Durham Native & Black Pioneer: Ben Ruffin

Photograph of Ben Ruffin from The Daily Tar Heel (Aug. 17, 1998, edition 1)

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024

By Brigette Bagley

It is Black History Month, which means you have likely seen social media posts and news articles commemorating the most influential Black pioneers in American history.

Pioneers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and James Baldwin are names that likely come to mind during this month of remembrance. But what about those we have forgotten altogether? Those who we have closer ties to than we think.

There is a plethora of civil rights leaders and advocates from our very own Durham, and Benjamin Sylvester Ruffin, or Ben Ruffin is a name to remember.

Ruffin grew up during the Civil Rights Movement in the tight-knit Black community of West End. He graduated from Hillside High School and in the mid-1960s worked for a tailor shop, where he met many of Durham’s Black leaders.

This was the period when Ruffin got involved in the Civil Rights Movement, beginning with improving housing, employment and education for low-income residents. He worked with the Durham Housing Authority (of which he was later chairman), United Durham Incorporated (UDI) Community Development Corporation and Operation Breakthrough.

Ben Ruffin (right) during the Feb. 13, 1969 ‘Allen Building Takeover’ at Duke University. He is photographed alongside Howard Fuller (left). Duke University Archives.

He earned a degree in political science from NCCU while still focusing on his community activism. A residence hall on campus is now even named after him.

Ruffin went on to work for some major groups and companies in Durham, like RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company (where he was vice president of corporate affairs) and the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (as vice president and the president’s special assistant). As a mentor and role model, his work opened doors for many young Black professionals.

In 1978, Gov. James B. Hunt selected Ruffin as a special assistant for minority affairs, where he worked to successfully expand the number of African American judges and state employees.

Twenty years later, Ruffin was elected as the first African American chair of the Board of Governors for The University of North Carolina, a position he held until 2003.

During his time on the board, he fought for a $3.1 billion higher education bond referendum, which was officially passed in 2000. The bond was created to improve UNC system schools, community colleges and UNC health care facilities.

Lottie Hayes, a community advocate in Durham, worked alongside Ruffin in the ‘60s and ‘70s for Operation Breakthrough. Hayes worked in “Area B,” which was situated near Pettigrew Street (outside of the Hayti District).

She shared that his faith as a Christian man guided him through all the work he did, and it motivated him to continue doing the challenging work and getting into “good trouble.”

“That and his mama,” Hayes said, commenting on one of the most important motivating factors in his life. She explained that Ruffin was a mama’s boy, especially since his father was absent, and he saw his mother, Catherine Ruffin, struggle for most of his early life.

Hayes believed that Ruffin knew he could go beyond the struggles he dealt with as a boy. So, he cared for his mother and sister, Carolyn Ruffin, as much as possible, and later that empathy translated into a love for his community.

Ben Ruffin (right) and Howard Fuller (left) during a neighborhood clean-up/Unity Day in the mid-1960s. Photo courtesy of Bull City 150.

Ruffin had an extensive background in humanitarian and community aid, and it is safe to say he has earned his place among the Black pioneers we celebrate this month and should celebrate every month.

So, if you happen to find yourself walking through the West End neighborhood (maybe on your way to the house of Pauli Murray), remember the name Ben Ruffin. As you drive through Pettigrew Street, or past the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance building, remember all the things that Ruffin did for the people of Durham. Most importantly, remember all of the lives he touched.

Edited by Ava Dodson.

4 thoughts on “Durham Native & Black Pioneer: Ben Ruffin

  1. Henry W Patterson says:

    Ben Ruffin was one of my early teen years Basketball Coach at John Avery’s Boy’s Club at that time and We very successful because of He The Late ” Fox”Parker” They gave us a Place to Showcase the Skills that were not needed at our HHS at that time. I’m grateful to both for instilling in us great Confidence that we Win In Life no matter who we Encontered on the basketball floor or in our lives even until this very day and as we proved when we had the chance to play against our HHS team due to Bad Weather Cancelation of old Epps High School. He was still coach to me on every level of his life’s accomplishments and They were many indeed.

  2. Charles L Zimmerman Sr says:

    I found your article on Ben Ruffin interesting, but somewhat disturbing to me. First of all, his father was not absent from his life. His father paid an intricate part in not only his life, but the lives of many men who lived on the West End. He was a highly intelligent man, who like many, had issues in his life. He was a man who all that had the opportunity to meet him were immediately educated in many facets of life. He could read almost anything and tell you what he read as if he was reading it too you. We called him “Polly”, as a reference to a parrot that could repeat anything he heard.
    He was one of the first men of color to work as a caddy at Hope Valley Country Club and was instrumental in many young men from our community being hired there, including myself. I could write a book about him.
    You wrote his mother struggled! To my knowledge, Noone from our community struggled! If any family had an issue, we all had an issue and we pulled together for a resolution.
    The West End has always been about family!
    My name is Charles Zimmerman Sr. I am 77 years and lived on the West End from birth to adulthood! If you would like some accurate confirmation, I will assist in any way possible.

  3. Linda McIntosh Leake says:


  4. WILLIAM V. “BILL” BELL says:

    Thanks for remembering “BEN”. He was a friend, a GREAT Community/Civic LEADER.
    We are indeed fortunate that he. Passed our way, all too briefly, and is greatly missed.

    FORMER DURHAM NC MAYOR (2001 – 2017)
    FORMER DURHAM COUNTY COMMISSIONER (1972 – 1994; 1996 – 2000)

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