In preparation for Durham’s sesquicentennial in 2019, a group of historians and community members formed the Bull City 150 project to document and interrogate the city’s past. An exhibit based on their research, titled “Uneven Ground: The Foundations of Housing Inequality in Durham, NC,” recently opened to broad acclaim. It documents Black Durham and the history of shifting manifestations of race and class inequalities and features several interviews from UNC’s Southern Oral History Project (SOHP) archive. The Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) is a co-sponsor of Black Communities: A Conference for Collaboration, which will take place at the Carolina Theater in Durham, NC, also known as the “Bull City,” in April 2018. From its early days just after the Civil War to the present, Durham’s Black communities have had a rich history of organizing and resilience in the face of inequality, oppression and white supremacy.
The main purpose of the Bull City 150 project is “to show Durhamites how the current landscape of inequality cannot be reckoned with without a deeper understanding of the roots of inequality in the place we call home.” The project’s collaborators believe that “the stories we tell each other impact the policies we create and how we collectively seek to address the inequality in our community.” In addition to the exhibit creators have been in dialogue with multiple community organizations, grassroots activists, and policy-makers. Bull City 150 will continue to find meaningful ways to engage the community in reflecting on the past “to ensure a more equitable Durham in the future.” (All quotes from Bull City 150’s website.)
The exhibit will be on display during Durham’s Third Friday downtown events on October 20 and November 17. On November 14, Bull City 150 will host a housing policy discussion. More info here.
Durham was founded just after the Civil War as a depot town connected to the railroads. A century and a half later, Durham is undergoing rapid, change, growth and gentrification that is leading to the displacement of working-class communities from the city’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Twenty-percent of Durhamites live in poverty, many cannot find living wage jobs, and public school students experience achievement gaps based on class and race. The project and exhibit interrogate and present this history using methods from geography, public policy, history, sociology, documentary approaches and arts. The recently opened exhibit examines how both broad political and economic systems and the particularities of local conditions and decision-making have shaped Durham and led to the present moment. Ultimately, the exhibit reveals how structural white advantage and policies that benefited primary white people have shaped the positions of various social groups within Durham. While the pattern of Black disadvantage is part of the story, the Bull City 150 team aims to uncover the related patterns of white privilege, usually not named or understood.
In addition to examining national, state and local policies, the exhibit is anchored by the stories of people who lived through economic, cultural and political changes. Most of these stories are drawn from interviews held in the SOHP archive. Exhibit curator Kimber Heinz explains, “We simply could not have included the particular stories of Black and white working class people, many of them textile and tobacco workers, without the SOHP’s interviews. About two-thirds of the stories of particular families and people that we included were drawn from the SOHP archives.”
If you are interested in learning more about Durham history, several SOHP interview projects document more stories about the issues raised in the exhibit and Durhamites’ experiences. The interviews used in the exhibit and referenced above are from the Piedmont Industrialization project. The project Hayti Spectrum: Documenting Negro Life of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s focuses on the historically Black Hayti neighborhood in Durham. Interviews that tell the life stories of two Durham African-American people are here, a project about the relationships between Black people and newly arrived Latino immigrants in North East central Durham is here. The Long Civil Rights Movement interview project documents African American and other related activism around the South, including Durham. Learn more about the SOHP and our collections here. Learn more about the Black communities conference here.