On Friday, June 14, a highway marker in Halifax County will be dedicated to Louis Austin, an Enfield, N.C. native and the former editor of Durham’s preeminent black newspaper.
Austin moved to Durham to attend the National Training School – now called North Carolina Central University – where he graduated in 1922. According to Jerry Gershenhorn, a history professor at NCCU and the author of a biography on the legendary publisher, Austin began working as a sports editor at Durham’s primary black newspaper in 1921 and quickly turned his focus to promoting civil rights causes.
“Because of his focus on being in the forefront of the fight for civil rights, voting rights, and equal education, Austin saw journalism as a way to advocate for those types of things,” said Gershenhorn.
After securing a loan from the black-owned Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Austin purchased The Carolina Times in 1927 and shaped it into a powerful tool in the struggle for black civil rights in North Carolina.
As the paper’s editor, he split with many of his contemporaries in Durham’s black business leadership by promoting a confrontational approach to addressing racial injustice – an approach that would carve a new path for the civil rights movement.
In the early 1930s, Austin helped organize the first lawsuit against segregation in higher education in the South, which laid the groundwork for the Brown v. Board of Education case two decades later. He was later among the first leaders to express support for the direct action favored by young black activists in the 1950s and 60s.
“He was one of the few older black leaders who initially backed the Royal Ice Cream sit-in in 1957 in Durham, which came three years before the Greensboro sit-ins."
Gershenhorn says The Carolina Times routinely criticized local police, politicians, and white-owned businesses for discriminatory practices.
“He was seen as a threatening presence to the white leadership – not just in Durham, but beyond,” explains Gershenhorn.
Among those who Austin condemned in the paper was North Carolina Governor Clyde Hoey who was in office from 1937 to 1941. When North Carolina Central University named a new administrative building after Hoey, Austin decried the decision, says Gershenhorn.
“He wrote in the paper that we shouldn’t be honoring white supremacist politicians by naming buildings after them.”
When the Durham Redevelopment Commission announced plans for urban renewal in southeast Durham – including Hayti, the location of the paper’s headquarters – Austin initially supported the effort, believing that it would bring income into Durham’s black community. When the project instead effectively dismantled Hayti, Austin’s business was one of the last buildings on Pettigrew Street to be demolished.
After Austin’s death in 1971, his daughter assumed his role as the publisher of The Carolina Times and oversaw the relocation of the paper’s headquarters to Fayetteville Street. Though shifts in the hiring and reporting practices of historically white papers led to the closure of many black newspapers, The Carolina Times survives to the present. It is currently published by Austin’s grandson, Kenneth Edmonds.