Black Wall Street, 1991
ARTIST: EMILY WEINSTEIN
Location: 401 Lakewood Avenue (Food World Plaza)
Emily Weinstein painted Black Wall Street in 1999 on the south façade of the Heritage Square Shopping Center (now known to many as the Food World plaza). The work, which was once an enchanting visualization of Durham’s Black Wall Street, has deteriorated over the years. The mural’s neglect and the challenges to restore it highlight the issue of conservation and spark an interesting discussion about public art on private property. Unlike art housed within climate-controlled museum facilities, public works of art not only compete with environmental conditions, graffiti, pollution, and wildlife, but also property owners, politicians, and changing opinions of the general public. As a result, the future and lifespan of a work is constantly at risk.
With the help of fellow artist David Wilson and over 200 Durham school children, Emily Weinstein painted a dynamic vision of the past that highlighted the history of Durham’s African American community. In the early 20th century, amidst the racially charged climate across the nation and particularly in the South, the four-block district of Parrish Street was a thriving center for African American entrepreneurial activity. Black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T Washington called it a mecca of black business, and it was later given the moniker Black Wall Street. Hayti, whose residential areas radiated from the commercial district that straddled East Pettigrew and Fayetteville Streets, was founded as an independent African American community after the Civil War in which freemen moved to the city to work and start businesses of their own, from haberdasheries to insurance companies The name, Hayti, was inspired by the independent black nation of Haiti. In 1912, W.E.B. DuBois visited Durham and remarked that Durham was “a new ‘group economy’ that characterizes the rise of the Negro American – the closed circle of social intercourse, teaching and preaching, buying and selling, employing and hiring, and even manufacturing, which, because it is confined chiefly to Negroes, escapes the notice of the white world.” Between the 1880s and 1940s, Hayti was home to North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, Mechanics & Farmers’ Bank, Lincoln Hospital, and over 200 other black-owned businesses. In the 1960s, however, Durham’s plans for urban renewal, changing land policies, and construction of the Durham Freeway (147) cut right through the heart of the once thriving Hayti District. Countless families’ homes were relocated. The neighborhood’s economy, which was struggling at that time, was further damaged by these plans.
Here Weinstein memorializes such Hayti icons as the Biltmore Hotel, Regal Theater, St. Joseph’s Church, North Carolina Central University, and the North Carolina Mutual Life building. In addition to key landmarks, Weinstein illustrates significant figures in the history of Hayti and Black Wall Street. One such figure, standing in the center of the mural with his wife, is the Right Reverend Philip Cousin Sr. Rev. Cousin was elected the 96th bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1976 and later named by Ebony one of the 100 most influential Black Americans.
Despite the mural’s historical significance to the community, it has faced deterioration over the years with little effort to restore it. The challenges faced in conserving the Black Wall Street mural are the same ones that thousands of murals in other cities with robust mural programs, such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have confronted. Part of the challenge is identifying who is responsible for the restoration, an expensive and multifaceted project. Public murals such as this would need to be repainted with a paint that can withstand all types of environmental threats. Unfortunately, the Black Wall Street mural is south-facing and battles the bright southern sun. Today, it is characterized more by the flaking paint than the once beautifully rendered images that made up its design.
Additionally, most mural commissions have only enough funds to cover design, painting, and materials. It is rare for these projects also to have budgets for annual maintenance, or a plan in place for preservation. The cost of restoring a public mural can be quite high, especially when there is severe damage, as we see with the Black Wall Street mural. A system of maintaining public art with regular cleaning helps to address damages as they occur, and also extends the lifespan of the work. In addition to physical maintenance, there also needs to be “cultural maintenance.” Cultural maintenance is the continued acknowledgement of a mural’s existence and significance to the community as a part of its culture. By sparking such conversations, the hope is that local nonprofits with an interest in preserving these projects will step forward and save Durham’s cultural history, from buildings to public works of art. The Black Wall Street mural has been a community treasure for years; its future, however, is unclear.
Additional note: Hayti was made up of the following streets Fayetteville Street, St. Joseph Street, Umstead Street, Mobile Avenue, Cozart Street, Roxboro Road/Pine Street, and Ramsey Street.