A documentary exploring the rise and fall of “Black Wall Street” in Durham, North Carolina.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, states passed laws to keep the races separate and to restrict the opportunities of African Americans. The system created by these laws was known informally as “Jim Crow.” More than a million African Americans fled the Jim Crow South, especially, after World War I, seeking opportunity in northern cities.
In the early twentieth century, Parrish Street in Durham, North Carolina, was the hub of African American business activity. This four-block district was known as “Black Wall Street,” a reference to the district of New York City that is home to the New York Stock Exchange and the nation’s great financial firms. Although other cities had similar districts, Durham’s was one of the most vital, and was nationally known. Parrish Street bordered the Hayti community, Durham’s main African American residential district, and the two districts together served as the center of black life in Durham.
In 1906, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the nation’s largest black-owned insurance company, moved its headquarters to Parrish Street. It was soon joined by the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and the founder of North Carolina Mutual also invested in real estate and textiles. National leaders W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington both visited the city, in 1912 and 1910, respectively, and praised black entrepreneurship.
W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Upbuilding of Black Durham: The Success of the Negroes and their Value to a Tolerant and Helpful Southern City,” in World’s Work vol. 23 (Jan. 1912).
Portrait of some of the Founders of Mechanics & Farmers Bank, Durham, NC.
North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company officers, Durham, NC. Left to right: A.M. Moore, John M. Avery, John Merrick, Ed Merrick, C.C. Spaulding.
Ask long time elderly residents of Durham about the fate of Black Wall Street and they will tell you with tears in their eyes the devastating effect that the paving of the freeway (Hwy 147) and other urban renewal projects had on their community.
In more recent years, we began to see a new gentrification strategy being played out, not only in Durham, but in black communities across the country. Although the locations may change, the methods of operation remain the same.