State News

New book chronicles black lives in Durham back to 1880s

Posted 12:01 a.m. Sunday

— Andre Vann's new book, "Images of America: African Americans of Durham County" is filled with 217 carefully chosen images of black residents and institutions.

The 127-page history book shows the black churches, businesses and schools and elected officials, doctors, lawyers, ministers, educators and ordinary citizens who helped shape the county's economic, political, educational, social and religious landscapes from the 1880s to the present.

For Vann, the coordinator of university archives at N.C. Central University, one photo stood out among the hundreds as best capturing the spirit of African Americans in the Durham community.

So, he chose that photo of six black aviation pioneers from 1945 to grace the cover of the book, which was released July 31.

"That picture there sort of attests to the uniqueness of Durham," Vann said. "These men came home after World War II and had the nerve — had the nerve to say we're going to establish a flying school."

Using the GI Bill, the veterans established the Bronze Wings Flying Club and learned to fly on an air strip on land where Northern High School now stands.

All of them went on to become certified, licensed pilots.

The photo was taken by the late Alex Rivera, a renowned photojournalist who established the public relations office at N.C. Central University.

Vann said the story about the Bronze Wings Flying Club is one of the lesser known stories on a deep and rich list of well-known stories he's collected in the book through photos collected from some of the subjects, members of their families, other community members and libraries.

Black economic, political prowess

One of the better-known stories is that of the Black Wall Street, and Vann's book includes numerous images that reflect the historic economic prowess of Durham's African American community.

The images range from John Merrick and Dr. Aaron Moore, co-founders of N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co., to Maceo Sloan Jr., who founded Sloan Financial Group, a financial holding company and Vivian Rogers Patterson, an African-American female banking pioneer.

Most local residents will quickly recognize present-day political leaders such as Mayor Bill Bell; state Rep. Mickey Michaux, the late Jeanne Lucas, North Carolina's first African American female state senator; and the late Howard Clement, the long-serving member of the Durham City Council.

"For Mayor (Bill) Bell, I'm glad to document for generations to come that this is the end of his cycle (as an elected official)," Vann said. "He's in there on numerous of fronts because he was the first African-American chair of the Board of County Commissioners here and at the same time, one of the longest-serving mayors in the history of Durham."

The book is dedicated to Durham's first black mayor, the late Chester Jenkins, who was Vann's mentor and friend and also Maggie Poole Bryant, now 102 years old, who has helped Vann, a Henderson native, broaden his understanding of the Durham community and its history.

Bryant, who contributed photos to the book, said she thinks it is "remarkable" and hopes that it finds its way into the hands of young people.

"Young people today don't know about the early Durhamites who helped to make Durham," she said.

Judge A. Leon Stanback, who appears in Chapter Six, which is devoted to education, politics and civil rights, said Vann accurately captures the contributions African American made to Durham.

"Anyone who wants a quick dive into Durham's history would do well to review that book," Stanback said.

Clara Watson Lawson, appears in Chapter Four with members of her family, including her husband, the late Robert Lawson, who was the official NCCU photographer from 1992 until his retirement in 2013.

She said the book contains a lot of information that she didn't know and the pictures help to put faces with some of the names of people she's often heard stories about.

"There are some names in the book that I've heard before, especially the women, but I didn't have a picture in my mind of them," Lawson said.

White benefactors

Surprisingly, not all of the faces in Vann's book are black.

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a Duke descendent who was devoted to philanthropy, and her husband Dr. James Semans, are featured in the book because of their strong ties to Lincoln Hospital and other community projects that benefited African Americans.

He said Semans represented the third generation of the Duke family to support the hospital and various other projects in the African-American community.

"I had to include her," Vann said of Semans. "She had such an imprint on this neighborhood and community. You have to honor those where honor is due, and honor is due there."

First person in the book

While the Bronze Wings Flying Club easily won the cover of Vann's book, it is Margaret "Maggie" Ruffin Faucette, a native of Hillsborough who moved to what was then Durham Station in 1866 after marrying William Faucette, who is the first person profiled.

Faucette, who Vann describes as a "woman of high Christian principles," gave the first $1 toward construction of the new White Rock Baptist Church Building.

"It's not by accident that I started off with a woman and one who founded the White Rock Baptist Church in 1866," Vann said. "We're talking about a 150-year-old institution, White Rock Baptist Church, that is here today because this woman left Hillsborough, North Carolina and journeyed into Durham and the Hayti community, established, along with a group of others this church. It's this enduring story of someone who lived that experience, passed on, but the institution still survives today. That's part of the narrative of who we are."

A whole chapter of the books is devoted to churches and prominent religious leaders.

African American firsts

Chapter Five is titled "Durham's African American firsts" and includes such stalwarts as the late John C. Scarborough Sr. "the dean of black funeral home directors" who came to Durham in 1906 and became the first African-American licensed embalmer in North Carolina.

It also features the late Elna B. Spaulding, who in 1974 became the first African American to serve on the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

Beverly Washington Jones, a former member of the Durham school board who co-authored a previous pictorial book with Vann, is included in the chapter because she is the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in history from UNC Chapel Hill.

Other firsts include Willie Covington who became the first elected black register of deeds in 1996 and Sharon Davis who was elected to the same post in 2016, the first African-American female to hold the job.

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Information from: The Herald-Sun

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