me that they didn’t understand what I was talking about and that they thought I was weird for doing this. I thought they were weird for not doing it. To me, this was just what you do; it’s how you make your performance better.”

Today, Kruth runs studies in the Rhine’s lab on whether visualization really can improve real-life goal realization. His primary research interest, however, is energy healing, or bioenergy. He compares parapsychology to quantum physics: Both fields step outside the materialist paradigms, and observer effects are part of both. Kruth predicts that ideas in parapsychology will soon permeate quantum physics, and perhaps his research will be a part of that.

Kruth knows how kooky the notion of energy healing can sound. But he says he’s observed healers emitting low levels of ultraviolet light as they work. He links the light emitted by living organisms, called biophotons, to recent findings in physics and biology. Biophotons are a type of bioluminescence—the same biological process that allows fireflies to produce their own light—though biophotons, unlike firefly bioluminescence, are not visible to the human eye.

“We’re using standard physics and equipment to do this. What it seems that we’re detecting is something that could related to the type of energy that people have been describing for so many years,” Kruth says. “When I have chi masters in there, I can see that some of them can carefully control the light emissions in the studies that we’ve done.”

John Kruth walks through the Rhine Research Center towards rooms where the he and others probe the paranormal. Portraits of former researchers and study subjects line the walls. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Kruth wants to bring younger researchers into parapsychology. In addition to their groups and PSI games, the Center hosts two online courses, one on “advanced field investigations,” which Kruth says is not like T.V. ghost-hunting, and one taught by himself on qualitative analysis methods, a type of research method gaining popularity in the social sciences which uses information impossible to quantify, like interviews and observation. Kruth estimates that the Center has taught more than 500 students via online classes, mostly people who “want to know the real evidence” for the existence of paranormal phenomena.

“For so many years that the work has been done in this field, it has been either marginalized or pushed aside, and a lot of it has to do with the publicity that the skeptical movement has gotten recently,” Kruth says. “This is why we’re kind of changing the way people look at it, and letting them know we’re doing serious science here. We have peer-reviewed journals, we have replications that are going on all the time, and we’re trained as scientists. We’re not just sitting in our basement trying to do this; this is a formal research facility.”

When Kruth considers which phenomena he’s observed in his lifetime has been most surprising to him, you can almost forget he’s not just another materialist scientist in an orthodox discipline.

“We design experiments for our lab. We’re very careful about the way we design them. We’re blinded, we try to make sure there’s no way to cheat: we’re very careful and controlled and everything about how we set them up. We’re so careful about it, that we second-guess ourselves over and over again,” Kruth says. “I’ve done everything I could to make it impossible for someone to do this, and it happens anyway? It surprises me every time. This is why I’m doing this work, I guess. It’s phenomenal, the things that I see. It’s amazing that these things actually happen.”

Immaculata Catholic School shut down after gay City Council member’s talk is canceled

The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church campus is usually buzzing busy on Fridays. Teachers and students fill Immaculata Catholic School; parishioners stream to Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

But campus was empty Friday, shut down with one day’s notice. A church official said the school had been threatened with protests after inviting, and disinviting, an openly gay Durham City Council member to speak.

In a letter to Immaculata student families, Immaculate Conception Pastor Chris VanHaight said he made the dramatic move to protect children. “I cannot place our Immaculata students into this contentious environment,” he said.

Vernetta Alston, the council member, had been invited to speak as a part of the school’s Black History Month celebration kickoff. Alston, a black woman, is an Immaculata alumna, a lawyer and a mother. She is also married to a woman.  

Vernetta Alston was elected to the Durham City Council in 2017. (Photo: Joel Luther)

Alston, who has worked for the non-profit Center for Death Penalty Litigation, was set to speak to the entire school, which teaches grades kindergarten to eight, for eight minutes, said Kaaren Haldeman. She is a member of the African-American Heritage Committee that planned the school’s Black History Month celebration. 

The theme: how Immaculata shaped her life of service.

“Our theme was influential black women,”  Haldeman said. “She was perfect.”

Haldeman said her committee was not contacted ahead of the decision to change plans for Friday. Not welcoming Alston to speak “does not reconcile with our community values” her committee said in a statement posted on Facebook Friday morning.

Church and school officials did not return multiple phone calls Friday. The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, led by Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, did publish a short statement supporting VanHaight’s decision.

“Bishop Zarama continues to support the recent decisions Fr. Chris made in this matter and looks forward to further supporting him in inviting constructive dialogue with the school, parish and broader community,” it read.

Alston released a statement too, on city letterhead. First she thanked those who supported her invitation to speak at her old school, which she said “built the scaffolding” of her character and values.

Then she voiced disappointment.  

Catholic leaders are “sending a sad, regressive, and life-altering message to our children — that the voices and experiences of those within the Black community can be canceled and that inclusion is not valued by some who are charged with shaping their character,” Alston wrote.

They are “depriving the students at Immaculata of the chance to honor Black history, and in doing so, condemning the lives and rights of the LGBTQ community,” she also wrote.

The LGBTQ Center of Durham also released a statement expressing disappointment in the school’s decision to disinvite Alston.

Haldeman, the committee member, said the only call for protest against Alston’s appearance at Immaculata she saw online came from an out-of-state, radical conservative Catholic blog.

“I think it’s filled with hate,” Haldeman said, describing the blog. “It comes from a position of hate.”

One post that 9th Street found by Restore-DC-Catholicism called the prospect of Alston speaking “an atrocity” earlier this week. The page linked contact information for Immaculata staff and Zarama’s office.

The post urged readers to call and demand the event be canceled and protest if it were to take place. An update added on Tuesday observed that Alston’s name had been removed from the school’s website.

A sign taped to a glass door at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church Friday alerted parishioners that the church, school and offices were closed Friday.  (Photo: Jake Sheridan)

Immaculate Conception Church is known in Durham for its emphasis on social justice, not a conservative stance on social issues. New Ways Ministry, a group that  “educates and advocates for justice and equality for LGBT Catholics and reconciliation within the larger church,” lists Immaculate Conception as one of four LGBT-friendly parishes within the state of North Carolina.

“This is not what we are about,” Haldeman said.

The church’s African-American Heritage Committee plans to talk with school and diocese officials to learn what happened and to move forward together, she said. They still hope Alston will speak at the school, and Alston has said she is open to doing so, Haldeman added.

“We want her back,” said Haldeman. “We want her to be here because it’s important that our kids hear her voice.”

Other Black History Month speakers were also affected.

NC District Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart was to teach eighth graders at Immaculata about the constitution on Friday. Mayor Pro Tempore and City Council member Jillian Johnson had been invited to talk to students later in the month about gaming.

Both women are black and their invitations to speak were also rescinded, Haldeman said. Immaculata added a policy this week that disallows political leaders from coming to the school, Haldeman said.

At around noon on Friday, there were no protests at the church campus. No cars were parked near the sanctuary. None at the church office, either.

Swings were empty on the playground and the doors to the sanctuary and the chapel were locked.

A sign on the door to sanctuary said Mass and adoration were canceled, in English and in Spanish.