The Story of Service, Part 4: Black Wall Street

On July 26, a mural named SERVICE was dedicated at UNC’s School of Government in the Knapp-Sanders Building. The mural depicts a gathering of African-American leaders at the counter of a diner, painted by Colin Quashie as a creative interpretation of the historical 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in. We will be featuring each of the eight panels in a series, highlighting some of the people represented.

Today as we look at Panel 4, “Parish Street, Durham, North Carolina,” we welcome a guest post from Leslie Brown, author of Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South.

The fourth panel of SERVICE depicts Parrish Street, in downtown Durham, North Carolina, in the background. As a prosperous black business district, Parrish Street was an outgrowth of entrepreneurial efforts inherent to the urban South during the Jim Crow era, when white stores refused or alternately insulted customers of color. Racial segregation created a critical mass of customers, a captive clientele that needed black banks, insurance companies, retail stores and professional offices.

When I walked the area in the 1990s as a graduate student at Duke, the facades of the buildings did little to reveal their past importance. But my historian’s eye looked past the frontage to the beauty and structural grace of the buildings, most of them built by African Americans for African Americans. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, known as the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association in 1906 when it moved to that block, located its offices on the second floor of the structure it built. The first floor housed retail and office space along with the Mutual’s brother institution Mechanics and Farmers Bank. In 1921, the Mutual moved to a stunningly handsome—and very modern—building in the same vicinity on Parrish Street.

Among the famous black North Carolinians, Panel 4 also depicts Dr. Aaron M. Moore, Durham’s first black physician and a founder of Lincoln Hospital, Bull City Drug Store, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and North Carolina Mutual. Parrish Street and Aaron Moore are tied together not only by a history of entrepreneurial spirit or institution building among black leaders of Durham, but also by the theme of service.

The Mutual’s motto was “A Company with a Soul and a Service,” truly a complex approach to black business that voiced articulated personal and pecuniary responsibility for black progress. It was a vision of freedom set against the backdrop of slavery, emancipation, and the racial violence that followed. Racial violence targeted successful African Americans. Thus, if black business survived, black people survived; if black business succeeded, black people succeeded. In this way, black business was a movement, as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1912:

Today, there is a singular group in Durham where a black man may get up in the morning from a mattress made by black men, in a house which a black man built out of lumber which black men cut and planed; he may put on a suit which he bought at a colored haberdashery and socks knit at a colored mill; he may cook victuals from a colored grocery on a stove which black men fashioned; he may earn his living working for colored men, be sick in a colored hospital, and buried from a colored church; and the Negro insurance company will pay his widow enough to keep his children in the colored school. This is surely progress.

It was the very definition of black capitalism, that black money invested by black people profited black institutions and individuals, a strategy supported across the black political spectrum. There is a lesson in here about drawing hard boundaries around black ideologies. In any case, the business movement had several other goals, including one to make financial capital out of social capital, and in so doing to garner political capital. In this way, doing business was a civil rights strategy. As another leader, John Merrick, once stated in a speech, “having something to represent” proved one’s citizenship rights.

Durham’s black business movement also represented a strategy of protest and resistance, and Parrish Street reflects this, too. Well aware that racial violence served to destabilize black communities and to take down those who built up, Durham’s black entrepreneurs upbuilt during the most unstable of times. The Mutual project, for instance, was launched in 1898 during pitched battles over black politics. Black Parrish Street was established around the time of the Atlanta race riots. And the fireproof building of the Mutual opened in 1921 following the Tulsa race riot, which had destroyed the area that was until then known as Black Wall Street; the new Mutual building re-established a new Black Wall Street immediately.

There is much more to say about black business: about how it figured into the class dynamics of Durham, about women and gender, about the opportunities and limitations of racial segregation. It is important to note, as well, that many of the prominent figures depicted in each section of the mural had affiliations with the business movement (Pauli Murray, for instance, worked for a black business one summer, and Charles Hunter was a Mutual insurance agent). I write about these themes in my book, Upbuilding Black Durham. The point here is that there is much to think about, historically, and even to celebrate about the connection between business and service represented by the importance of black Durham’s exceptional place as the entrepreneurial center of black America.

Leslie Brown is assistant professor of history at Williams College. Her book Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians.