Durham has embarked on the task of telling its storythe history of American entrepreneurship and the creation of the black middle classand, in the process, is pursuing a new type of enterprise: finding ways to grow and profit from its history.

Last Thursday, as the snow melted on the torn-up downtown streets, more than 100 people crowded into the warm and colorful building at the corner of Mangum and Parrish streets for the grand opening of the Parrish Street Project and Preservation Durham offices. The opening was the latest step toward the creation of a business and historical district along Parrish Street. The project is being undertaken in conjunction with $12 million in improvements for the downtown streetscape, correcting the mess made by “urban renewal,” which played a role in ending Parrish Street’s golden era.

Historian John Hope Franklin, a professor emeritus at Duke University and honorary chair of the Parrish Street Advocacy Group that advises the project, was the keynote speaker. Franklin spoke of his love for the Bull City and his efforts, during the course of his long and distinguished academic career, to get back to the city. “Durham was in my heart and I couldn’t get it out,” Franklin said.

The Parrish Street Project began in 2002, when the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development held a series of meetings on the future of the area. U.S. Rep. David Price helped the city secure a $200,000 federal grant in 2004 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Also that year, the city commissioned a report to address the “heritage development” possibilities of Parrish Street. The 72-page report, “A New Era on Parrish Street,” available on the city’s Web site, lays out a detailed history of the area along with specific plans for “interpretation and economic renewal.” Plans include documenting and displaying the history, improving the streetscape and developing businesses along Parrish Street.

Plans call for the creation of a “museum without walls”a set of outdoor kiosks, sculpture, photography and shop windows that will allow visitors to explore the history of the street from the street. Plans also call for the creation of a “Durham Common Room,” a sort of museum space that can also function as a gathering place for local residents, something called for in the Durham Cultural Master Plan, which is also a project of the city’s OEWD. And planners also envision that Parrish Street will be full of retail and restaurants to cater to visitors.

Last week, the city council approved an additional incentive grant for businesses to improve their facilities. This week, Parrish Street Project volunteers will install street banners featuring photos and information about the area’s history.

“What we’re doing in downtown Durham is going to make this place the focal point of downtowns in the Triangle, no question in my mind about that,” Mayor Bill Bell said at the opening. Durham, he said, has “character.”

But the potential appeal of Durham’s character is much broader than the Triangle. Black Wall Street is a national story, and the ultimate goal of the Parrish Street Project is to get the area approved by Congress as a National Heritage Area, part of the National Park Service. That would mean both additional resources to preserve the street and its history, and, officials hope, tourism.

Why would tourists want to come to downtown Durham? The three small blocks that make up Parrish Street were the birthplace of an African-American financial infrastructure that nurtured the black middle class into existence and helped Durham become a prosperous city at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1912, African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois wrote an article entitled “The Upbuilding of Black Durham: The Success of the Negroes and Their Value to a Tolerant and Helpful Southern City” for a monthly magazine. Having visited the city, met with black leaders and toured the fledgling institutions that later became North Carolina Central University and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, DuBois declared that Durham’s booming black business district presented no less than a viable “solution to the race problem.”

“There is in this small city,” DuBois wrote, “a group of five thousand or more colored people, whose social and economic development is perhaps more striking than that of any similar group in the nation.” While most African Americans of the era had no access to either business loans or professional support, African Americans in Durham were building institutionsa bank, an insurance company, 15 grocery stores, two drugstores, barbershops, meat and fish dealers, and a haberdasherythat demonstrated the kind of mutually supportive economy DuBois had prescribed in his landmark book, The Souls of Black Folk. Some of the men he met and wrote about were James E. Shepard, founder of NCCU; C.C. Spaulding, co-founder of N.C. Mutual Life; R.B. Fitzgerald, owner of a brickyard; and C.C. Amey, owner of a hosiery mill. These men and the networks they created were an inspiration to African Americans across the country.

It helped, DuBois noted, that Durham’s white residents either helped (through the creation of Lincoln Hospital, for instance) or simply left them alone. As Parrish Street’s black enterprises bustled, so did the Woolworth’s on the corner with its whites-only lunch counter, and so did the white-owned businesses on Main Street, which runs parallel. Tolerance was not always easy to maintain, but the entire city benefited from it.

And so, when Duke University was still Trinity College, Durham was known as the capital of the black middle class, and Parrish Street was its center.

Almost a century after DuBois’ reportage, two of the most significant financial institutions he chronicled are still around: N.C. Mutual Life is based in a high-rise building downtown, and Mechanics and Farmers Bank celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

New partnerships are forming, as well. The old Rogers Drug Company building that’s now home to the Parrish Street Project is owned by Greenfire Development, whose partners, Michael Lemanski and Carl Webb, are among a small circle of developers investing in downtown Durham’s future. Greenfire purchased the former Woolworth’s site from the city last year, and the company also owns four adjacent properties. It plans to break ground by next year on a 75,000-square-foot mixed-use tower to house offices, stores and a 5,000-square-foot exhibit and meeting space devoted to the Parrish Street Project.

At the west end of the street is Blue Coffee Café, a black-owned business that’s helped to boost downtown’s cultural community. Beyond it, the CCB Plaza is under construction. Events and performances in this brick-lined city square will be programmed by the city’s parks and recreation department.

As downtown’s future begins to emerge from the construction, Durham’s history is taking pride of place in that landscape. As City Manager Patrick Baker said at Thursday’s event, “If you’re a mover and a shaker in Durham and you don’t know Durham’s history, you’ll be left behind.”

Read W.E.B. DuBois’ 1912 article in its entirety at docsouth.unc.edu/nc/dubois/dubois.html. For more information about the Parrish Street Project, visit www.parrishstreet.org.