A display included in the Uneven Ground exhibit
When she moved to Durham two months ago to teach at the Central Park School for Children, Randi Harrison decided to check out the Liberty Warehouse apartments, located conveniently just down the block.
She was shocked by the prices.
“As a black person, the skin I’m in, I thought having a certain degree from a certain university would still cover me, and in that case it didn’t,” says the Columbia University graduate.
The memory came back to her Friday night, looking at a photo of the tobacco warehouse amid renovations, a black woman holding two young children in the foreground. It was part of a new exhibit at the MDC building on Main Street called Uneven Ground: The Foundations of Housing Inequality in Durham, NC.
Harrison attended the opening reception with friends, interested to learn more about the history of her new home. The exhibit covered a lot of ground—from the arrival of colonists and the beginnings of slavery to Durham’s rapidly changing modern landscape, as captured by the photographs of local artist Moriah LeFebvre. But it was the words of Brenda Bradsher that stuck with Harrison the most.
In conversation with LeFebvre, who created an original work for the exhibit, Bradsher, now in her seventies, recalled children playing on Grant Street, where she has lived her entire life. It was a community back then, she told LeFebvre. But under urban renewal, a national program in which local governments were given money to clear so-called blighted neighborhoods, much of the historically black Hayti community was razed to make way for the Durham Freeway. The highway cuts Grant Street near the former site of the Fayetteville Street public housing complex, now just concrete pads and overgrown grass where apartments once stood. LeFebrve captured the eerie sight and overlaid a picture of neighborhood kids from Bradsher’s photo album.
Bradsher’s firsthand account brought to life a familiar history of divestment and exploitation of communities of color.
“It was moving for me,” says Harrison. “A lot of the history I kind of know because it’s consistent across our country. I think it’s different having lived it than learning it. [Bradsher] would know nuances we’d never understand.”
Uneven Ground is a project of Bull City 150, a collaboration between the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. At its core, Bull City 150, created ahead of Durham’s sesquicentennial in 2019, seeks to expose how white privilege has influenced Durham’s past and present.
Twenty-five panels take attendees through Durham’s history, beginning with its foundation on stolen land and stolen people.
For Tia Hall, one of the project collaborators, this time period produced the figure that stood out to her most, even as someone who has long studied inequities in Durham: at the start of the Civil War, one in three residents of Orange and Durham counties was enslaved. She wonders whether the same ratio of people today isn’t sharing in Durham’s prosperity.
“Even though you are seeing systemic things happening here, I hope you walk away with an understanding of the humanity of the people who were impacted,” she says.
From there, attendees learn about early landowning patterns, vagrancy laws, and segregation. One panel shows black neighborhoods in 1937 in relation to the city’s parks and incinerators. Another explains how neighborhoods that were redlined by the Home Owners Loan Corporation didn’t receive city services until decades later, creating a cycle of disinvestment.
“If you lived in a neighborhood that was demarcated as red or yellow, our city government and national government said, ‘We don’t invest in those communities. Those are communities that are poor investments,'” Hall says. “They weren’t underwritten by the banks for housing, but those were also the places that were relegated solely to black people.” Neighborhoods designated as green or blue were off-limits to those who weren’t considered white, which at the time included Jewish, Irish, and Italian residents, Hall says.
A significant portion of the exhibit is dedicated to Hayti, from the community leaders who helped make homeownership a reality for black families to the drastic change in the neighborhood’s landscape as a result of urban renewal. The exhibit offers insight into how a program now synonymous with destruction was approved by black and white voters and supported by elected officials.
“We hope that going through this sort of provocative piece reminds people that these are decisions that we made at a very purposeful level, not solely based on a flawed character,” Hall says.
Other panels look at discriminatory real estate practices, which included different prices for renters of color, and the “invisible walls” that still persist between white communities and communities of color. It’s an invitation, Hall says, to think more deeply about why these inequalities exist and how they continue to manifest.
“What’s the new iteration of land being stolen?” says Hall. “We give it a gentle name like displacement, but displacement is violence.”
The exhibit will be on display October 20 and November 17 as part of Durham’s Third Friday events. On November 14, Bull City 150 will host a housing policy discussion.