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This summer we continued to adapt to the new normal by running our summer radio institute in a hybrid format. With the American Tobacco Studios as our home base students had the opportunity to work within our newsroom, and from home. Using in-person training, Zoom calls, Instagram, and our curriculum website, we took youth reporters through the process of producing a radio story - from pitching to interviews to script-writing and editing. We worked with 8 high school and college students ages 16-20 from across the Triangle and Triad area.

How historical housing practices led to the racial makeup of my Durham neighborhood

I’ve lived in the Mary Dell neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina for over 13 years. My family is one of the very few Black families in a mostly white neighborhood.

So, outside of my four walls, I rarely see anyone who looks like me. At neighborhood events over the years, we've gotten some surprised looks when we say where we live. It made me wonder, why is my neighborhood so white?

J.T. Tabron talks through the setup of the Public Deeds vault. There are three deed books on the table that contain various racial covenants.
Kamaya Truitt
Inside the deed vault, J.T. Tabron shows me three deed books from Durham county. They highlight the exclusion of colored people from cemeteries and residential housing unless in a serving role.

To start looking for answers, I went to J.T. Tabron, Durham’s assistant register of deeds. Tabron took me inside the public deed vault, which is full of legal documents that trace the ownership of a property from one person to another. He showed me deeds that had racial covenants — rules specifically designed to restrict or create conditions around a group of people’s right to live on a property. Some of the covenants focused on excluding people of color from housing unless they were maids or butlers. Other covenants kept Black people from being buried in certain cemeteries.

Tabron works with the organization Hacking Into History. The group is working to transcribe and identify all racially restrictive covenants in Durham County property deeds in order to map them for a public exhibition and encourage community dialogue.

Tabron says the "main goal is to educate and empower citizens willing to come together and engage this shared history and its impact, with reach into today.”

It reads:

Covenant 6: Each Dwelling house built upon the premises shall be connected with a sewer.

Covenant 7:  The lot herby conveyed shall not be sold, transferred, conveyed, leased, or rented to persons of Negro Blood. Provided that this shall not be construed to prevent living upon the premises of any Negro servant or servants whose time shall be employed for domestic purposes only by the tenant thereof.

Covenant 8. The lot herby conveyed shall not be subdivided and resold by the parties of the second part, their heirs, executors, administrators, or assigns; however, a lot may be subdivided and respond when the portions so created are added to the adjoining lots on either side.
Avery Patterson
Racial covenants like this one from 1953, restricted Black people from owning property in the area but allowed them to live on the property as servants. J.T. says sometimes it's hard to find racial covenants like these because they can be tucked in between mundane guidelines.

“That's the value of history. When you look through it, you can recreate what the world was like when you weren't there. I think that there's a value in projects like these,” Tabron said. “You may not necessarily have the time to come down to the Register of Deeds office and look through 200 years of history. However, just because one doesn't know what's there, doesn't mean that it didn't happen.”

I thought the racial makeup of my neighborhood might be a result of racial covenants. However, Mary Dell was founded in the late eighties and early nineties, and by that time the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was in place — which made it illegal to discriminate with housing based on race. Therefore, racial covenants were banned. But racial covenants were not the only tactic that led to housing segregation in Durham and across the country.

“There are neighborhoods in Durham that, when they were originally designed, a lot of the promotional material was designed very clearly to speak to certain groups of people,” Tabron says.

Those children of yours!- What sort of home environment are you going to give them? Will it be the congestion of a city or the freedom of suburban life? Where will they play? On small lawns, concrete walks: traffic-laden streets, or out in the invigorating sunshine out on the hillside where open skies and long vistas inspire them?
And their playmates! Who will be their companions? Just anybody and everybody or youngsters of promise, talent, and leadership? In addition to every natural beauty of scenery and location, Hope Valley offers every city convenience. And also has many of, the fine things which cannot be had in the city, Here, indeed, is a veritable paradise for "children" of all ages. Make the decision now to buy and build in Hope Valley. For yourself and for your family, it will be a wise move.
Courtesy Durham County Libraries
J.T. Tabron
An advertisement for housing in Hope Valley. A 1926 deed made it virtually impossible for working-class people to buy homes in Hope Valley.

Tabron brought up other practices used to keep people of color out of neighborhoods. Like redlining, when banks refuse to give loans to finance houses in particular areas based on the ethnicity or racial make-up of that community. Or steering, when real estate agents direct people toward or away from neighborhoods based on race.

“So your neighborhood itself might not have any clearly defined or racially restrictive covenants. However, the things that happened previously, right, [made it so] minorities didn't live here, and only a certain group did," Tabron said. "These people might have been relatively well to do, and so you’ve got economic factors that were built on these discrimination factors that might keep certain groups out.”

Before I left the Register of Deeds office, I got Tabron to show me some history of my house, like the fact that my neighborhood was originally farmland. I learned that the developer Southland Associates originally scouted out the land, and Spencer Harrell Incorporated built my house. I got to view my plat map, which is cool because it showed me the developer’s vision for my neighborhood. However, I still didn’t know why my neighborhood was so white. So I decided to talk to my mom.

“I think when we first got here, it never occurred to me that the neighborhood wouldn't be diverse, because it's Durham. We were literally moving about a couple of miles away," my mother says. "We went from one neighborhood to the next. [Our old] neighborhood was so diverse. It never occurred to me that Mary Dell wouldn't be.”

I decided to talk to one of my neighbors, DeeDee Riffe, to get her perspective on diversity in Mary Dell.

“Well, having lived on the earth 73 years, I have to say money is one variable," Riffe says. "There are neighborhoods where Black people live in big houses, but they wanted to be around other Black people. So that's a variable, a choice of wanting to be with people who look like you."

I don’t think the lack of diversity in Mary Dell is intentional, but historical housing practices caused by systemic racism could be affecting its demographics. So I talked to my HOA Vice President, Melodie Pugh, to find out whether our HOA has ever considered inclusivity or Durham’s racially-defining history.

I asked Pugh if the neighborhood's demographic was always the way it is now, and how she views change in Mary Dell.

“Well, if I can speak to that point, I think we're in a world today where there's a Black-skinned girl here, holding this microphone, and I'm white-skinned. I can't change our history and our country,” Pugh says. “Let's fix where we are today, instead of continually going back. That's my philosophy as an older adult. I can't change what happened with your ancestors.”

I agree that moving forward is important, and hopefully, it starts with having conversations like these, so we can understand each other's experiences. If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that you can’t correct the future without acknowledging the past.

“Don't dismiss the echoes of history right?,” Tabron says. “Don't just be like ‘Ah, those things were bad.' It is easy to wash one's hands of things that have happened previously, and just look forward… especially if you're one of the people who benefited from the history, right?”

So, it turns out, there isn’t a simple answer to why my neighborhood is so white. Whatever the reason, I learned a lot from having conversations with my neighbors, and I hope they learned something from my experience.

Avery Patterson was born in Durham, North Carolina. She is a rising junior at C.E Jordan HighSchool.
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