The Durham Civil Rights Mural from the
Durham Civil Rights History Project, 2015
ArtisT: brenda miller holmes
Location: 120 Morris Street
(NEAR Durham Arts Council)
In the 1960s and 70s, grassroots organizers utilized the art of mural-making to bring communities together and challenge the social, cultural, and political establishments. Today, new generations of leaders are using this tradition to spark civic engagement and celebrate the triumphs of their predecessors. This is true for the Durham Civil Rights mural, which began to take shape in 2013 under the leadership of artist Brenda Miller Holmes and Dr. Benjamin Speller, former Dean of Library Sciences at North Carolina Central University.
Miller Holmes and Speller began the design process by enlisting the support of 30 community members and engaging each in a series of lectures and educational workshops revolving around Durham’s civil rights history. They also shared memories, photographs, newspaper clippings, drawings, and other interesting materials in order to better identify local histories that were of interest to the community. After this preparatory work, each participant provided input on the color scheme, composition, and other creative aspects that eventually contributed to the overall effectiveness of the mural’s design. In 2014 the support team, under the creative direction of Miller Holmes, began work on the mural.
At the top of the mural, painted in the blue sky, are several male figures who were essential to the creation of Black Wall Street and the economic success of Durham’s notable African American community that formed in the late 19th century. Figures such as Dr. Aaron Moore, Richard Fitzgerald, and John Merrick are depicted here. Moore was a medical doctor known for founding Lincoln Hospital, the city’s first hospital for African Americans. Later he, Merrick, and five other black businessmen established what would become the nation’s largest and most profitable black-owned business, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Fitzgerald was a successful businessman who moved to Durham from Philadelphia and became the leading brickmaker in Durham. He is also known as the great uncle of activist and reverend Pauli Murray.
Other recognizable figures depicted in the mural are Ann Atwater, housing reform and civil rights activist, and former Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis. The two became friends in the 1970s after they participated in an integration forum together. Initially, Ellis was focused on disrupting any progress being made by the group, but over the course of several months Ellis began to recognize that others at the table shared his personal struggles. Although Atwater and Ellis started out as enemies, they soon became good friends and Ellis went on to denounced the Klan. With continued looking, viewers will discover the mural’s inclusion of other great Durham figures, such as Pauli Murray and Virginia Williams, who have their own significant narratives as well.
The stories told by the Durham Civil Rights mural are unlike those found in its neighboring paintings. It specifically focuses on the lesser-known stories of the local civil rights movement and commemorates the foot soldiers whose sacrifices brought about change. Such stories include the sit-ins at Royal Ice Cream Parlor (1957) and Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream (1962-63), as well as the story of Julian Francis Abele (1881-1950), the African American architect who designed much of Duke’s campus (including Duke Chapel) but never set foot there because of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Throughout the mural, one can see layers of such stories, symbolism, and messages of hope, togetherness, and community. The Durham Civil Rights Mural was celebrated after its completion in 2015 for its multifaceted impact on the community. In the beautifully rendered image, the stories of Durham’s civil rights history have come to life.