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St. Joseph's Historic Foundation/Hayti Heritage Center

Preserving a Heritage


When the cornerstone was laid for St. Joseph AME Church 110 years ago, that church was already a historic institution. In 1868, the Rev. Edian Markum (later Markham), an African Methodist Episcopal missionary, came to Durham to preach. He bought land in the area that 10 years later would be known as Hayti, and established a brush arbor church he called Union Bethel. As more and more blacks acquired land in the area extending south and west from the corner of Pettigrew and Fayetteville streets, and a thriving business district and residential neighborhood grew up around it, the church's membership expanded as well. The congregation quickly outgrew two frame structures before building the brick edifice that still stands today at the crest of Fayetteville Street, overlooking the Durham Freeway.

That it still presides over the southeastern entrance to the city is somewhat of a miracle, for much of Hayti was destroyed in the "urban renewal" of the early 1970s. Gone are the hotels, restaurants, theaters, small businesses and barber shops. Gone, the pool halls and juke joints where Durham's own brand of the blues rang out day and night. Gone, the equally important original White Rock Baptist Church. Gone, homes large and small--all replaced with "public housing" and a river of concrete, at a social cost still being reckoned.

With the coming of the bulldozers, the St. Joseph congregation built a new church further south, leaving empty and forlorn on its hill the handsome church building, designed by architect Samuel Leary--who had been brought to Durham by the Dukes to design both tobacco warehouses and Trinity College buildings. But to their everlasting credit, a coalition of neighborhood activists and historic preservationists banded together to save the building and use it to re-establish the cultural health of the neighborhood. They, and all of those dedicated volunteers who have come after them, have persevered and succeeded far beyond expectations. Thanks to them we have more than a fading memory of a place and its culture. We have, in the words of poet Darrell Stover, "Hayti Hayti handed down." For this great work of community building through cultural strength, The Independent honors the St. Joseph's Historic Foundation (SJHF) and its Hayti Heritage Center.

"St. Joseph's in itself is symbolic of multiculturalism," says Lionell Parker, who served on the board of the SJHF for 15 years, from 1983-1998. "The relationship between blacks and whites in Durham is very different from anywhere else in the state. It is the confluence of those relations that made St. Joseph's possible. St. Joseph's epitomizes what Durham is all about."

When Parker talks about the "confluence of relations," he means both those of the 1800s and those of today. Washington Duke was a patron of the church early on, and is memorialized in stained glass in the old sanctuary. His former valet and barber, John Merrick--who with Dr. Aaron Moore founded North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company--was an early member of St. Joseph. So was Dr. Stanford Warren, whose mother was a "domestic" in the Duke household, and whose father was said to be a Duke. Merrick, Moore and Warren also founded Mechanics and Farmers Bank, which for many years has helped support the church and latterly the SJHF. At the time the foundation was formed, Warren's son-in-law, John Wheeler, was president of Mechanics and Farmers--and played a key role in saving the old St. Joseph building. Now Warren's granddaughter Julia Taylor is president of the bank, and she has given the foundation an M&F branch building on Fayetteville Street to use as a museum. Merrick's granddaughter Constance Watts has served the SJHF board for decades; Washington Duke's granddaughter, Mary D.B.T. Semans, has given generously to support the renovations of the building her ancestor aided more than one hundred years earlier.

But the web of relations and relationships that created, saved and maintained this cultural landmark extends beyond the prominent people mentioned above. It includes all sorts of people, black and white, who care passionately about Durham: the founders of the Historic Preservation Society, folklorists, historians, musicians and music lovers intent on preserving the blues heritage, architects, businessmen and women of all types, philanthropists, community activists, civil rights workers and university professors. In the last 25 years, more than 100 such volunteers have met and worked together because they had a vision. They could see the beautiful old church--de-sanctified, but re-sanctified--renovated into a performance hall and a cultural center to spread the good word about African-American culture.

Soon, everyone will be able to share their vision. When at long last the former sanctuary re-opens this fall, the gloriously restored 415-seat hall with its nearly perfect acoustics will be one of the Triangle's very finest venues for music and performance.

"I had hoped to have this project completed in five years--but I hadn't understood the magnitude of the project," says Dianne Pledger, who is completing her 10th year as executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center. It has been a long haul for Pledger, but she has helped turn the fragile organization into a thriving center--one with heat, air conditioning and no leaks in the roof. The center also now has a full staff, and lots of programming. In addition to money from the city, county and state, Pledger and her staff have brought in corporate gifts, along with grants from the Durham Arts Council, the NEA, and the Z. Smith Reynolds, Mary Duke Biddle, A.J. Fletcher, Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest and Doris Duke foundations. The Doris Duke grant was for $1 million--half for the renovation, and half in the form of a matching grant for an endowment.

"The entire community has embraced this," Pledger says, "from school children giving $5, to every citizen who approved the bond issues. The community wanted us to save this building and turn it into something of use." Pledger looks forward to the center helping to educate the community at large about the contributions of African Americans. "We embrace the community with what we have to offer," she says. "Our culture is entwined in the American culture. We are all here together and need to embrace each other's culture."

Although the Hayti Heritage Center has been actively programming for years, when the performance hall opens there'll be much more going on. Program director Darrell Stover reels it off: daytime children's programming, Poetry Power, Sci-Fi Noir, the Black Diaspora Film Festival, and several series of performances including Women in Music, Jazz, Beyond Hip-Hop and Too Much Drama. This year's 14th Bull Durham Blues Festival (sponsored by SJHF) will kick off with a special acoustic night in the performance hall on Sept. 6, and the grand opening celebration starts on Sept. 30 with Chuck Davis and a ceremony blessing the space. The next several nights will feature local performers, and the week will culminate with a concert by Roberta Flack.

As great as all that is, perhaps the best thing is this: If you want to put on a show, you can do it there. It's a community place. "I liken the Hayti Heritage Center to that oasis up the street, the SEEDS garden," says Stover. "We are in a special position to move people forward through cultural arts programming. We are offering a diversity of presentations and programs to give the community a rich experience, as well as pointing out the possibilities. Sure, we present performances, but like the other facilities here, the theater will be available for the community to rent and use. The community has to actualize this."

Hayti Hayti, handed down. EndBlock

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