A train whistle blows as Darrell Stover gives me a tour of the Page-Walker Arts & History Center in Cary. The building shares a point of origin with that of the St. Joseph's AME Church, now home of Durham's Hayti Heritage Center. Both were built in 1868, during Reconstruction, and both have been renovated and repurposed as arts centers.
The whistle bursts loudly, the sound barely muffled by the thick panes of window glass. "The train still goes by," Stover laughs. "Same train that goes through Durham." That the towns share these tracks is a reminder of the interconnectedness of local histories--they're shared among towns, among people, among newcomers and old timers. This intersection of interests and stories is what makes Stover's job so interesting.
Stover's talent as a programmer of cultural events is his ability to create an environment where everyone feels they belong. The events are fun, they're kid-friendly, and they make people feel good about indulging a natural curiosity about their communities. Best of all, they incorporate music at every opportunity.
In his five years as programming director of the Hayti Heritage Center, Stover launched a long roster of events and traditions, including the week-long Kwanzaa celebration, and helped to program the Bull Durham Blues Festival. Since he began working for the Town of Cary in 2002 as cultural arts program specialist, he has shown much of that unstoppable inventiveness. At Hayti he says he created programs "that celebrated, investigated, encouraged and inspired the Durham community and beyond to take heart in the African American history, culture and contribution to this country. Here, the whole notion is more mainstream, but certainly open to my bringing to the table fresh ideas."
One of the ideas he's most proud of is "The Blues Experience," a day-long blues concert last October headlined by Cool John Ferguson at the Sertoma Ampitheater in Bond Park. "Why not have blues music in Cary?" Stover says. "And certainly it was a success. We had 300-plus people out there, all enjoying the blues, young and old, black and white."
Why not, indeed? But most people in the Triangle probably wouldn't think of Cary as a destination point for African-American cultural events. That's an impression Stover could soon change. "It's not that Cary is any farther removed from the standard interests culturally than elsewhere. It's what people thought from the outside as opposed to what truly is going on here."
Cary's reputation as a high-tech boomtown of new, upscale, suburban (white) neighborhoods belies its deeper history. Like many other towns in the South, Cary was home to white and black folks long before it was incorporated in 1871. A two-volume history by Cary native Ella A. Williams-Vinson called Both Sides of the Tracks, published in 1996, tells the story of prominent black property owners in the 19th and 20th centuries, and details the coexistence and cooperation of blacks and whites during and after segregation.
Williams-Vinson, whose family roots in Cary go back four generations, is one of several local writers that Stover has invited to take part in the "Community ... Literally" series he created. Last year, themed panels of authors spoke about the African-American and immigrant experience, and read local poetry.
Eight years ago, when Stover and his wife left the Washington, D.C., area, they settled not in Durham, but in Cary. "When the opportunity presented itself here," he says of the new gig, "that brought me into the community I live in."
As for the impression of Cary as monocultural, "The fact remains that Cary is certainly a predominantly white community, but there's still diversity represented here--African Americans, Hispanics, Asians--and that diversity is something to be cherished and celebrated," says Stover. Kwanzaa celebrations date back nine years, and for the past three there have been events celebrating Diwali, the Hindu New Year. Cary's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day offerings this year, which he helped to program, were the largest outside a university campus. "And," he adds, "there is so much room for even more growth."
A writer and performer in his own right, Stover's work is informed by both literature and music. He uses rhythm in his poetry, and shows me a photograph of a reading he gave with a jazz band in the background. His childhood in the Washington, D.C., area, surrounded by music, poetry and a blend of social activism and cultural pride, formed his artistic senses. "Blues is a strong suit for me. I can't go back to my parents' house and not sit down with my father and look at some videos that he might have recovered, or listen to some music, or maybe bring something to him."
Lately Stover has been reading about the lives of African Americans in coastal North Carolina before and after the Civil War. He says he's reading as much as he can, and letting it "ferment, saturate, and speak." What began as a collection of poems on the subject is evolving into a film project, a series of radio vignettes and a live stage performance.
But kids in the region know a different side of Stover. One of his projects at Hayti was to adapt children's literature for the stage. He says he still meets kids who remember seeing productions at Hayti when they were in preschool and kindergarten, which gives him a thrill.
Cary's next generation is likely to remember Stover as the man who showed them the old smokehouse and let them in on a little-known fact about the Civil War. The Cary Heritage Museum upstairs (which predates Stover's work there) and a 30-minute film he created about the town's history are part of the standard field trip for Cary's fourth and eighth graders as they study state history.
"Your teacher is going to tell you that that war ended at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia," he says, delivering the tour he gives to schoolchildren. His normally slow, soft-spoken manner changes subtly as he takes on the role of storyteller. "Well, I have a secret and a story for you. That's not quite true. It ended here, in North Carolina. In fact, it ended right up those railroad tracks at Bennett Farm, which you can go visit. But let's check this out! When Walter Hines Page was 9 years old, he stood on his back porch right over there and watched all those troops go by."
"It's interesting to be able to share with young folks," he says, breaking character, "both to get them excited about the town that they live in and also to encourage their minds in ways that help them research, investigate and think critically about the past. It's also a way to tell them that they're part of history. So, who's to say what will be said about them 40, 50, 60, 100 years from now?"
+ "Run on Water," Darrell Stover's series of radio vignettes on African American experiences in coastal North Carolina, will run throughout the month of February on WNCU 90.7 FM.
The "Community...Literally" series continues in 2004:
For more information, call 460-4963.