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Durham civil rights tour is a walk through history

Preservation Durham's civil rights walking tour places the city within a national context by showcasing monuments and buildings.
Preservation Durham's civil rights walking tour places the city within a national context by showcasing monuments and buildings.

Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Brown v. Board of Education, Montgomery bus boycotts, sit-ins. We have grown up learning about segregation; we have grown accustomed to the same black and white photos of labeled water fountains, the same sparkling four words that have come to represent an entire movement: “I have a dream.” 

Although this education is important, it has always been presented through a sort of script in a mundane fashion that often leaves out many key facts and ideas. 

Preservation Durham is a local organization that “works to protect Durham’s unique sense of place by sharing our passion and knowledge," according to its website. It provides opportunities to explore Durham’s history in a much more personal way through its free walking and biking tours. Held every Saturday from April to November, these tours including exploring murals and  architecture and learning about Durham’s civil rights and tobacco history. 

The civil rights walking tour aims to educate the community by visiting important sites in the downtown Durham area, including the Durham County Courthouse and the Kress and Woolworth buildings, which were key sites of sit-ins.  

Starting at the Durham Farmer’s Market in Durham Central Park, the tour winds through downtown Durham to showcase key buildings, monuments and movements along the way. 

At the beginning of the tour, visitors are given a timeline of the civil rights movement, which compares the nation’s events with those occurring in North Carolina in the same timeframe. This timeline includes the events like Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycotts, but it bridges the gap between local and national progress by placing Durham into the context. 

One of the 15 volunteer tour guides, Cathy Abernathy, an archivist and history educator, led Saturday’s tour. 

“I hope that people understand that Durham had leaders that made a difference,” Abernathy said. “I hope they understand that Durham had economic institutions that made a difference. I hope that the story of Pauli Murray and other leaders inspires this next generation to resolve conflict with nonviolence.”

April Johnson, executive director of Preservation Durham, said that the tours help build a sense of community, regardless of whether people grew up in Durham or just moved to town. 

“The tours help people identify and connect with Durham's roots,” Johnson said. “Durham has an incredible story of triumph and struggles for those in the black community and the tours can also be a source of inspiration, especially concerning the history of Durham's Black Wall Street.”

Although it can be easy to get stuck in the Duke bubble, Abernathy urges students to walk outside the walls of East Campus every once in a while. She recommended that all Duke students read “Best of Enemies,” a nonfiction book which details the history of Durham’s race relations, specifically through the lens of two Durhamites: a leader of the KKK and an African-American domestic worker. Although pitted against each other by society, they eventually became good friends because of their shared interest in education. 

“Educating yourself on your environment is one of the best ways to get to know your community and get involved with the local people,” Abernathy said. 

Johnson encourages Duke students to get involved in the local community to form a connection with the town in which they will spend the next four years. 

“Although most students will live in Durham temporarily, it will be the place they 'come to age,' meet lifelong friends, develop talents and skills, and learn what it means to be a community leader,” she said. “That starts with getting to know a community's roots and finding out how you connect with it's story and people, then using knowledge of the past to guide the future.” 

Students gain much more from personal engagements with history, that is, seeing examples of the chapters in the history books with their own eyes and walking the same steps as those who transformed the way we live today.

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