From the moment it opened in 1954—the same year the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in public schools—the Harriet Tubman YWCA in Durham’s Hayti community hummed with activity.

The YWCA ceased operations in the 1970s, and the building gradually fell into disrepair. By 2013, as the INDY reported last year, police reported unsafe conditions at the vacant building. Over the next five years, the cops responded to 381 calls of illegal activity within five hundred feet of the property as the city tried to work with its owner, who promised but failed to fix it up. The city issued a demolition order in 2015 but didn’t allocate funds to knock the building down until 2017. The demolition was delayed again to allow for asbestos removal. 

Last August—the day before the asbestos removal was completed and the week before demolition was set to begin—April Johnson, the director of Preservation Durham, called the city’s 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.

Then, earlier this year, the dark, badly damaged building in the 300 block of East Umstead Street went into foreclosure after the owner, Mark Bullock, failed to pay more than $100,000 in property taxes. 

The nonprofit Reinvestment Partners purchased the property on September 12 for $304,500. And now the organization, whose mission is to create healthy neighborhoods, is trying to raise about $2.5 million to build affordable housing on the site with a community service element, perhaps a daycare center. 

The stories shared by the residents of East Umstead are uncomfortable: drug addiction, sexual assault, domestic violence. Reinvestment Partners executive director Peter Skillern says he first considered turning the building into affordable housing for women only.

“But I talked with people who say the men are even more traumatized,” he says. “So we’re building co-ed apartments.”

Along with redeveloping the building to house ten studio apartments, the nonprofit also hopes its work will help heal a community that has not yet fully recovered from the broken promises that marked the end of segregation and the so-called urban renewal of Hayti in the 1960s and early 1970s. 

The Tubman Y declined in the wake of urban renewal and the construction of the Durham Freeway, which decimated Hayti, Skillern says. There’s a correlation, he adds, between disinvestment in a community’s infrastructure and violence, drugs, poverty, and inadequate housing.

“Long-term disinvestment and social ills, they feed on each other,” he says. “We are trying to revive and restore that missing link.”

Skillern adds that the old Y is “culturally and historically important to Durham,” owing to its size and proximity to the recent renovations to create senior housing, the library, and a new educational center.

“It’s important to have these institutional buildings that become contributing factors to the street,” he says, to help offset drug use, prostitution, and vagrancy.

“It’s great that the building is being revitalized and that the units are expected to be affordable,” says James Blake, pastor of the Fisher Memorial Church, which is less than a block away. “I’m hopeful that the revitalization of the Y will be a vehicle that helps our community.”

During its heyday, the handsome, spacious Y had twenty-four beds in twelve dorm rooms that housed black student nurses who worked at the Old Lincoln Hospital. The Tubman Y also served as a gathering place for Friday night dances, drapery-making classes, business and civic leadership activities, and civil rights demonstration planning.

Reinvestment Partners has partnered with Kip Ryan, an African American businessman who owns properties in the 1200 block of Fayetteville Street. Its plans call include renovating two historic buildings for offices.  

Skillern says the purchase marks the end of a beginning that started in the 1970s, when the YWCA shut down at this location. The building continued as a meeting place for organizations such as the Duke Workers Organizing Committee and the Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists. 

During the nineties, it housed a daycare center. When that shuttered, the building languished.

“The new story started on September 12,” Skillern says.

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at Correction: This story originally said that Reinvestment Partners and Kip Ryan planned to demolish a building as part of renovations plans along Fayetteville Street. They do not. 

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