From the second balcony of Durham’s gorgeously restored Carolina Theatre, the stage looks tiny, as if you’re looking through the wrong end of a peephole. Looking down, it’s easy to imagine the orchestra and first balcony filled with finely dressed women and men enjoying their view to the vaudeville shows and other entertainment offered onstage since 1926. Up until the 1960s, everyone in the better seats had one thing in common–they were all white.
Before Durham’s powerful civil rights movement changed the city’s history, African Americans were relegated to the furthest seats on the top floor of the downtown theater. To get there, they entered a separate door and climbed a segregated stairway so that white theater patrons would not encounter them.
Looking at the world from the theater section once known as the “chicken roost” and the “buzzard’s nest” is one highlight of the civil rights walking tour offered by the Historic Preservation Society of Durham since late 2002.
Perry Pike, the former education coordinator for the preservation society, researched and assembled the tour using, in part, oral histories now stored in Duke and UNC’s libraries.
“We didn’t want a didactic approach,” says Pike, who left his job when funding for his position ran out at the end of 2003. “We wanted the stories to be the experiences of people who were actually there.”
In less than two hours, tour-goers take a first-hand look at the venues that hosted one of the South’s most effective civil rights campaigns, including the Kress and Woolworth buildings made famous by the lunch counter sit-ins of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Until about 2001, the preservation society had only offered tours based on an individual tour guide’s interest, Pike says. For example, the late George Pyne, a local architect, used to lead educational walks to share his knowledge of the city’s buildings.
“Our tours were always dependent on someone knowing a story, and that person telling the story,” says Pike. But in 2001, the society organized an effort to develop a real historic tour curriculum that could be used to train multiple volunteer tour guides, culling information from the oral histories and consulting scholars and historians.
In May 2002, the group launched the first walking tour, which covers Durham’s heritage as a tobacco town, and in November 2002, introduced the civil rights tour. Since then, local residents, tourists, about half of the public school system’s social studies teachers and many, many student groups have taken a stroll through Durham’s civil rights landmarks, Pike says.
The tour includes stops at the historic county courthouse, which today houses county government offices, and several stops along Parrish Street, dubbed the “Black Wall Street” in the 1930s for its thriving African-American business community.
“This was an amazing city because of its independent black businesses and black middle class,” says Pike. “That’s really important, and people don’t even know that any more.”
The tour is offered free to the public on a regular basis, as well as by appointment for class field trips and other groups. The next scheduled tour, celebrating Black History Month, will take place Saturday, Feb. 14 at 10 a.m., beginning at the Durham Arts Council Building at 120 Morris Street, which was the original Durham High School and later City Hall. From April through November 2004, the tour will be offered the second Saturday of each month at 10 a.m.
For more information on the guided tours, visit www.preservationdurham.org or call 682-3036.
Those interested in self-guided tours can download a map of African-American historical landmarks in the Bull City from the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.durham-nc.com/visitor/things_see_do/self_tours.php.