Last spring, three months after her historic election as Durham’s first Black woman mayor, Elaine O’Neal pretty much promised to rebuild Hayti, one of the nation’s most important Black neighborhoods during the Jim Crow era.
The long-deferred dream of restoring one of Durham’s most storied neighborhoods moved closer to reality
Last Tuesday, one day after the Juneteenth holiday, Durham City Council members approved a $610 million budget for the new fiscal year and allocated $10 million to revitalize Hayti, the traditionally Black community that sits in the eastern shadow of downtown, to “help create a sense of place for this historic area,” according to the City of Durham website.
City officials added that the funding “will support a variety of efforts, including residential and commercial real estate programs, small business support, and street, sidewalk, and landscape improvements.”
The funds to rebuild have been a long time coming.
It’s been decades since the broken promises of a federal urban renewal program during the 1960s devastated Hayti. Hundreds of businesses and thousands of homes were bulldozed to make room for the construction of Highway 147 that cleaved the heart of the community.
North Carolina Central University historian Jerry Gershenhorn noted in his biography Louis Austin and the Carolina Times that prior to its destruction, many Blacks viewed Hayti, with its 4,000 homes and 500 businesses, “as a vibrant though poor African American community which suffered because of overcrowding and inadequate housing.”
Gershenhorn explained that in 1962, voters approved an $8.6 million bond referendum to finance water, sewer, and street improvements in the Hayti district. The goal, per recommendations by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of City and Regional Planning, was to clean up and modernize 200 acres of Hayti to improve the city’s tax base and make room for the planned east-west expressway.
Highway 147 was built, but the rebuilding of homes and businesses in Hayti never followed. Despite the destruction, the community is still home to a host of stable institutions, including the Hayti Heritage Center, the Stanford L. Warren Library, Student U, W.D. Hill Recreation Center, the Lincoln Community Health Center, and NC Central University, along with schools, shopping outlets, and churches. But after the spectacular failure of urban renewal, it was left vulnerable to crime, transitory housing, and underfunding that paved the way for gentrification.
The $10 million to rebuild the community might be a drop in the bucket, but the money—the bulk of which comes from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), along with other city and county joint funding to address infrastructure issues—represents tangible hope.
This month, Anita Scott Neville, the director of Hayti Reborn, a revitalization project with deep roots in the community, told the council about the importance of “the city’s response to the repair of the spiritual and physical harm to Hayti and its residents.”
The “healing that will result [from Hayti’s revitalization] will effectively drown out the residual pain from the urban renewal of the 1960s, and echoes the resurrection of our heritage for generations to come,” Scott Neville told the council days before the final budget was approved.
“I’m so proud of the community,” O’Neal told the INDY last week. “They have been patiently waiting, and the waiting needed to be over.”
To talk about Hayti today among scholars and longtime residents is akin to visiting a onetime paradise in comparison to the issus that bedevil the community today.
Hayti was one of the nation’s most important Black neighborhoods during the Jim Crow era, lauded in the early 1900s by W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, who rarely agreed on anything. Perhaps that’s because Hayti embodied Washington’s philosophy of enterprise and DuBois’s emphasis on education.
The sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, in his 1925 essay “Durham: Capital of the Black Middle Class,” described the Bull City as the capital of the Black bourgeoisie. A place “not where men write and dream; but a place where Black men calculate and work.”
“The Negro is at last developing a middle class,” Frazier wrote, “and its main center is in Durham.”
“It was the undisputed center of Black capitalism and entrepreneurship … the leading Black Wall Street in America,” Henry McKoy told the INDY in 2021. “It was known as the ‘City on the Hill for Blacks,’ and ‘Capital of the Black Middle Class.’”
McKoy is a founding member of Hayti Reborn. The Durham Housing Authority rejected his bid to create an affordable housing, business, and educational complex in Hayti last year. McKoy was director of NC Central University’s entrepreneurial program, and last year accepted a position with the Biden administration to direct a newly created federal division to fund communities all over the country that are historically disadvantaged, marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution—in other words, neighborhoods just like the Hayti district.
Two years ago, McKoy said the loss of Hayti’s presence over the decades was incalculable.
“We are talking about literally billions of dollars in lost economic value for the Hayti community that could have resulted from expanding as the macroeconomic landscape expanded,” McKoy told the INDY. “Black Durham was denied the economic standing that it had built over the course of the century before the [east-west expressway] came through.”
Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile interstate highway system. The interstate highway system is largely to blame for the destruction of formerly prominent Black communities throughout the United States.
The destruction of Hayti to make room for Highway 147 has its mirror images in Black communities all along the nation’s freeway corridors: South Central Avenue in Los Angeles, Beale Street in Memphis, 18th and Vine in Kansas City, Old City in Knoxville, the Third Ward in Houston, and the Hill District in Pittsburgh.
The late celebrated Durham historian John Hope Franklin grew up in Tulsa and was only four years old in 1921 when a white mob destroyed 35 square blocks of the Greenwood district, where he lived with his family.
I was writing “Hayti’s Ghosts” for The Independent, which preceded the INDY, in 1997, when I had the good fortune to bump into Franklin. I shared with him my thoughts on what appeared to be a near-conspiratorial destruction of prominent Black communities throughout the United States. The vague, unfulfilled promises of redevelopment in Hayti and its kindred communities along the anatomy of the American landscape have proved to be nothing less than the economic murder of Black America.
“I don’t know if it happened to all of them,” Franklin replied after listening to my observations. “But it happened to enough of them.”
One year later, Franklin told me that Tulsa’s Greenwood dirstrict was decimated by a highway, Interstate-244, just as Hayti was destroyed by Highway 147. It was rebuilt after the white terrorism in 1921, but last year, Greenwood residents called for its removal to reverse 100 years of damage to the Black community.
“Blacks recovered from the riots, but not from [the interstate],” Franklin told me for a second story I wrote, “Holding Out Hope,” for The Independent. “[I-244] destroyed it in a way the riots could not change it.”
It is against that backdrop that Durham’s city leaders approved funding to
“I am so excited,” the city’s mayor pro tem, Mark-Anthony Middleton, told the INDY. “This has been talked about for generations. This means putting real dollars on the table. It’s not a lot. But it’s a significant amount. This is historic.”
Hayti neighborhoods, she says, have been left out of the city’s prosperity boom.
“Now they can actually sit at the table and they got a little bit of money. That’s a big thing for the community,” she adds. “The community is going to have something to back it up. It’s a great start.”
O’Neal explains that individual residents won’t receive the funds. Instead the city council will consider revitalization proposals from community groups, including the Historic Fayetteville Street Corridor Planning Group, which is spearheaded by Larry and Denise Hester, who own the Phoenix Square and Phoenix Crossing shopping centers; and Hayti Promise, a nonprofit community development corporation started by the Hayti Heritage Center.
“I think we can all come together and have a grand vision that hopefully we can contract,” the mayor says.
O’Neal and Middleton value the currency of input from rank-and-file community members about the revitalization project.
“My hope is they will come together and speak with one voice,” O’Neal says.
O’Neal also cautions, “When you get to spending that kind of money it can go fast.
“I’m hoping we can get the best bang for the buck.”
Funding for the revitalization project is happening at a fortuitous moment in the Fayetteville Street corridor’s history. There’s the Durham Housing Authority’s rather controversial planned development of Fayette Place, a 20-acre parcel of land that has been earmarked for the construction of 774 affordable housing units.
There’s also the planned redevelopment of the near-abandoned Heritage Square shopping center that sits between the 600 block of Fayetteville Street and the 400 block of East Lakewood Avenue. The eroding commercial strip was purchased last year by Sterling Bay, a Chicago-based development firm with deep pockets, whose officials announced the project as a joint venture with another Chicago firm and New York developer.
Then there are the hundreds of luxury apartments built by Charlotte developer CitiSculpt on more than 12 acres of land along South Roxboro and West Pettigrew Streets that was once the commercial retail hub of the Hayti district.
Moreover, North Carolina will host the World University Games in 2029, when 7,000 athletes from over 150 countries and more than 600 universities will compete at venues throughout the state’s university hub region: in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, and Greensboro.
O’Neal says some of the events will take place on the campus of NC Central University, and she says the school’s chancellor, Johnson O. Akinleye, hopes Hayti will be “a destination spot when the athletes come in … to help the campus and Durham.”
“Hopefully, Hayti will look really different in 10 years, in a good way,” O’Neal says.
Days before council members approved the funding, several community members joined Scott Neville in the council chambers. During a June 5 city council work session, they spoke about the importance of rebuilding the district.
“It’s kind of difficult for you to see the vision of what took place,” Hayti resident Gordon Matthewson told the council about Hayti before it was demolished. “To actually see the economics of staying in your own community, and also working with your own people for whatever you need. But that was what was provided.”
“Hayti is such a unique area,” another resident, Faye Calhoun, said. “It’s African American heritage that we must be proud of. We must preserve, and we must recognize and acknowledge.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that former Durham Mayor Bill Bell and the Urban Development Institute submitted a revitalization proposal for Hayti.
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