“There’s a saying that you probably remember that says, the West End took care of the West End. And that’s the true saying.”
That’s a quote from Donna Mack, 72, on display alongside her portrait in the permanent new exhibition “Elders of the West End” at the Community Family Life & Recreation Center at Lyon Park. Mack’s portrait looms on the hallway walls, alongside several dozen other portraits and subject quotes—a moving, artfully displayed oral history. The elders photographed range in age from 60 to 94; Mayor Elaine O’Neal, photographed with her sisters, is on the younger end.
Durham’s small, historical West End neighborhood is bound by West Chapel Hill Street, West Lakewood Avenue, and South Buchanan Boulevard, and anchored by its vibrant community center. The building once served as Lyon Park School, a school for Black students, back when Durham’s school system was segregated; today, as a community center, it plays host to the Lyon Park Clinic, tutoring services, a recreation facility, community garden boxes, a computer lab, and more.
“Really, the project started because I missed my dad,” says Jamaica Gilmer, the photographer behind the project. “It was during quarantine and we were planning for him to come down for Christmas—we usually spend at least one of the holidays together. But we were all, you know, playing it safe.”
“I started thinking, who is within proximity to me?” Gilmer continues, “What Black elders are also missing their families in their kitchens? And who is there to look for their stories right now, while we’re all really struggling to not struggle?”
Gilmer asked her friend Dosali Reed-Bandele, executive director of the West End Community Foundation, Inc., if, in honor of the school’s centennial, she’d be interested in displaying photographs of local residents who’d once been students at Lyon Park School. With Reed-Bandele’s enthusiastic support, she began reaching out to older people in the community.
“As with a lot of things like this, it’s done by word of mouth, you know, because with the demographic that we were dealing with, you can’t just shoot an email or a text,” Reed-Bandele says. “You have to call and say, ‘Well, who else do you know?’ ‘Call Miss Annie up the street.” A lot of the elders that we got, were from word of mouth. We had Miss Donna Mack, who attended Lyon Park School and grew up in this area and no longer lives in this area, but comes back to the center for our mature adult program. She was a major instrument in getting a lot of the elders that we photographed.”
Mack’s memory of the West End and Lyon Park School as a place of deep community solidarity is echoed by other subjects.
“Oh, honey, it was the best years of my life,” Johnnie Mae Belk, 90, says in her quoted text. “I was young, but it was good because everybody who went to Lyon Park mostly stayed up here on the West End, and we’d always see each other and know each other.”
Jewel Merritt Johnson, 77, says in her quote that the community gave her the courage to be active in the Civil Rights movement.
“I went to jail my freshman year,” she says. “We were arrested at the Carolina theater. It wasn’t integrated at the time. There were about a hundred girls that were arrested that night, where we had been picketing. And we stayed in jail about seven days. That happened in April of ’63. But we accomplished it.”
When I visited the exhibit, one afternoon this week, several elementary-age children were getting out of tutoring sessions and trickling past the large-scale portraits, a new generation immersed in the wisdom of the generations before them.
“One thing that’s part of the intro text is that this is framed as ‘sitting at the feet of community storytellers,’” Gilmer says. “The way I’m using elders here is as a signal that these are people who are offering wisdom—wisdom that I want to take in. And I believe the community needs to position themselves to learn with reverence.”
Marie Shaw Simmons, 77, is depicted along with her four siblings. To Gilmer’s question, “What do you hope for the people that you love?”, her response reads: “We always had to be so much more than everybody else just to be. Nina Simone talks about “wishing I knew what it feels to be free.” And that’s my wish, just to be able to be.”
On December 3, the West End Community Foundation in collaboration with the West End/Lyon Park Legacy Project, is also hosting a homecoming in honor of the centennial, and alumni are invited. Among the alumni, Nathaniel “Rex” Purefoy, an inductee of the Black Cowboy Hall of Fame, will be attending—with his horses.
Tours of “Elders of the West End” are available by appointment beginning October 28.
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