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Welcome to Durham

The city of Durham occupies a curious place in modern America. It is a city advancing urban renewal while still retaining the charm of times past; it is a city that unifies and animates its citizens around common causes, though it is cleaved by racial differences. And throughout its history, it has embraced bold ideas and even bolder people.

Durham isn’t your average college town. It has played host to the start of a war, the end of a war and the birth of a new definition of American freedom.

Long before the colonies declared independence, Durham’s forefathers openly opposed Loyalists in their midst. Frontiersmen in the area began the “War of Regulators” against the British and actively supported the American cause throughout the Revolutionary War.

Following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Confederate General Johnston and Union General Sherman negotiated the war’s largest troop surrender at Bennett Place in Durham—effectively ending the Civil War.

In the ensuing cease-fire, troops began sharing copious amounts of local tobacco, giving birth to one of the world’s great business empires. James B. Duke formed the American Tobacco Company, acquiring its signature “Bull Durham” tobacco. His fortune would in part lay the foundation for our very own University.

In the racial caste system of the early 1900s, Durham represented a brighter future for African-Americans. The city was dubbed the “capital of the black middle class” and was home to “black Wall Street,” a group of businesses independently owned and operated by young, ambitious African-Americans. In time, community leaders were able to convert business success into political capital, becoming among the first to call for widespread economic and social change in the Jim Crow South.

Durham rose to national prominence during the Civil Rights era. Our metropolis was the site of many of the first non-violent protests in the country. The famous Greensboro sit-in—an event that rocked the nation—was the brainchild of North Carolina community and religious leaders, including Rev. Douglass Moore of Durham’s Asbury Temple Methodist Church. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Durham within days of the Greensboro sit-in, encouraging his followers to “fill up the jails” and “arouse the dozing conscience of our nation.” It was one of five speeches he would make in the city.

Duke made headlines during this time as well. Following King’s assassination, Duke students and Durham community leaders organized a silent protest on the lawn of the University president’s house, which eventually grew to a 1,500-person vigil near the Duke Chapel. In the late ’60s, a group of black Duke students seized the Allen Building and presented a list of demands, including the creation of a black dormitory and an increase in black enrollment.

Throughout this time, alliances between black and white laborers forged a new model of social change. Black and white women also teamed up to demand action on poverty and violence. Durham was forcing itself to move beyond the politics of race.

It is a spirit that is still at work today. In 1997, the Utne Reader magazine named Durham as America’s third “most enlightened city,” writing that it “stands out because it tackles real-city problems in a forward-thinking way.” Community organizations like TROSA, which provides business opportunities for former drug-users, and the Self-Help Credit Union, a bank committed exclusively to low-income clientele, are pioneers in the field of urban development.

Unfortunately for most of us, Duke-Durham segregation is the norm—Durham simply “sucks” and deserves no further comment; Durham beyond Ninth Street might as well be imaginary. Whatever other thoughts we reserve for our city tend toward frustration, pity and fear.

The Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership Initiative has opened up valuable channels between Duke students and Durham residents. But volunteers can’t close the rift alone; for that, it takes neighbors.

Durham can shape your sense of place and your understanding of regional and national history. There is perhaps no better place in America to appreciate good ol’ fashioned citizenship. In the coming years, make an effort to become both a Duke student and a Durham citizen.

Welcome to your new home. Welcome to the Bull City.

Jimmy Soni is a Trinity junior. His column usually runs every Tuesday.

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