For this generation of Black folk, gentrification is just another name for the urban-renewal programs that displaced Black-owned homes and businesses more than 50 years ago. 

Today, Black people in Durham are being forced to leave a city where they have lived and worked for decades. They can no longer afford to live in a place where home costs and property taxes are soaring.

The Black Lives Matter signs planted on the front lawns of Durham’s white homeowners are admirable, but for some observers, the displacement of Black families from their homes is a fundamental example of how Black lives really don’t matter in America.

Residents of the historically Black Braggtown neighborhood in North Durham—where major developments are poised to take place—understand the embittered observation of the character Turnbo in August Wilson’s play, Jitney, about the urban renewal that razed Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1970s.

“They won’t be satisfied until they tear the whole goddamn neighborhood down!” 

On March 9, members of the Braggtown Community Association, some with roots in the neighborhood dating back to the end of slavery, started an online petition to preserve their neighborhoods. That fight will reach a crescendo at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday night, when the city’s planning commission will vote on proposed developments.

The community association, chaired by longtime residents Vanessa Mason-Evans and Constance Wright, resorted to the petition after six months of working to ensure that the developments are in line with their recommendations for affordable housing, community support, public safety, and environmental protections. 

They point to a proposed development of 900 new homes along Danube Lane, where the builders have agreed to construct 20 affordable housing units. 

“At first they said they would build 10 affordable homes. Then they said 20,” Mason-Evans said. “Ten was a slap in the face.”

The community is also asking the planning commission members and city leaders to heed the recommendations made last month by Durham Racial Equity Taskforce members, who said the city should clarify the intended beneficiaries of its policies, explore who will benefit and who is most burdened, and ensure community members are engaged in all stages of any given project.

John Killeen, the director of the nonprofit DataWorks, found that in 2010 nearly 70 percent of home sale prices in Braggtown were affordable to residents. In 2018, only 47 percent of residents were able to afford a home in the community.

Killeen notes that the costlier homes have led to higher taxes and the threat of displacement. 

“As of April 2020, Braggtown was the location of 270 of the 3,207 tax-delinquent properties in [Durham] County,” he notes. He also pointed out that Braggtown residents make up more than 8 percent of the county’s total tax-delinquent properties.

 Killeen says the housing crisis in Braggtown has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The community is within a zip code that, this month, had the county’s highest caseload at 29.2 per 1,000 people. Nearly 60 percent of community members work in essential job sectors such as health care, education, retail, and food service.

Braggtown Community Association vice-chair Wright owns a bungalow in the Evergreen subdivision that’s adorned with potted plants and ornamental trees.

“It’s so, so greedy, the way they do everything,” she says. “My taxes pay for just as much. It may not be as high, but it’s high for me.”

Community association member Celeste Richie points to a feel-good spiel about Durham that includes “hearing about all kinds of housing available.”

“But it’s never affordable housing,” she says. “I wonder about a future where no one who makes a certain amount of money gets to live in Durham anymore.”

The proposed increase from 10 to 20 homes falls short of the community association’s recommendation that developers commit to making at least 50 percent of homes affordable for Braggtown residents, meaning rent or a mortgage of $850 a month or less. 

Another association member, Billy Dee, says the developers “chose not to engage in a collaborative discussion, and did not make substantive changes to their proposals, so the community is requesting that planning commissioners and city council members vote ‘no’ on the proposals as they currently stand.”

Braggtown stretches north to Hebron Road and south to I-85 along Roxboro Road. The community is largely populated by essential workers and retirees on fixed incomes: teachers, bus drivers, restaurant employees, and construction workers. Many of the longtime residents purchased their homes in the 1960s and 1970s for well less than $100,000. Now, with the refurbishing and flipping of old homes for more $200,000, longtime residents worry about losing their homes because of exponential increases in property taxes. 

Braggtown was settled just after Emancipation by former enslaved people whose forced labor reaped fortunes for the owners of the Stagville plantation less than 10 miles away. At slavery’s end, the freedmen and women followed the railroad tracks and settled in what was then a heavily wooded area. They built homes. They worked as farmers and sharecroppers and grew vegetable gardens to sustain their families. 

Today, the area is often cast as a troubled community because of deadly gun violence, but no one talks about the community garden club headed up by an octogenarian resident. The community’s parents appreciate the new playground equipment at the Lakeview Park. Free lunches have been provided to children all summer at the Lakeview School. Last month, the city approved the creation of a mural at the park and library by local and regional artists.

“It’s all part of the effort to revitalize and bring a positive light to the community,” says community association member Stephanie Bigelow. 

Mason-Evans says a sense of collective purpose and kinship infuses the community. She remembers coming of age there in the 1960s, when public schools desegregated and a white school teacher asked her third-grade class what they wanted to be when they grew up. One white child announced that he wanted to grow up and become a cop so that he could “beat niggers.”

Mason-Evans says that child is a Durham cop now. 

There’s a cemetery on Old Oxford Road that contains the remains of people who lived and died in the 1800s. Evans pointed to the fenced-in grave markers of whites who are buried next to the footstool-sized grave markers of those they enslaved.

“It’s as if they wanted their slaves to serve them in Heaven, if that’s where they ended up,” Mason-Evans says.

Now, the threat of being displaced or losing their community identity has opened unhealed wounds among the Braggtown residents, and no small amount of frustration with what feels like an invasion.

“Predatory buyers are calling on the phone,” Mason-Evans said. “They want to buy your house at the price what it was built for, $48,000 or $50,000, not the price that it’s worth.”

Follow Durham Reporter Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.