Durham’s thriving black business committee was severely damaged by the construction of the Durham Freeway beginning in the 1960s. Nonetheless, some businesses, such as Speight’s Auto Service, relocated and continue to thrive.
Active since 1938, Speights Auto Service started as a service station selling gas, running cabs, as well as oil services. Owned by Theodore Speight and his brother, the auto shop was condensed from two service stations active at the same time but incorporated in 1967 making employees long term.
In the mid-1960s the construction of the Durham Freeway left Speight’s with no place to go. They closed the shop in 1966, incorporated and opened to shops the next year. He later closed them and opened the location that they have occupied since 1977 at the corner or Fayetteville Street and Barbee Road in south Durham. You can’t miss it if you are traveling from downtown toward Southpoint Mall on Fayetteville Street.
“More involvement and people being upfront with you, would’ve been better for everybody,” said Melvin Speight, Theodore Speight’s son who now runs the shop. “We were removed by urban renewal from Pettigrew and Fayetteville St. where Highway 147 comes through. The negative part about is that coming through the black community, was the cheapest route through the city, forcing everyone through there to evacuate.”
It wasn’t easy at first. There really was nothing but forests and fields around that area of Durham at the time. But, soon neighborhoods, schools, and parks started coming.
“We were here first and everything grew around us. There were no automotive service around here at all. Some people that started trading with us that lived in the area still trade with us now,” said Speight. “Some went off and franchised and just came and got in the area. We have survived because of that kind of patriotism from the people in the area.”
Melvin Speight is soft-spoken and reserved. The waiting area is not fancy. It has a couple old couches and a TV. The wood-paneled walls are covered with awards, recognitions, photos, and memorabilia telling the story of the shop’s history. Speight’s sister Theodora Manley still runs the office.
“I stopped at Speight’s Auto Service a while back with my parents and as soon I walked in, I could tell the rich history of the business. Pictures surrounded the walls of the establishment and it felt welcoming,” Durham native Marius McAllister said.
Although Speight and his sister are getting on in years, they don’t have plans to retire or close the shop. For up and coming entrepreneurs, Speight says the marketplace is broad, the internet can help, as well taking multiple skills and using them to your advantage just in case one plan fails, you will a backup plan to follow up the initial plan.
“There are plenty of skill levels yet to be discovered, it is just a matter of what you have in your heart that you want to do, seek development and go avid, also get someone to cooperate with you,” Speight said.
In his spare time, Speight also sponsors men that have been in prison and are having a hard time finding jobs, even if they are well qualified. He encourages them to start their own small business and expand over time. He reminds them them that one job can lead you own to another job in due time.