Vacant and windowless, the building at 312 East Umstead Street gives few hints at its past. There’s no sign identifying the three-story brick midcentury structure, only a dark green construction fence punctuated by warnings for trespassers in red and black.
Inside, a colorful sign dating to its days as a daycare facility reads in block letters: “Welcome to our classroom.” Blackened, peeling walls show where a fire broke out after it had been abandoned and adopted by squatters. Any items that were left—mattresses, cabinets, a still-shiny trophy—have been piled up in the backyard, overgrown with bamboo.
Long before all that, this was the Harriet Tubman YWCA, the city’s black YWCA during segregation and a hub of the Southside neighborhood for more than two decades. Beginning in 1953, it housed and educated young black women and hosted black entrepreneurs and civic leaders. That tradition of bringing people together continued into the late 1970s, when both the Duke Workers Organizing Committee and the Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists met there.
But as the building degraded, so too did memories of its past. And after years of sitting vacant, the Harriet Tubman YWCA was set to be demolished in late August.
Just days before demolition, April Johnson, the director of Preservation Durham, called Neighborhood Improvement Services and relayed the building’s significance and a new owner’s willingness to renovate it. In a 2012 inventory of African-American historic sites in Durham, Johnson had named the Y a top priority for preservation. The demolition was put on hold two days later and—for now—the building has been spared.
For longtime Southside residents Alice White, Camillia Foust, and Regina Meadows, the Y is a vestige of their childhoods in a neighborhood that has changed dramatically. They were too young then to be aware of the voter registration drives and community meetings; their memories center on summer camp and sock-hops.
“It’s a landmark,” Meadows says. “It really is.”
The Harriet Tubman branch of the YMCA predates the building itself. It started on Fayetteville Street in 1922, and by 1923 had two hundred members, according to history professor Leslie Brown’s Upbuilding Black Durham. The branch moved to 312 East Umstead Street in 1937. According to Johnson’s research, supporters raised $90,000 for the current building, which was unveiled in 1953. Women could take classes in everything from Russian to drapery-making to photography.
“They were committed to empowering women,” Johnson says, “and making sure we had skillsets to survive in an unfriendly world for black people at the time.”
The Y wasn’t just a place for women to get together. Planning for the 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in—three years before the famous sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro—happened there as well. Several of the Y’s tenants were among those arrested.
Eventually, though, the Y closed and became a daycare. It’s unclear how long it had been vacant before 2013, when the police reported unsafe conditions to NIS. Over the next five years, the cops responded to 381 calls of illegal activity within 500 feet of the building as the city tried to wrangle the property owner, who promised and failed to fix it up. A demolition order was issued in 2015. But, partly because the job was so extensive, it took the city until last year to earmark money to knock the building down, and until this summer to complete the asbestos removal required to raze it.
Johnson’s call came August 15—the day before that work was completed and the week before demolition was set to begin. When Johnson explained the history of the building and said a new owner had contacted her about wanting to renovate the place, assistant director of code enforcement Faith Gardner and NIS director Constance Stancil remembered a presentation they’d recently seen about the importance of preserving black spaces. A light bulb went off.
“We care about the culture of Durham and we want to preserve as much of it as possible,” says Stancil, who quickly relayed Johnson’s call to the city manager. “It was significant then, and it could be significant again if people realize the importance of it.”
If the building is torn down, it will meet the same fate as both of the Y’s former homes—the one on Fayetteville and the original building on East Umstead—and join the thousands of other homes and businesses demolished in Hayti since the construction of the Durham Freeway, which cut through the vibrant black neighborhood in the 1960s.
“Black-built environment is pretty highly undervalued and often not seen,” says Justin Robinson, who was part of the presentation to NIS. “A lot of these spaces, if you don’t now the history, seem unassuming.”
City officials, including Mayor Steve Schewel, have expressed a desire to preserve the Y. But the city has to balance that with the need to enforce its building codes and respond to neighborhood complaints.
“We have to keep people’s feet to the fire,” says city manager Tom Bonfield. “We want to know they’re serious about doing something, otherwise we’ll just be responding to code enforcement complaints again and again.”
After the new owner, Mark Bullock, filed a temporary restraining order on August 20 to halt the demolition, the city agreed to delay it through October while it works with him on an agreement outlining the work that needs to be done. But it remains to be seen whether the he can renovate the building on budget before the city loses patience.
Standing in the shell of the building last week, Bullock pointed to a nearly inch-long scar on his nose. He got it, along with one under his left eye, when he was about six years old and caught a fence while running from a nearby pool back to the Y’s daycare. Five decades later—this July—he bought the building for $75,000.
With thirty-five years of construction experience, Bullock disagrees with the city’s assessment that costs to repair to building exceed 50 percent of its value, the state’s threshold for ordering demolition. According to Durham County property records, the site—including the fifty-eight-hundred-square-foot building and the half-acre on which it sits—is worth $313,000.
Bullock also takes issue with the $89,000 lien the city has placed on the property to recoup what it has spent on asbestos removal and air testing. He says he could have done it cheaper himself and that the city greatly increased repair costs by removing the building’s many large windows.
Bullock says he’d like to renovate the building into multifamily affordable housing, perhaps for veterans. But under current zoning, he’s limited to single-family housing or a duplex. While he hasn’t submitted a formal site plan for review, he has shared with city officials a concept for a duplex with offices on the first floor, as well as a rough $110,000 budget, which doesn’t include the money the city wants back.
White, Foust, and Meadows—the longtime residents—would also like to see the building converted into affordable housing, but what’s most important to them is that the place they remember so fondly, and that marks the history of their neighborhood, not be reduced to rubble.
“Buildings create memories and help us understand culture in a neighborhood,” Johnson says. “When it’s gone, people forget, and you can’t tell that story.”