Walking Tour shows history through Durham’s eyes

By Alex Arey
UNC Staff Writer
The Durham VOICE


Malcolm White, a tour guide with The Historic Preservation Society of Durham, doesn’t claim to be a historian, but he sure knows a lot about Durham.

“I’m not a historian. I don’t play one on TV, but I love history — I love this history. I live it. It’s an avocation,” he said.

Malcolm White, a volunteer guide, stands in front of the Carolina Theatre on West Morgan Street as he gives Preservation Durham’s Civil Rights Legacy Walking Tour. (Staff photo by Alex Arey)

From the Farmer’s Market on Foster Street to the historic Hayti neighborhood, three weekends a year White shares his knowledge of the city and guides the Civil Rights Legacy Walking Tour in downtown Durham.

On Saturday, Sept. 15, the tour visited historical sites, such as “Black Wall Street” on Parrish Street, the Carolina Theatre on West Morgan Street, S. H. Kress department store on the corner of Main and Mangum Street and the Carolina Times building on Old Fayetteville Street. White focused on each site’s significance during the civil rights movement.

The tour also highlighted major events that took place, such as the sit-ins, non-violent protests and creation of successful black businesses. More notably, it covered the people, Rev. Douglas Moore, John Merrick, C. C. Spaulding, Aaron Moore, Dr. James E. Shepard and Floyd McKissick to name a few, whose actions put Durham on the map.

The Historic Preservation Society of Durham, or more commonly referred to as Preservation Durham, offers free walking tours every 2nd, 3rd and 4th Saturday each month, from April to November.

The organization strives to advocate the importance of the Bull City’s history as well as protect its historical assets. Preservation Durham is supported by contributions from sponsors as well as volunteers.

On the tour, White discussed the sit-in led by Rev. Douglas Moore in 1957 at Royal Ice Cream on 51st Street where students from Hillside High and NC Central University participated and were jailed. These were the early days of non-violent protest, which brought national attention to Durham.

He also covered what John Merrick, an African-American barber turned prominent businessman, did for the black community by teaching his neighbors money management through the establishment of NC Mutual Life Insurance.

“People looked to Durham as a model,” White said. Hayti was one of the first successful black economies in the early 20th century. “It was where black man could get a ‘better’ shake,'” he said.

Most of the participants said going on the tour would be “fun and interesting.” The group, which consisted of abou a dozen people, was quiet and attentive, hanging onto White’s every word. It was clear that several were up to speed on Durham’s history. Upon mentioning the division and isolation of the Hayti community by highway 147, the Duham Freeway, one participant asked, “Wasn’t that the point, though?”

Tour participant Jennifer Potts said she enjoyed the interactivity of the tour. She said she liked how they were learning the history from a different angle through a verbal tour as opposed to merely reading plaques. What set the tours apart from learning about the history through another outlet was seeing how the stories intertwine and relate.

“Relationships make communities,” she said. She said it was interesting for her to go from place to place cognizant of how they were all connected.

Malcolm White began giving tours in 2007. At that time, he thought the tours Preservation Durham gave were sporadic and that they made a conscious effort to obtain more guides and volunteers with the hopes of having more frequent tours.

On why he felt compelled to give tours, White said he simply likes history in general and was fascinated upon learning how the city came to be.

“I just fell in love with it. I just love telling the history,” he said.

A Boston transplant, White moved to Chapel Hill in 1992. He began working in downtown Durham in 2001 and eventually moved to Durham in 2006.

Growing up, he said he was unaware of the magnitude of the movement since the events did not transpire to the same degree up north, he said. After moving to the South, he began to appreciate the movement’s impact.

“It’s kind of like fighting the Civil War — you know the Civil War happened, but it wasn’t on our turf,” he said. “Here, it’s a very big deal because it happened right around here. There, not so much.”