Juneteenth, America’s oldest national celebration commemorating the end of slavery, is experiencing a rebirth since the murder of George Floyd and the realization that the struggle for Black freedom in America continues.

This week, community organizers in Durham will host a Juneteenth celebration at the Hayti Heritage Center to acknowledge the end of one of humanity’s most barbaric practices, which made white men rich and America a superpower. 

In addition to celebrating the end of slavery, the organizers of the June 18 event are touting the launch of a different kind of freedom—racial and economic equity for the Hayti district, a culturally rich neighborhood along Fayetteville Street that’s one of the city’s most historic communities.

Hayti’s Juneteenth will serve as the launching of a community-based initiative, “Hayti Reborn,” which aims to rebuild the community along the Fayetteville Street corridor. The community has languished for decades, still traumatized by an urban renewal effort during the 1960s and early 1970s with the construction of Highway 147. The misnamed initiative destroyed 4,000 homes and 500 businesses in the neighborhood.

As previously reported by the INDY, Henry McKoy, director of entrepreneurship at North Carolina Central University’s business school, believes the loss of Hayti’s presence is incalculable, possibly billions of dollars in lost economic value.

The Durham Juneteenth event will feature a major economic announcement about the Hayti district from McKoy.  

“Hayti Reborn is just that,” McKoy said in an email to the INDY. “The vision is to see the rebirth of the community utilizing the same dynamic entrepreneurship ecosystem that it was once internationally known for. The vision is to see economic development within the community without forced displacements of residents. The vision is to build autonomous economic power, such that Hayti’s rebirth can serve as an inspiration for how we connect the Black community to economic progress in contemporary times. The vision of Hayti Reborn is that the world can see the Black community in Durham, and beyond, worthy of being invested in.”

The free event for the public will take place at the Hayti Heritage Center (804 Old Fayetteville Street), formerly St. Joseph’s A.M.E. Church, and will coincide with the old church building’s 130th anniversary. 

The celebration will feature a Black Futures photo booth, Capoeira workshops, karaoke, a Haitian dance workshop with live drumming, the Hillside High School drumline, two African dance ensembles, live jazz, and a tribute to Erzulie, the Haitian Mother Mary and Goddess of Love whose veve (a religious symbol) has adorned the steeple of the Heritage Center (formerly the church) for 130 years. The Hayti event is this Friday, 3-9 p.m. 

Interestingly, part of the event’s celebration will pay tribute to the Haitian veve for Papa Legba, the “spirit of the crossroads” who facilitates communication, which sits atop of the William H. Robinson Science Building on the NCCU campus. 

Legba sitting atop the science building, which was built in 1939, does not appear to be a happenstance occurrence. Both veves can be seen simultaneously while standing in front of the home of NCCU founder James E. Shepard. The old church steeple appears to sit in the middle of Fayetteville Street, nearly a mile away.

With the church’s completion in 1891, roughly 90 years after the Haitian revolution, one can only wonder if community leaders during that period were trying to transmit a message of self-sufficiency to future generations.  

The special Juneteenth presentation will be curated by Village of Wisdom, a Durham nonprofit that helps Black parents help their children navigate racial bias in the classroom. 

Village of Wisdom partnered with Be Connected Durham, whose founder Angel Dozier says the Juneteenth celebration is part of a series of events titled Live! From the Fayetteville Street Corridor that happen on the third Friday of each month at the Hayti Heritage Center. The first event took place on March 19. In addition to live jazz, speeches, and poetry, the events have featured vendors, Black-themed art, and Black-owned food trucks.

Dozier says she designed the series “to present critical cultural work like Village of Wisdom’s to the broader community.” 

Dozier describes the events as an alternative to Third Friday Durham in the downtown district, where art galleries and studios open their doors to the public to enjoy wine, cheese, and the arts offerings.  

“Our neighbors have told us that downtown is not necessarily inclusive for them, so we are modeling what equitable engagement looks like,” says Dozier, who created the event after canvassing the neighborhood.

Dozier says the irony of exclusion is that “the genesis and origins of Durham’s culture started in the Hayti neighborhood.”

“They are the people who made that vibrancy happen and now they are shut out.”

Her solution to feelings of exclusion? Start the third Friday events at the Hayti Heritage Center, and eventually stage the event at other locations along the Fayetteville Street corridor, including W.D. Hill Recreation Center, Lincoln Community Health Center, NCCU, and the Chicken Hut areas. 

The plan for this year’s Juneteenth event, Dozier says, is to create a directory of artists, businesses, and vendors.

“We are going to take the same model to the [Wellon’s] Village and Braggtown neighborhoods,” Dozier says. “We aim to build business capacity and unity in the community.”

City council member DeDreana Freeman, whose constituents live in the Hayti district, says a project to improve the economic fortunes of the community would have a positive impact on the entire city. 

“Any work done in this economic climate that focuses on Black and Brown businesses would have an exponential impact on our local economy,” Freeman told the INDY. “The residential and commercial gentrification has devastated homeowners and businesses of color. We need targeted approaches that take history into account.”

 McKoy says that during its heyday, the Hayti district was unparalleled, especially after the destruction of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

“It was the undisputed center of Black capitalism and entrepreneurship … the leading Black Wall Street in America,” McKoy says. “It was known as the ‘City on the Hill for Blacks,’ and ‘Capital of the Black Middle Class.’”

McKoy notes that Hayti was the home of North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, the world’s largest Black-owned business for much of the 20th century and that Durham had more Black millionaires per capita than any other city in America at its apex. 

“One way to identify the economic and social strength of Hayti at its height is that in the midst of segregated Jim Crow South, Durham was a net gainer of Black people, even as a great migration from the South was happening with Blacks heading North,” McKoy adds. “And the Hayti community produced one of the most diverse array of Black entrepreneurial ecosystems in history, essentially covering every economic sector that whites were represented in.”

It’s fitting that the launch of a community rebirth is taking place at the Hayti Heritage Center.

The old St. Joseph’s A.M.E. Church building is one of Durham’s finest architectural landmarks and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Prior to the building of the church, the site was the home of a brush arbor that served as the church’s first sanctuary. The arbor was built by the church’s founder, Rev. Edian D. Markham. A log cabin house was then built on the site, which was also Durham’s first Black school, where Markham taught.

According to a joint 2016 report by the city’s historic preservation commission and the city-county planning department, the old church was “a center in the Hayti community” and “remains today as the last authentic physical reminder of early Hayti.” 

Aya Shabu, Village of Wisdom’s director of arts and culture and INDY Voices columnist, says part of her role is “to identify, celebrate, replicate, model, and create culturally affirming activities” for the nonprofit’s students, both inside and outside the classroom.

“The Juneteenth event itself is a classroom,” Shabu told the INDY.

City council member Mark-Anthony Middleton says the Fayetteville Street corridor “is not just a hotbed for Black business and cultural activity, it is perhaps the most prominent approach to our downtown district.”

“It should be considered the center jewel in our city’s crown, and regarded with the same mystique and awe as Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn and Harlem’s Sugar Hill.” 

Mayoral candidate Elaine O’Neal, a retired Durham superior court judge and former dean of NCCU law school, is scheduled to speak at the event.

“So much of the stuff that was good about us was there,” O’Neal told the INDY. “When you look at it in its current condition it does something to our psyche. And for it to come back to life is a rebirth in more ways than one.”

O’Neal, a lifelong Durham resident, was born at the old Lincoln Hospital on Fayetteville Street, about two blocks away from the Hayti Heritage Center. 

She told the INDY that Fayetteville Street was a “connector” for Black people living all over Durham and who patronized restaurants like the near-legendary Green Candle or the Chicken Hut that still stands. There was also the old Harriet Tubman YWCA, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the Stanford L. Warren Branch Library, W.D. Hills, and nightclubs. There were mom-and-pop shops, prominent churches, and striking homes of the community’s leading citizens—all crowned by the flagship educational institutions, Hillside High School and NCCU.

“It was like the gateway street,” O’Neal says. “We want Fayetteville Street to be a change agent for Durham.” 

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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