If these walls could talk:
What I Learned
on the Durham Mural Tour

Once a month a group called Mural Durham plays host to a bicycle mural tour, a look into the history of the city’s murals and the city of Durham itself. I had the pleasure of being on the most recent tour. It did not disappoint.

If These Walls Could Talk:

What I Learned on the Durham Mural Tour

by Josh Factor

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The first mural we stopped at was the great Civil Rights and feminist reformer, Pauli Murray.  I learened after moving to Durham with her aunt, she applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, but was rejected simply for being African-American. Not to be deterred, she later studied law at Howard University and went on to become a major player in the Civil Rights movement, as well as the first black female to be ordained by the Protestant Episcopal Church. If you read her quote, this mural has a most Durham message.

photo by Gary Kueber, courtesy of OpenDurham.org

Pre-Mural photo by Gary Kueber, courtesy of OpenDurham.org

We then moved on to JC’s Kitchen. Refurbished in 2014, the mural now honors Sheilah Lee, the original owner of the restaurant who passed away that same year.

jcs kitchen

She was a devout Christian (the JC stands for Jesus Christ) and beloved member of the community. She was so kind and compassionate that whenever someone came into her restaurant, she would serve them whatever they ordered regardless of whether they had the money to pay for it. I feel like this mural serves as a beautiful way to honor her memory.

Next on the tour, we headed over to look at the Black Wall Street Mural. It is on East Lakewood Avenue painted on the side of Food World. This particular work of art depicts Hayti, an independent African-American community founded after the civil war. In 1912, W.E.B. Dubois visited Durham and remarked that the city was “a new group economy.”  I learned that from the 1880’s to the 1940’s, Hayti had a thriving economy with large African-American owned companies such as the NC Mutual Insurance Company, Mechanic and Farmer’s Bank, and over 200 other business owned by African-Americans. However, ever since the 60’s, Durham’s plans for urban renewal have devastated the local economy. The mural, painted by Emily Weinstein in 1999, memorializes some of Hayti’s most notable landmarks and institutions such as the Biltmore Hotel, Regal Theater, St. Joseph’s Church, North Carolina Central University, and the North Carolina Mutual Life Building. It is sad to see the current state of this mural.

Compare

Emily Weinstein's original work

Emily Weinstein’s original work

Contrast

What it looks like now... from Google Street View

What it looks like now… from Google Street View

I also learned about one of the stories depicted by the recently completed Durham Civil Rights Mural. This mural is on Morris Street adjacent to the Durham Arts Council.

Seen here in progress

Seen here in progress

C.P. Ellis was a Klan leader in Durham in the 1960’s who initially tried to obstruct the process of integration led by civil rights activist, Ann Atwater. Later on, however, he realized that Whites and African-Americans aren’t all that different, renounced the KKK, and became good friends with Ms. Atwater, a friendship that would last many years. This mural serves as a reminder of how people are capable of great change.

Next, we ventured on to see the Wall of Hope where I learned this mural was created as part of a fundraising effort by Threshold Clubhouse. Since its inception in 1985, the organization has been dedicated to helping adults with serious mental illnesses adjust and integrate into society rather than keeping them locked up in psychiatric hospitals or institutions. They’re also committed to helping these people advance their education, succeed in business, and achieve their own personal life goals. In fact, the artist herself, Andrea Linn, has struggled with mental illness which made her the perfect candidate to paint this mural. This masterpiece serves as a message of equality and community.

The last mural we saw on our depicted Durham in its tobacco days. [The Clarion Content recently interviewed the artist about the project.] Located at Liberty Warehouse, it’s painted on the last remaining wall of one of the many demolished Durham tobacco warehouses.

Seen here in progress

Seen here in progress

I even got to meet the artist, Darius Quarles, who just happened to be there at the time and was happy to answer any questions we had about the mural.

So if you’re interested in learning about the history of our city and the mural art it has inspired, I would recommend taking the tour. There will be two more tours happening this summer on the first Saturday of both September and October. To learn even more about these murals and where they’re located, you can go to the mural archive at www.muraldurham.com.

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Josh Factor is an avid young writer and cyclist, a native of Durham, NC, and a 2016 graduate of Elon University, where he majored in English.

 

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