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Snapshots of Durham's history



R. Kelly Bryant Jr. flipped through a series of three photographs. The first, faded and tattered at the edges, was a black and white image of five women. The women were the founders of the Daughters of Dorcus, an organization started in 1917 in Durham. With dues of five cents, the group "provided milk for the children in the community ... and assisted people that were in need," Bryant said. "It just grew from that."

The growth was seen in the second black and white photograph, which pictured a group of 12 finely dressed women. The last in the series was a color picture with Bryant's wife, Artelia, surrounded by a large group of women. Artelia was the president, following in the tradition of Bryant's grandmothers, aunts and cousins.

Bryant brought the photographs to the Hayti Heritage Center on Saturday as part of his collection of Civil Rights history. He collaborated with the Durham County Library, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke to invite community members to share photographs that document life in Durham from 1940 to the present. The photographs were then copied; one copy was kept for the records and another was given to the contributor. In addition, oral historians conducted interviews with community members. About 100 photographs were collected.

"We have lost a lot of valuable information because items weren't stored, pictures weren't shared," he said. "A lot of these people've got pictures around and they're holding on to them and they don't know what to do with them."

Bryant had 10 pictures to share. Most of them featured North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance board members. North Carolina Mutual was founded in Durham in 1899, and was one of the first powerful black businesses in the South. The company helped Durham earn the nickname "The Black Wall Street," Bryant explained.

Bryant worked for North Carolina Mutual for 37 years, retiring in 1981. During that time, he saved many of the company's old pictures from being destroyed. For example, he salvaged a picture from the traditional Saturday morning meeting in 1940, called the forum. The forum allowed employees to host guest speakers and talk about community concerns. Another picture was a black and white portrait of employees seated at a formal dinner table during a monthly dinner held by the president of the company. Both the forum and the dinners are still held today.

Bryant brought pictures of others in the community--and the community brought pictures of him. He was active in the Civil Rights struggle, and was treasurer of the Black Solidarity Commission in 1968 that organized a six-month boycott of local businesses. As a result, some jobs were opened to the black community. "Those changes were the beginning, really, of getting things done," he said. Bryant was also active in integrating the Boy Scouts and recreation facilities at Kerr Lake.

Bryant has a story to tell. In fact, he is in the process of writing a book. But he recognizes that the story is bigger than one man, so he's asking others to join in.

A second documentary event will be held on Jan. 19 at St. Joseph's AME Church in Durham. Anyone with pictures of the Durham community from 1940 to the present is encouraged to share.

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