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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Parrish Street Looks To Tap Past by Ben Evans

Downtown's Parrish Street area could become a "museum without walls" with exhibits and kiosks illustrating the history of Durham's tobacco industry, African-American entrepreneurship and traditional arts and crafts, according to a draft consultant's report on remaking the area into a designated heritage area that would attract locals and tourists downtown.

But getting to that point would require a lot of work and money, including attracting new investment to redevelop the former "Black Wall Street" into a vibrant business district while at the same time finding extra dollars to commemorate the street's history, the report stated.

The city paid $80,000 for the 40-page document, which includes a regional market and population analysis using U.S. Census data and a briefing on how to apply to the National Park Service to become a designated National Heritage Area. It offers four broad recommendations for the city:

-- To organize and raise money through an advocacy group that could be made up of individuals and representatives from private companies and institutions.

-- To get the message out about Parrish Street's history by identifying a target audience and determining how to reach it.

-- To revitalize Parrish Street by attracting investments for new businesses, physical improvement and other "enhancements."

-- To interpret the Parrish Street story and develop a compelling way to convey the story through exhibits and other venues.

Although several residents involved in the effort said at a recent meeting that they were pleased with the consultant's work, they also seemed unsure of what to do with it. The meeting, intended to get comments on the draft plan, drew about a dozen people.

"I'll just raise the big ol' green flag: Where's the money?" asked Sherry Kinlaw, a former storeowner who recently began working for Downtown Durham Inc., a downtown booster group.

She pointed out that not only would the group have to find money for a possible museum or for outdoor exhibits, it also would have to staff and maintain the facilities annually.

Others noted that the Durham story was more abstract than other cities', which often involved physical markers such as rivers, battlefields or other tangible features.

Another questioned whether the project could lure enough tourists to make it feasible.

"One of the challenges of this is that we can't get people from Raleigh to come down here," said Barbara Lau, community programs director for the Center for Documentary Studies. "That's not really dealt with here."

Some suggested that the area would need a main draw or "anchor" -- perhaps a museum -- to attract visitors, while others emphasized that the city could start out with small steps -- such as a marked walking tour -- and build gradually toward larger plans.

Still others said the effort shouldn't just focus on Parrish Street, but also should try to cover a larger picture of Durham's history. Many agreed that the city shouldn't rely on winning a National Heritage Area designation -- a process that could lure grant money, but that already has 150 others waiting in line, according to the report -- before taking action.

Parrish Street not only was the site of some of Durham's first tobacco operations, but it also evolved into a hot spot in the early 1900s for Durham's enterprising black middle- and upper-class residents -- carpenters and masonry workers who helped build the city and entrepreneurs who started successful businesses.

N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co., which went on to become the largest black-owned insurance company in the world; Mechanics & Farmers Bank; Mutual Savings & Loan Co.; and the city's cadre of middle-class craftsmen led black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington to praise the prosperous black community in Durham.

By 1930, some referred to the street as "Black Wall Street."

The city's consultant, Heritage Directions LLC of Asheville, said the story, with its different themes of the tobacco industry, black entrepreneurship and race relations, is worthy of national attention if Durham could communicate it.

The city's office of economic development is seeking input on the effort and plans to hold several community meetings over the next couple of months, director Alan DeLisle said. Residents can view the report and submit comments through the Internet at For more information, contact Perry Pike at 560-4965.

Ben Evans writes for The Herald Sun where this article first appeared. He can be contacted via e-mail at:

2004 The Durham Herald Company

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

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