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Colonial Village Confessional

A photo of a home with a wooden fence in front of it, with a Black Lives Matter sign on display.
Rebecca Martinez
A cottage in the Colonial Village community


“Action expresses priorities.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Not long after my partner and I rented a duplex in Durham’s Walltown neighborhood, I volunteered with Preservation Durham to lead a bicycle tour of the city’s murals. The bold florals on 9th Street’s Angel of Spring mural make it a popular spot for group photos. The Durham Civil Rights Mural next to the Arts Council downtown is an azure-hued who’s-who of the city’s early Black business moguls, artists and activists, and it deserves identification and discussion of each figure’s impact on the city. We pedaled to all three murals of Pauli Murray in the downtown area, each a vibrant pastel portrait of the visionary cleric and activist who spent her early years in Durham.

I fell in love with Durham long before we decided to make things official. When I’d moved to Carrboro from Laramie, Wyoming, I found myself in the City of Medicine most weekends, making friends, joining social clubs, even tending bar as a side gig. As a white northerner who’s lived in overwhelmingly white American communities almost all my life, I welcomed the opportunity to make my home in a place as diverse and vibrant as Durham. I was drawn to the city’s complexity, the antebellum architecture and the Southern gentility commingled with youthful entrepreneurial spirit and radical social resistance. It seemed like a place for the earnest and hopeful to make a home, a place where anything could happen. I had to find a way to become a part of it. To do that, I felt it was necessary to try and understand this place intimately, warts and all.

I think that’s what made the Black Wall Street mural such a crucial component of this bike tour. From downtown, we cycled across an overpass above Interstate 147. The highway project slashed through the heart of the once-prosperous Hayti neighborhood, creating a harried chasm between the legendary Black community and downtown. On the south-facing wall of Food World is the sun-stripped remnant of a vast mural celebrating Hayti in its prime. When it was painted in the late 1990s, it featured the iconic Regal Theater, St. Joseph’s Church, North Carolina Central University, and the North Carolina Mutual Life building, as well as the Right Reverend Philip Cousin Sr., who was elected the 96th bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Today, the mural is desiccated, each element chipped and marred, with more paint curling at the ready.

Hayti was built and cultivated with passion and care until it was destroyed by developers in the name of progress. Decades later, artist Emily Weinstein was commissioned to memorialize it in paint, and then the finished product was abandoned. For all the patronage that has gone to commission new murals that invigorate the look of the city, almost nothing is committed to preserve what is already here, to sustain what was here when we last decided we cared. It felt important to look, to witness the creation and consider whether something ought to be done about it, or not.


“Homeowning is a commitment to the land.” — Stacia Brown

In 2016, my partner and I — white, college educated, and raised solidly middle class — began looking for a house and could not find anything we could afford for miles around. After a year of on-and-off searching, our realtor encouraged us to consider a neighborhood called “Colonial Village.” It’s across Roxboro from Northgate Park. Little cottages like the blocks, many with Black Lives Matter signs posted in the yard. Above, squirrels gambol in the canopy of oak, pine, magnolia and mulberry trees.

We found a house for sale. It’s small; there’s no room for a full-time dining table, and yet it was recently renovated to have a large, open kitchen. I was most taken with the massive, beautiful oak trees in the yard, which promised hours riding a swing with my son, and many more spent raking up the debris of storms and autumn. At the time, it was probably the nicest house on the block. We put in an offer immediately, giving the owners everything we had and paying more than it was worth. We got lucky.

Lucky, not only because we bought property in Durham’s ever-escalating real estate market. We got lucky to be near the city, near parks, near public transit. Best of all, our neighborhood felt diverse, an antidote to the complacency of my own suburban upbringing; a place to raise our white son among neighbors with a range of ages and ethnicities and skin tones.

When my partner and I were renters, we mostly minded our own business as we made a beeline from our door to the car and back, possibly a subconscious attempt not to disturb the balance of a place we didn’t plan to stay. But we wanted to plug into this new neighborhood as soon as possible. The first week here, we delivered brownies to all the homes within a stone’s throw, attached to a note with our names and contact information in the hopes we could become friends. At the time, one of my neighbors across the street was a family from El Salvador with a patriarch named Freddy. There was S. (name omitted to protect her privacy), a Black Durhamite who’d owned her house for a decade. We also shared a street with Dominique and Mike, a German woman and her New Jersey native husband. We were friendly with one another, waving and hello on our way to work and stopping to pet their dogs. Freddy even helped me back my car out of a ditch. Twice.

The familiar equilibrium didn’t last long. Freddy’s family moved out last year, without much notice. His son said they found an apartment outside of town. It was bigger, he said. The landlord put the rundown house on the market almost immediately. It was flipped, painted, the yard covered with fresh sod. Last I heard it was sold for twice what it was worth when I moved in. Dominique and Mike’s landlords quickly terminated their lease, leaving them scrambling for arrangements to move into in-laws’ Florida retirement community until they could make a new plan. Those landlords ended up selling a house downtown and moved up to their property on my street, doubling the size of the home they had been renting out. For what it’s worth, the owners seem really nice. Now their house is the nicest on the block.

After my neighbors’ departure, I started to recognize some uncomfortable shifts in the community where my partner and I had so optimistically decided to invest our all.

Colonial Village

“Gentrification is a train that does not stop.” — Marcella Zigbuo Camara

Colonial Village is something of a contradiction. It’s an established community of cottages under a canopy of old-growth trees, and it has almost no formal history as to its inception. My neighbors generally agree that it’s bordered by North Roxboro St. on the west and East Club Blvd on the south. The northern and eastern perimeters of the neighborhood — and the existence of Colonial Village itself — are a matter of some dispute.

Moving here in 2017, I assumed Colonial Village was a neighborhood with its own storied history, such as Walltown or Watts-Hillandale. But Google searches yielded virtually no information about the neighborhood’s origins. At the time I was becoming more aware of the problem gentrification was posing for Durhamites, learning about its mechanisms, questioning my privilege. I found the name “Colonial Village” to be distasteful, considering its proximity to our northern neighbor, Braggtown (sometimes “Bragtown”), a community founded in-part by African-Americans who had been enslaved nearby at Stagville Plantation.

The Colonial Village Neighborhood Association runs an email listserv I check almost every day. It’s where I list the things that didn’t “spark joy” when I KonMari my closets, and where I jump to attention when neighbors announce they’re doing the same. The listserv is full of chatter. It’s where people promote community events, alert pedestrians about stray dogs or missing cats, or speculate about late night noises that might have been gunshots. (I have serious doubts about many of the gunshot claims, and it makes me cringe to read them as often as I do.)

A printed community bulletin from the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association
Rebecca Martinez

In 2018, I sent an open email asking for information about where the name Colonial Village came from. Some people suggested the neighborhood was developed for the families of soldiers who had been stationed at Camp Butner during World War II and that “Colonial Village” was named by the developer for the architectural style of the small houses here. I’ve scoured the internet and reviewed maps from the Durham County Register of Deeds, but haven’t found any record of that. A few historians I spoke to said the Butner connection was plausible but they couldn’t confirm it.

This spring, I had separate conversations with local property manager Rick Soles and neighborhood grocer William “Brink” King of King’s Red & White Quality Foods. Both men grew up in houses on Ellerbee St. in the 1950s. They remember it as white boys in a blue collar neighborhood full of white nuclear families surrounded by woods and horse pastures before the construction of I-85. They said it was called Braggtown.

Soles and King told me independently that they’d never heard of “Colonial Village” until the early 2000s. It seems the name “Colonial Village” was a rebranding effort to distinguish this historically white section of the neighborhood from the rest of Braggtown.

Longtime residents agree that as the people living in this post-war development got older. So did their houses, many of which fell into disrepair. Many were rented to low-income families, many of whom were Black and Latinx. More neighborhood businesses from Braggtown to I-85 were created to serve Spanish-speaking clientele. Around that time, property crimes increased. Public Health students from UNC developed a needs assessment, citing major economic and health disparities. Several white residents told me Braggtown developed a bad reputation. Courtney Smith, Brink King’s daughter, said she recalled classmates at Northern High School telling her in the 1990s that she lived in the “ghetto”.

In 2005, the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association was created. A white real estate broker, Julie Soles, who’s now married to Rick, was the first president of the board. She said it was an opportunity to promote connection and take action to keep the neighborhood safe. That year, the Durham Herald-Sun ran an article about how the board handled “urban messiness that got a little too close to Colonial Village,” citing the shooting death of 17-year-old Antonio Dent by a kid from the neighborhood. The article described how more street lights were being installed, and how some homeowners called the police when “stuff just didn’t look right.”

It shocked me to learn that this article was written by a Black reporter early in his career, that he didn’t hold a light to the covert racism being perpetrated by these white neighbors. I had those thoughts, even as I recognized that I am a white lady who bought a house in a neighborhood that has grown gradually more expensive and less diverse every year since. I benefit directly from the early work of the CVNA.

Now what

“It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” — Rabbi Tarfon

Julie Soles appeared a bit sheepish, or at least ambivalent, when she described the legacy of the CVNA. She obviously loved living in the neighborhood and is proud of banding together with other homeowners as Northgate Park had done years earlier. “There was [sic] a lot of good things that came out of it,” she said. But she acknowledges that Braggtown’s bad reputation was unfairly gotten. She says Colonial Village might no longer be an appropriate name for this neighborhood that has long been a part of Braggtown. I put her on the spot, and appreciated her candor. “I really should have advocated — I wish I had — that we had just gone back to Braggtown for the whole entire area.” Many of us in the neighborhood agree.

I reached out for comment from the Braggtown Community Association, but leadership declined to speak to me citing negative past experiences with the press. Chairperson Vannessa Mason-Evans, who is Black and has deep roots in Braggtown, has said in public forums that anyone who lives in Braggtown is welcome, whatever they call it.

I’ve made really close friends in the neighborhood over the years. But it isn’t lost on me that many more of the people moving in look more and more like me. Gentrification is causing the price of existing homes to skyrocket. New developments are being planned, with just a sliver of the affordable housing promised. And yet, information from Dataworks NC shows that the remaining economic disparity in the neighborhood is still remarkable.

In buying a piece of Colonial Village and Braggtown, I committed to becoming a part of this complex community. Much as I’m learning to appreciate my privilege, I recognize it is fragile in a place where racial, economic, carceral, educational and health disparities harm my neighbors and destabilize my community. I will not attempt to list the ways I am trying to be a good neighbor or community member, because I do not deserve credit and I will assuredly fall short of my ideals. However, writers and activists — especially people of color — have provided excellent guidance on ways to avoid calling police into your neighborhood, to supportand desegregate public schools, and to invest in mutual aid efforts among other kinds of social accountability.

It’s deeply uncomfortable to sit with the things I’m learning about this fraught neighborhood and my place in it, but that’s a small price I pay for the privilege of living here. Avoiding discomfort and urgency to act are characteristics of white supremacy. It’s my hope that others in my position will educate themselves and think critically about their roles in their communities, consider ways to reduce harm, and seek out and amplify the efforts of their neighbors with less social and financial privilege. In that order.

Here’s what else I learned in my research:

  • My house is built on the unceded ancestral lands of the Lumbee and Shakori people, according to maps from the nonprofit organization Native Land Digital.
  • The earliest property records I could find for my block and several adjacent ones showed that the land has been owned by William Kenan Rand and Fannie P. Rand. The couple also owned land in Hope Valley, on Markham Street, and where the Northgate Mall now stands. The Rands have purchased land which has restrictive covenants preventing Black people from living there, but I have not found such covenants in Colonial Village.
  • In 1949, The Rands sold several blocks of the neighborhood to Hunt Construction Company, then owned by Thomas M. Hunt, who developed the small British Colonial-inspired houses.
  • On the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association listserv, several people indicated this neighborhood was developed for soldiers who had been based at Camp Butner during World War II. I haven’t been able to confirm this, but local historians Lee van Vleet and John Schelp said it was a reasonable theory.
  • My home was purchased from Hunt Construction by Elbert H. Nichols, a white man who had served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and his wife Evelyn N. Nichols.
  • In the 1950s and 60s, the Interstate 85 was built, and the pastoral land south of Club Blvd was developed.
  • Braggtown was independent until it was annexed by Durham in 1957. Decades later, the predominantly white southerly sections of Braggtown formed independent neighborhood associations: Northgate Park to the west of N. Roxboro in 1987, and Colonial Village to the east in 2005.
  • My home has changed hands at least 6 times. I bought it from the estate of a man whose partner and her children were Black.
  • Zillow estimates my house has gained $70,000 in value over the last 4 years.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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