Durham’s Legacy as “Black Wall Street” Continues to Shape Lives Today

By: Mya Reeves (with Chris Hostetler and Kali Whitaker)

 

A diverse, growing city with great food and inspiring arts, Durham, North Carolina, has a proud heritage as an economic powerhouse for black-owned businesses.  Many of the institutions and traditions that took root more than a hundred years ago are still shaping business activity and lives, including mine. 

“Black Wall Street,” a term coined by Booker T. Washington, describes the vast business developments on Parrish Street in the early 1900s. Located north of the Hayti Community, one of Durham’s largest African-American communities, Black Wall Street became a center of black life in Durham. 

John Merrick, one of the primary founders of NC Mutual Life Insurance Co.

What we know of Durham today is a mosaic of institutions that sprung from the innovation and entrepreneurship of Black Wall Street’s leaders, many of whom were born as slaves.  At a time when most black people struggled to receive an equal education, let alone gather the resources to start a business, Durham’s African-American leaders built thriving institutions that created opportunity for others in the community:

  • North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, founded in 1898, was the first and at one time the largest black-owned insurance company.  NC Mutual was built by a group of investors led by John Merrick and including Aaron Moore, the first African American doctor in Durham.  The company used the motto “Merciful to all”, and it is said that the investment group that started NC Mutual Life Insurance Firm paid their first claim out of pocket.
  • North Carolina Central University, originally the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race, was founded by Dr. James E. Shepard.  Shepard’s school was the first publicly supported liberal arts college for minority students in America. Instead of using his money solely for his own benefit, he reinvested his wealth into the black community by investing in education and funding several businesses in the downtown Durham area. Dr. Shepard wanted to ensure that he taught African-Americans that it is just as important to improve one’s community as it is oneself.
  • Mechanics & Farmers Bank, chartered in 1907 by many of the businessmen responsible for NC Mutual, provided capital for many of the businesses that made up Black Wall Street.  The bank’s policy was to provide “no large loans … to a few profiteers, but rather conservative sums to needy farmers and laborers.”  One of about a dozen African American banks to survive the Great Depression, M&F Bank is still serving communities as an independent bank today.

The founders of Farmers & Mechanics Bank

The Morning Herald, a white-owned Durham newspaper, commented in 1908 on the growing collection of businesses on Parrish Street and their owners “who have not only an eye for business but one for beauty … Not a street in this town would object to having an outside or an interior as attractive as these stores that form Parrish Street.”

NC Mutual Life Insurance Co. building on Parrish Street, Durham NC

The influence of Black Wall Street also earned national attention, leading to the formation of similar centers of black commerce such as in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Durham received visits from notable civil rights leaders over the years, such as WEB Dubois and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Black Wall Street came to a gradual end due to urban reformation and the building of Hwy 147, which cut the Hayti District in half. This eventually displaced many of the area’s businesses, as well as leaving many people in the district without homes. 

This is very inspiring for me as a student at North Carolina Central University. As a college student who is loving her experience, I could not imagine being denied that right because of the color of my skin.  Some of NCCU’s most notable alumni have been Civil Rights leader Julius L. Chambers, Congressman G.K. Butterfield, North Carolina House Representative Henry “Mickey” Michaux Jr, and I believe there are generations of world changers to come.  Dr. Shepard wanted to ensure that all people had access to education and wanted to educate black people in a way that allows for them to educate others.  

Durham is rightly proud of its history.  Today, the city hosts an annual “Black Wall Street Homecoming”, a networking conference for business leaders and startup entrepreneurs.  In 2004 a private-public partnership initiated the Parrish Street Project to commemorate the area’s history with highway markers and bronze sculptures. The city of Durham has also created the Historic Parrish Street Forum, a gathering place for meetings, workshops, classes and cultural events.  

The Hayti Heritage Center, Durham NC

Though we no longer refer to Durham as “Black Wall Street”, the achievements of the city’s entrepreneurs more than a century ago, in the face of tremendous adversity, continue to shape our community and the world.