Destruction and Resilience: Black Wall Street and Durham’s Struggle for Racial Justice and Food Security

Durham, North Carolina, is home to one of the most well-documented examples of a thriving, interconnected Black community in the twentieth-century American South. Named after the endless line of Black-owned businesses on West Parish Street, Durham’s Black Wall Street encapsulated the larger African-American community of Hayti, where residents could shop at Black-owned stores, worship in predominantly Black parishes, and apply for insurance from the nation’s first Black-owned insurance company, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. An integral part of Hayti’s success, and ultimately, its targeted destruction during Urban Renewal projects of the 1960s, was the success of its grocery stores and many restaurants.

Today, Durham’s history of local civil rights activism and its storied legacy of Black restaurants form a continuous tapestry that captures the state of food insecurity across North Carolina and the United States. Yet resilience stands out as a throughline in the local history of Black Wall Street: resilience in the face of racial discrimination, resilience in the face of urban renewal, and resilience during the COVID19 pandemic. Now, as Durham County gears up to tackle food insecurity, these same businesses have remained committed to supporting their community in the fight for food access and equity.

A Brief History of Hayti

Around the mid twentieth century, the Hayti Community located in South Durham was gaining fame as a bastion of Black business excellence and community solidarity amidst the lingering effects of the Reconstruction era as well as the ongoing injustices of the Jim Crow South. As early as 1925, Black Sociologist Frederick Frazier dubbed Durham the “Capital of the Black Middle Class” in America. As this nickname suggests, the real ingenuity behind Hayti’s success was its strong community network that allowed the prosperity of its central businesses to support families across Durham. The success of NC Mutual, founded in 1899, contributed to the founding of Farmers and Mechanics Bank, the first Black-owned Bank in North Carolina’s history. This interconnected network of capital, from jobs to accessible credit and housing loans, allowed Hayti’s private businesses to thrive. Prosperity, in turn, gave rise to a rich culinary history. Time and again, the restaurants of Durham and Hayti would play pivotal roles in the city, state, and nation’s civil rights movements.

The Royal Ice Cream Sit-In of 1957

Three years before there were the “Greensboro Four,” the “Royal Seven” consisting of seven young Black activists walked into the segregated, white-owned Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham, NC. The sit-in took place on June 23, 1957, making it one of the earliest sit-ins of its kind in the nation’s history. It quickly made waves in Durham, and beyond. The seven protesters were all charged with trespassing, a charge which they appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court before it was ultimately upheld.

Following the Royal Ice Cream Sit-In, forty student activists staged a similar protest at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworths located in Greensboro, North Carolina. Unlike the Royal Ice Cream Sit-In, which initially drew the ire of the local community, the Black communities of Greensboro, especially the women of Bennett College, stood behind the protest which quickly gained more and more national media attention. During the summer of 1960, similar protests spread to over 55 cities across 13 states, which spurred local desegregation in countless cities, including Durham.

Durham’s Sit-Ins continued. Five years after the Royal Ice Cream protest, four thousand protesters gathered outside Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Durham, which would go on to influence the desegregation of over fifty restaurants in Durham years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As the sites of community gathering and solidarity, despite pervasive segregation laws, Durham’s restaurants became icons of the civil rights movement at the state and national level.

The Chicken Hut: Durham’s Oldest Standing Black-owned Restaurant

One of Durham’s most successful food chains of the mid-twentieth century was The Chicken Box (later the Chicken Hut), founded by Claiborne Topp, Jr. in 1956. Topp’s chain expanded to five locations split across Durham and Chapel Hill, and his family-owned and operated business became a symbol of successful Black entrepreneurship in Durham. All too fittingly, though, The Chicken Hut faced closure and underwent relocation during Durham’s period of urban renewal.

Between 1949 and 1973, the U.S. Government funded urban renewal projects throughout the country in nearly one thousand cities. Facetiously labeled as an infrastructure investment campaign into local communities, these projects resulted in the bulldozing of over two hundred and twenty five neighborhoods across the country so that highways and other infrastructure could be built. Many of these neighborhood communities, including Hayti, were promised government-subsidized relocation programs. Those promises never came true.

Within Durham, urban renewal left nothing but destruction in its wake. The main project involved the construction of Durham Highway 147, which ran directly through Hayti in southern Durham. Clearing land for the roadway began in 1968 and cost the modern-day equivalent of $300 Million dollars, displacing four thousand families and five hundred businesses. Many (if not most) of these businesses were forced to relocate and start from scratch, just as desegregation legislation was falling into place, creating greater competition among restaurants and businesses than previously found in Durham. Unsurprisingly, costly, unsupported relocation resulted in hundreds of closures of black-owned businesses and restaurants.

As a result, The Chicken Hut stands alone as one of the few examples of resilience among the businesses from Black Wall Street. These establishments, entrenched in the civil rights movement that swept the Southern United States during the 1960s while also the victims of government-funded displacement programs, stand as perfect emblems of the political and social trends found in Durham during the previous century.

Interestingly, the businesses and restaurants throughout Durham that trace their roots to the city’s Black Wall Street offer insight into the modern local political milieu. Specifically, they offer insight into the current state of food insecurity in Durham County, North Carolina. While gentrification and displacement have been ongoing generational struggles for the city of Durham, the issue of food insecurity has rapidly evolved into a complex political entanglement with many claiming there’s no end in sight. Durham’s proud Black restaurants, once bustling sites of community business and focal points for the civil rights movement, were simply overburdened by urban renewal. The result? Closures and a fundamental lack of access to enough nutritious food

Year after year, the city of Durham has been experiencing growing food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined by FeedNC as insufficient access to healthy and nutritious food to sustain a healthy, active lifestyle for all members of a household. In 2015, Durham’s food insecurity rate was seventeen percent, while state-wide, “one in six children experience hunger or malnutrition.” These trends only worsened during the COVID19 Pandemic.

Nevertheless, many of these same local businesses have taken on supplemental roles as food distribution centers during and following the pandemic. Today, The Chicken Hut has provided upwards of 900 free lunches a day following the lockdowns of 2020. The spirit of resilience and community that imbued Durham’s Black Wall Street lives on today in businesses like The Chicken Hut, who after facing discrimination, displacement, and empty promises of government support, remain committed to feeding and supporting all the residents of the city of Durham.

RCC Fellow – Dylan Cawley – Duke University

Dylan Cawley is a sophomore at Duke University, majoring in Environmental Science & Policy with a minor in Inequality Studies. He is passionate about exploring the intersections of climate change and environmental justice through an economic lens. Before Duke, Dylan spent a gap year fighting wildfires in Northern California for the California Conservation Corps and has since worked for the US Forest Service on an Interagency Hotshot Crew. On campus, Dylan is a member of Duke Student Government, an Ambassador for the Office of Sustainability, and a researcher in the Duke Economic Analytics Lab.