Did you know North Carolina had a Black Wall Street?

Updated: Jun. 4, 2021 at 8:56 PM EDT
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DURHAM, N.C. (WBTV) - Reflective images, historic reminders, and strong voices from local activists all contribute to a place in downtown Durham, once known as North Carolina’s Black Wall Street.

Durham resident Sharan Campbell believes it’s important to keep the legacy alive.

“I think it’s important for us to remember things and tell it the way it happened,” she said.

Telling it means revisiting a time of prosperity in Durham when those traditionally disenfranchised by the color of their skin were given a leg up.

Carl Webb, of Provident 1898, is a keeper of valuable memories. He cherishes the legacy of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, which was started in 1908 by John Merrick.

Ten years earlier, Merrick founded North Carolina Mutual Insurance, which flourished under the leadership of C.C. Spaulding and blossomed into what ads claimed was the largest insurance company in the world serving African Americans.

The innovative work of these businessmen got ringing endorsements of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois.

“It’s very heartbreaking to move down Parrish Street to see what you once have there, and what you have today,“ Webb told WBTV.

Redevelopment along Parrish Street now includes a hotel and new apartments, along with a corner grocery store.

This landscape is far different from the once affluent community of color that served itself with diverse businesses in order to survive.

Miya Jackson is another Durham resident understanding the value of the former community.

“So when people say racism is over and isn’t that bad. We are still deeply connected to all of that generational trauma,” Jackson said.

Documented trauma was in fact carried out during the 1921 killing spree in the area known as Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, but Durham’s financial and retail district that served African Americans faced a different downfall with far reaching consequences.

Minister Aman Muhammad from the Nation of Islam feels urban renewal played a role in the downfall of Durham’s Black Wall Street.

“What happened right here with the 147 Expressway is still murder a little bit slower, but the effect is still the same.”

The Durham Freeway sliced through several black neighborhoods including the affluent Hayti district.

Also factor in the dismantling Jim Crow policies causing African Americans to flee Parrish Street.

Durham Activist Paul Scott is hoping for better times.

" I think gentrification has done a lot to create the problems we’re seeing,” Scott said. “We’re gonna have to develop a new Black Wall Street that’s gonna have to include all black people not just different segments of the population.

The area known as Durham, North Carolina’s Black Wall Street consisted of four city blocks, but in the 21st century it’s been narrowed down to one block.

And the number of black owned business operators can be counted on one hand.

While North Carolina Mutual Insurance and Mechanics and Farmers Bank both maintain a local presence with deep roots to the past, Carl Webb is betting on future possibilities in this city known for its history.

" Our job as black business people is to connect with those commitments that the Apples and Microsoft’s of the world have made and really bring home opportunities back to our communities,” Webb said.

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