One hundred and fifty-six years after the first official celebration of Juneteenth, the question remains whether Black Americans can have full freedom without economic emancipation. The fight over the future of Durham’s historic Hayti neighborhood tells that story. // Photos by Jade Wilson
For some, Juneteenth is known as America’s “second Independence Day.” Short for June 19, it commemorates the date in 1865 when the last of the nation’s Black slaves are said to have gotten news that they were now free.
A year later, the first “Jubilee Day”—a reference to the Biblical event in which long-enslaved people were finally freed—marked the occasion. Celebration of the date spread and gained in popularity over the decades. The government of Texas first officially recognized it in 1980; in 2021, it became a federal holiday.
To understand Juneteenth as America’s second Independence Day, one must look to the July 5, 1852, speech that former slave Frederick Douglass delivered in Rochester, New York, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
In it, he decried the “merciless exploitation” of the enslaved and condemned July 4th’s mockery of the Black condition in America: “You may rejoice. I must mourn.” Blacks had been in search of their own Independence Day for 246 years. Juneteenth provided that.
Durham has played a significant part in that history. On April 26, 1865, the largest and final major Confederate Civil War surrender took place on the Bennett family farm in Durham.
And about 14 miles away was the Stagville plantation, one of the South’s largest with nearly 900 slaves. Once free, those former slaves settled a few miles away in eastern Durham, where white locals leased plots to the new freedmen and later sold them the land deemed unfit to farm.
During that week-long Confederate surrender, both Union and Confederate soldiers discovered the flavorful local tobacco. Durham ultimately became the center of the global tobacco industry, which increased the need for Black workers in the local factories. Friendly relations between local Black leaders and the Duke family, as well as exceptional entrepreneurship, pride, and self-sufficiency in the Black community, helped create an accumulation in landholdings and ownership unprecedented in Black America.
What they built in this part of Durham became mythical for its success, creating more wealth per capita and upward mobility for blacks than perhaps any other place in the United States. It was one of the original Black Wall Streets, along with Tulsa, Oklahoma. And after Tulsa was destroyed in the spring of 1921, Durham became the leading geography for Black socioeconomic success for decades.
Black residents dubbed this part of the Durham community Hayti.
Pronounced “Hay-tie,” it was named for the original spelling of Haiti, the first and only country founded and led, after a successful rebellion, by formerly enslaved people. Haiti’s victory over the French challenged long-held beliefs of white superiority and the notion that Blacks were incapable of maintaining their own freedom.
The fact that this small Black community in eastern Durham is named after Haiti speaks volumes about the self-perception, ambition, and vision of its founders: it was to be an independent island of relative wealth and freedom in the middle of the harsh seas of the Jim Crow South.
There are numerous programs slated here in Durham to celebrate Juneteenth this weekend. But many generations later, the question of full freedom for the descendants of those enslaved remains. Can a people without economic freedom truly be free?
Today, Hayti is a shell of that ambition.
This, in and of itself, is not shocking. Most predominantly Black communities around the United States are surviving by an economic thread, if they are surviving at all.
These conditions have rarely come about by happenstance. Any number of acts throughout American history have failed such communities. The race massacres that destroyed prosperous Black communities in Wilmington, N.C., and Tulsa in 1898 and 1921, respectively, are well-known. Fewer know of the “Red Summer,” a period from spring to autumn of 1919 when racial violence destroyed at least 40 Black communities across the country, with no government action taken to hold white-supremacist mobs accountable.
A half-century later, many more would fall to “urban renewal” (or “Negro removal,” depending on whom you ask). Durham’s Hayti was one of them.
Scenes from the Highway 147 overpass on Grant Street in Durham's Hayti neighborhood.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the federal government provided billions of dollars to principally white-led local governments to clear out and redevelop predominantly Black-occupied “slums” and “blighted” neighborhoods. Though it is impossible to know the exact number, some estimate that over 300,000 Black households were displaced between 1955 and 1966.
One of the key means of removal was plotting new highway construction through the heart of Black communities. Congress approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, then the largest public-works program in U.S. history, which promised to construct 41,000 miles of interstate highways. Though Blacks were not the only racial group to lose homes, businesses, and land, their neighborhoods were the most affected. Very few, like Boston’s Roxbury community, were able to successfully fight back. Most Black neighborhoods never had a fighting chance.
White ethnic groups like the Irish and the Polish could assimilate into the suburbs. Blacks could not. Federal fair housing and antidiscrimination policies would not become law until 1968. Public-housing projects replaced many of the single-family homes taken from Black families. Many residents of public housing to this day are the direct descendants of the displaced.
Durham was one of the cities where predominantly white local leaders intentionally directed highways through the heart of the Black community. Highway 147, known as the Durham Freeway, was approved to cut through Hayti. The project seized 200 acres of Black-owned land, displacing an estimated 4,000 Black families and destroying more than 500 Black businesses in the process. Hayti has never been the same.
I know this distinct history so well because I am often asked to publicly speak on it, in my capacity as a faculty member at North Carolina Central University and community advocate.
In the historical narratives I share about Hayti at its apex, I remind audiences that its success was relative compared to that of other Black communities of its time. Hayti was still a Black community in the American South, a community in desperate need of financial investment and suffering from redlining, taxation without representation, and the million other maladies of a Black enclave within white America.
For all the Black wealth at Hayti’s high point, there was significantly more Black poverty. And it was this that provided the cover for Durham’s white leadership to declare Hayti “blighted,” which was all that was needed to position Durham for $300 million in federal “renewal” funding and the latitude to take over the land.
Durham’s white city officials believed they, not poor Black residents, had the answers to Hayti’s problems. The focus on building multifamily housing also allowed for more systematic surveillance of Black communities, by law enforcement and other entities.
There is an open debate in Durham as to Black leaders’ own culpability in the greatest seizure of Black land in city history. In 1963, an urban-renewal bond referendum was passed with 90 percent Black support. With little knowledge of what urban renewal would mean for them and their lives, the working-class Hayti residents trusted the recommendation of the influential Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (since renamed the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People). Some to this day do not trust the organization.
Yet the truth is that it is difficult to know what realistic alternatives they had at the time. Whites undeniably controlled the city’s power structure, including the ability to declare eminent domain. In addition, Hayti suffered a dramatic lack of capital investment and crumbling physical infrastructure. And there was no prior template to use in comparing the outcomes of redevelopment promises.
Durham’s Black community was promised that over the course of the decade beginning in 1958, seven redevelopment projects would leave them better off, bringing new homes, new business development, and new infrastructure. In exchange, white Durham would get a new highway from downtown to the county’s newly planned Research Triangle Park.
But while several small projects were completed, most were not. After 15 years, the redevelopment commission was disbanded, with nearly all promises unfulfilled.
One of the projects that did get completed was the Fayetteville Street Public Housing development, known as Fayette Place, which opened in 1967. The 200-unit public-housing complex was built on 20 acres of land adjacent to the newly constructed freeway.
Bordering Pettigrew Street, which had previously been the heart of Hayti’s business district, Fayette Place provided residents with a daily reminder of what had been lost and what had caused the loss. Other former property owners were pushed into other city public-housing complexes.
A plaque commemorating Black Wall Street, in downtown Durham.
A similar pattern was seen across the entire United States. Even after the outlaw of housing discrimination in 1968, local governments would get creative with using zoning and housing policies to segregate.
The Fayetteville Street Public Housing complex shuttered around 2002. But during the five-and-a-half decades it has existed, both it and the surrounding neighborhood have traveled a familiar path. Hayti is now home to the poorest ZIP Codes in the city and the highest rates of violent crimes. Like many other public-housing complexes around America, it was eventually found to contain numerous health dangers like lead-based paint, explaining tenants’ long-ignored health issues.
In 2007, the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) sold the property to a Philadelphia-based real-estate development firm for $4 million. The firm proposed using the area for student housing for the nearby North Carolina Central University (NCCU).
Depending on whom you believe, this vision never materialized either because the historically Black university was not privy to the plan—a common occurrence—or because changing leadership at the university simply did not adopt it. With no master tenant and no other vision for the parcel, the property sat vacant for a decade, a tattered wire fence encircling crumbling concrete slabs and overgrown brush.
The surrounding communities pleaded with the city to force the property owners to do something there. While there was no plan for what that would be, a year-long, community-based consensus-building effort found that the neighborhood did not want it to be another large, multifamily housing complex.
Meanwhile, Durham and the rest of the region grew in population and wealth. Billions of dollars were invested in the adjacent downtown and other areas, but virtually nothing in historic Black neighborhoods like Hayti. Still, the voracity of gentrification would eventually lead to new interest in Fayette Place.
So in June 2017, with a $4 million grant from the city, the DHA repurchased the site.
What should happen to Fayette Place now is under fierce debate.
The rise and the fall of the Hayti community has been well documented, and it is inextricably tied to the overall condition of its Black people, enterprises, and institutions.
When I speak about it in public, people of all backgrounds, in Durham and far beyond, love to hear how a Southern Black community rose after slavery to become the quintessential model of Black economic progress. Locals gain great pride from this accomplishment, while outsiders gain great inspiration. Both cringe at the story of how it came crashing down. Yet as with the proverbial train wreck, they just cannot bear to turn away until the very end. And for Hayti, the end is near.
In 2018, I was asked to deliver a speech on the current condition of minority life and business in Durham at the city’s annual Minority Enterprise Development Week luncheon, held each autumn at a ritzy location.
Though I knew the current status of minority Durham was not good, I also knew that I had been asked to keynote an awards luncheon—by definition a celebration of all the good and hard work that had gone into making Durham a more equitable economy. I was not sure what I should say to the audience. In the end, I decided to tell them the truth.
A few days prior to my scheduled speech, I had been in a racially diverse meeting in Durham. Also in the room was a local senior community member, Raymond Eurquhart, or Brother Ray, as he was affectionately and respectfully known. (He passed away in March 2020.) As each participant was asked what Durham should do to address past harm to the Black community, each offered tactful and politically correct answers. When the question reached Brother Ray, he simply said one word: reparations.
The former Stagville Plantation, just outside Durham.
Later that night, I wrote my speech, “The Death of Durham.” I spoke of the persistent and growing racial wealth gap that accompanied the city’s expanding prosperity. This tension was destroying the city’s soul, and the ability to reverse it was quickly dissipating. The data did not lie. The grisly economic stats of families and youth of color painted a dreadful picture that would only get worse if left unaddressed.
Mostly, I spoke the hard truth that these chasms were growing, not despite what Durham’s leadership was doing, but because of it.
I offered three propositions. First and foremost, Durham would need visionary and bold leadership. Next, the city would need to cultivate innovative partnerships. Finally, and most importantly, to cite Brother Ray, Durham needed reparative justice for past and future generations.
Durham needed both truth and reconciliation—one without the other was incomplete. Truth would have to come through honest acknowledgement of the harm and injury of past actions. Reconciliation would have to come through momentous and affirmative repairing of those harms.
I concluded the speech by asking us to activate our municipal, civic, and community portfolios to upbuild a more racially and economically equitable Durham. We must commit all that we have to this fight to undertake new, bold, visionary, and innovative actions anchored in reparative justice.
One place we need to start is in Hayti.
I am currently involved in what some deem a controversial fight over the future of the 20-acre Fayette Place site. It is only controversial because the fight is with the DHA—which owns the property—and by extension, the city of Durham.
Part of the fight is over whether the DHA sought adequate community input on what should be done with the site. It’s also over whether the city council can intervene in this transaction. Council members have said that they do not have the authority to intervene. We believe they do but are choosing not to.
When I say “we,” I am referring to Hayti Reborn, a community-anchored economic-development initiative that I co-lead in partnership with community elders. Many were children, teenagers, or young adults when the highway destroyed and displaced their family homes or businesses. I hold no economic stake in, nor do I derive any income from, the initiative.
We have a simple but ambitious mission to undertake activities beyond the status quo that can economically transform the Hayti community, on behalf of the Hayti community. These efforts connect to basic principles of community economic upward mobility; development without gentrification; the community’s ability to plan, own, operate, and lead its own redevelopment; education for the next generation; and finally, the end of the economic exploitation of poor Black people, in Hayti and beyond.
Some of Hayti Reborn's board members, on the back steps of Hayti Heritage Center. Left to right: Hilda Smith, Mary Speight, Melvin Speight, Faye Calhoun, and Anita Scott Neville.
I began meeting with community members of all ages and experiences from the Hayti community nearly seven years ago. I have a lifelong connection to Durham through family, lived in historic Black Durham for many years (before my neighborhood was gentrified), and have worked at one of the few remaining original legacy institutions in Hayti, NCCU. So some community members invited me to help them envision its future.
Those community members understood that, based on DHA’s ownership, affordable housing would have to be part of any plan, but they also spoke of a desire for more. In the hundreds of hours of conversations and hundreds of surveys that followed, they made it clear that they wanted more. They wanted a renewed, robust Black community. They wanted a corridor that would pay honor and homage to the dynamic history of the Black Wall Street of the past, not simply through sidewalk markers and colorful murals, but through economic activity and growth. They wanted vibrant, meaningful, and prosperous futures for their children.
They wanted opportunities for permanent, well-paying jobs at businesses owned by people from the community, and that could draw in other Black entrepreneurs. They wanted to be viewed as people worthy not just of housing and transportation, but also of investment and trust. They wanted autonomous power—to retain the history, character, and culture of Hayti for generations to come.
The Hayti Reborn vision proposes a $1 billion mixed-use development that can sustain affordable and accessible housing for the lowest-income residents of Durham while also providing opportunities for ownership, permanent jobs, income streams, and a public magnet school where children learn how to develop their community for a more prosperous future and parents can up-skill to attain family-sustaining jobs.
It also includes a food hall for entrepreneurs of color, with a commercial catering kitchen; a Hayti History Museum; a performing-arts center and conference space; space for retail, commercial, office, research, and community use; and significant open and green space.
In contrast, the DHA wants apartments—lots of apartments.
The former Fayette Place site, in Durham's Hayti neighborhood.
The DHA’s current $189 million vision is for nearly 800 mixed-income, one-to-four-bedroom apartment units and a modest grocery mart, in partnership with a development group called Durham Community Partners, or DCP (though none of the partners are actually from, or located in, Durham). Twenty percent of the units would be dedicated to individuals and families currently living in Durham public housing, or those of the equivalent income level.
Those 155 apartments are key to the entire deal, and a primary lever to the racial wealth extraction that will result. While it may seem noble and generous for a for-profit development firm to commit one-fifth of its housing units to the city’s poorest residents, they would be doing it because they have no choice. It’s the minimum required under North Carolina statute for public-housing authorities as they enter into public-private partnerships for development.
That 20 percent of primarily poor and Black residents allows the development to receive significant tax breaks and public investment. Those individuals would be there to subsidize the other 80 percent of the housing units, which would be priced up to and relative to market rates. Thus, the primary beneficiaries would be future Apple or Meta employees in the region—and perhaps professors like me. It’s consistent with American history: Black bodies serving as capital to subsidize pathways to primarily white accommodation and wealth.
The question is, why are Black communities always the sacrificial lambs?
The partner group has indicated that they are willing to consider offering some community-benefit-agreement-type amenities in exchange for community support for their project: opportunities for onsite pop-up art; office space for community entrepreneurs; some space for community gatherings; and a possible satellite offering for NCCU’s law school (though the main building is just half a mile up the street).
But community members say that the DHA, and the firm, waited too long to engage them in the planning. The DHA asserts that it did seek community input, but this issue has been raised repeatedly—and was raised yet again at a special city council meeting on June 13. Three more community meetings are planned for this summer, but both the DHA and the city have shown little willingness to hear residents’ concerns or restart the process. Nor have the DHA or DCP answered why they believe their project is the best for the Hayti community.
At first glance, this seems to be principally a battle between two development teams, Hayti Reborn and DCP, over which one will get to erect its shiny and sparkling new structures on a valuable piece of publicly owned land. Yet below the surface is much more.
Under the DHA and DCP’s proposal, the housing authority would enter into a 99-year lease agreement with the firm, effective through the year 2122.
This means that for approximately the next five generations (and likely into perpetuity), the economic value, wealth, and income generated from this development would be legally guaranteed to flow directly out of the Hayti community and out of Durham. Because Fayette Place is in a federal Opportunity Zone, those gains would be largely tax free. Whites are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of Opportunity Zones. Under federal law, the local community does not have to directly benefit.
Under the Hayti Reborn proposal, the Hayti community would have actual ownership in the development, which would pay cash dividends. Through a community-owned-and-led real-estate investment trust, not only would significantly more economic value, wealth, and income be generated from the development plan, but it would principally flow directly back into the community, theoretically in perpetuity.
People often ask me what American or global city is doing racial economic equity the right way. They seek a ready-made solution—something they can pour into a bowl, add water to, and stir. In answer, I can point them to various places across the United States that are better than others, relatively speaking.
In absolute terms, however, Black communities in the aggregate are suffering under economic decline everywhere they are located, and it is getting worse. The same can be said for Native American and Latino communities. Both Black and Latino populations are experiencing annual declines of community wealth toward an eventual median of zero, sometime in the second half of this century. White wealth continues to rise.
When it comes to the economics of race, Durham is less equitable, on average, than both North Carolina and the United States. Despite this disappointing truth, I have publicly professed for years that if there were one place in this world that I thought could eventually get the racial economic-equity equation right, it’s Durham. Some might have called this a hometown bias, but I think I was quite objective in my assessment.
Even as Durham struggled with its shortcomings, I long believed that it could be an “equity-teaching city” from which other locales could learn. That is the basis of Hayti Reborn, as well as its larger and more expansive sister initiative, the Durham Global Equity Project.
I continue to believe that Durham can be a model city when it comes to equity, one that others can learn a great deal from. But I no longer think it can be a prototype for achieving racial economic equity. It’s become a model for how a city should not act when it aims to achieve racial economic equity. Furthermore, to borrow Frederick Douglass’ words, there is a scorching irony at play in Durham.
Unlike 65 years ago, when Durham’s public leadership was essentially all white, its leadership now is essentially all Black.
In the interest of full disclosure, I recently undertook an unsuccessful bid to fill an unfinished at-large seat on the seven-person Durham City Council. Though I was one of four finalists, I was ultimately told I had no new skills or knowledge to add to the council. I was also partially accused of using the platform to solely push the agenda of Fayette Place and Hayti Reborn, and questioned about this perceived conflict of interest.
The City of Durham deems conflicts of interest to be efforts that are financially beneficial or connected to an interested person, their spouse, or some other family member of theirs. None of those apply to me or Hayti Reborn. But my critics were correct that the Hayti Reborn situation was a key driver of my decision to seek the open seat. Racial inequity, specifically around economics, is of special concern to me. Fayette Place is representative of that, but my concern goes far beyond that single project. I want to see the creation of a more equitable Durham, the same way I want to see the creation of a more equitable society at large.
On April 4, I sent a formal letter on behalf of Hayti Reborn to the city council, asking them to hold a public hearing to finally give Hayti Reborn a chance to be publicly discussed. Inexplicably, the Hayti Reborn proposal for Fayette Place was the only plan of 10 whose proposers the DHA did not invite to present to its review committee within the RFP process. We also asked the city to invite the DHA and DCP to present their visions for Fayette Place, the goal being to let the public compare the plans side by side and weigh in on them, and for further negotiations between the DHA and DCP to be postponed until after that had happened.
This request to the city came only after three months of formal protests and appeals to the DHA were denied. The DHA offered multiple reasons why Hayti Reborn was not invited to interview, including an “unqualified team” and “financial uncertainty.” When we reminded the DHA that we had some of the leading real-estate development firms in the country on the team and a letter of interest from one of the largest banks in the world to finance the project, they simply responded that as long as they didn’t break the law in the request for proposal process, then they owed us no explanation. Only then did we seek the city’s intervention.
Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton reiterated at the June 13 meeting that he didn’t believe the council had authority to intervene in the process. Few attendees seemed to believe him. But as part of the contract signed between the city and the DHA, the council has to approve any DHA proposal for Fayette Place before any agreement with another developer is binding.
Furthermore, Durham can always declare eminent domain on those 20 acres—the same power the city used to attain the land from Black families 65 years ago.
Not intervening when you have the power to stop something that you know is devastating for a community, or turning a blind eye to it, is just as bad as actively doing the deed. Unfortunately, Black communities like Hayti are used to the rationalization of their destruction by those in power.
The DHA’s current proposed vision may seem practical at a time when Durham is scrambling for affordable housing, but it is incredibly shortsighted. It would only further expand the racial wealth gap, while asking both local and national taxpayers to underwrite this expansion. It will certainly gentrify the neighborhood.
Hayti Reborn presents a model that most have never seen before, at least not in the Black community. The white community gets projects like what Hayti Reborn has proposed all the time.
Those who believe that this battle over the Fayette Place land is primarily driven by the races of the development entities are mistaken. Though the Durham Community Partners group is white-led and Hayti Reborn is Black-led, these races have little to do with the issue. DCP has been awarded another multimillion-dollar DHA contract, which no one who is part of Hayti Reborn is opposing.
The posture of the city council has been both perplexing and disappointing. We often argue that when people who come from historically discriminated-against populations gain power, they seek to right past injustices. Yet if this council does not change its course, a political body made up of all people of color (with six of its seven members being Black) will be making the same decision on the future of Hayti that an all-white political body did 70 years ago.
However, this time will be worse, because we now know better. Furthermore, this is a council who all ran campaigns on promises to create a more equitable Durham and to fight for those being left behind. I do not see much fighting taking place now.
Highway 147 at the R. Kelly Bryant Bridge.
While the Civil War may have ended in Durham 157 years ago, the fight for Black freedom and against Black exploitation has not. I realize why we celebrate Juneteenth, and I recognize its importance to the freedom of my ancestors, myself, and those who look like me. But I also recognize that without wealth, a people cannot be free. As W.E.B. Du Bois stated, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”
So excuse me if I choose not to celebrate Juneteenth in Durham this year. I do not begrudge anyone who does. We certainly should honor the freedom of our ancestors, who endured much more than any of us can ever imagine. But the true way to honor them would be to live up to the promise of full freedom that was made to them.
Juneteenth is a day that shows, more than any other, that Black America can get a day off from work without getting justice and equity. While you may rejoice, I must mourn.
Yet despite the scorching irony of the situation, I am eternally hopeful. I’m looking forward to America’s, and perhaps Durham’s, third Independence Day. I’m waiting.
Henry McKoy, Ph.D., is a member of the faculty at North Carolina Central University School of Business, where he is an economist and leader of the entrepreneurship program. He also holds academic appointments at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, and was an Aspen Institute Scholar and Innovation Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. A former banker, he was assistant N.C. commerce secretary in the administration of Gov. Beverly Perdue.
To read the full version of this essay, take part in a poll, and learn more about Hayti narratives, visit www.haytireborn.com.