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Urban renewal destroyed this thriving neighborhood of restaurants, banks and libraries. But Dianne Pledger is leading renewed growth and spirit in Hayti.

Sweet home Hayti 

Dianne Pledger uses the blues to rebuild a demolished Durham neighborhood

Dianne Pledger stands in the shadow of the N.C. 147 overpass.

Photo by Derek Anderson

Dianne Pledger stands in the shadow of the N.C. 147 overpass.

More on Hayti & the Bull Durham Blues Festival:
 
2007 Bull Durham Blues Festival
Schedule and tickets
Betty Pride
Blues Festival performer embraces the past
Historic Hayti
St. Joseph's A.M.E., Fayetteville Street, Regal Theater, R.S. McGhee Coal Co., Bull City Barber Shop
Freeway through the heart of Durham
Maps then & now

Edian Markum is a mystery. No one remembers where he came from. He claimed he was born in Edenton and fled to Canada as a teenager; his son said Markum (and, later, Markham) was born into slavery in Elizabeth City. But the family had a freedom certificate bearing the name Edian Spelman, and insisted it was Edian Markum's.

Although details of his origins are hazy, it's clearer where Markum went and what he did when he got there: Shortly after the Civil War ended, Markum's name surfaced on a voter registration list in Durham. He had arrived as a black Methodist missionary, and in 1869, he bought a piece of land from a white woman. In a brush arbor south of Fayetteville and Pettigrew streets, beneath the tracks that linked the Southern Railroad with Durham, Markum built a simple wooden structure, a church he called Union Bethel, where he led a congregation of six as first pastor and teacher.

From Markum's little corner grew a vibrant district later known as Hayti. In 1891, the Union Bethel congregation changed its name to St. Joseph's A.M.E. and rebuilt its church with brick. It became a centerpiece for Hayti, which supplied downtown Durham with laborers. Those wages built a thriving, prosperous, largely independent black community. N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, founded in Hayti in 1898, grew into what Durham historian Mena Webb calls "the largest black-owned business in the world." Police officers, pool halls, restaurants, banks, a library, churches, a lineage of blues musicians: By 1939, North Carolina's official state guide boasted of Hayti's "12,000 Negroes [who] live and operate their own business firms." Hayti was a freedmen's success story.

Urban renewal destroyed this thriving neighborhood of restaurants, banks and libraries. But more than 100 years after Markum's congregation rebuilt St. Joseph's in brick, V. Dianne Pledger is leading renewed growth and spirit in Hayti, using history, art, blues music and new programs like slam poetry to connect the neighborhood with Durham's broader community.

As head of the nonprofit St. Joseph's Historic Foundation, Pledger understands Hayti's history and significance. When she talks about the urban renewal that pockmarked Durham from 1958 to 1976, she speaks like someone who's spent the past 16 years uncovering the implications of that misguided policy. "I saw some of the decline of the Hayti community, but, unfortunately, I didn't really understand what was happening," she says from Hayti Heritage Center, the former shell of St. Joseph's A.M.E. that now houses the foundation.

Hayti prospered into World War II, but, according to a city-sponsored study, sections of it were outdated and dilapidated. In the late '50s, Durham joined America's urban renewal spree and demolished much of Hayti and several other predominately black Durham districts. A once-strong community was split near its middle, leaving behind vacant lots. But St. Joseph's endured, and in the '70s, it housed St. Joseph's Historic Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the community's past and future.

"I remember this church as a child," says Pledger, 49. An N.C. Central University graduate, Pledger grew up in Chapel Hill as a member of the African Methodist church, but Durham was an important nexus. Her parents had attended NCCU, and her uncle was a Hayti doctor on Pettigrew Street. "As a young person growing up in Chapel Hill, you migrated to Durham because it was just full of African-American people. I shopped in Durham, my doctors were in Durham, my friends and acquaintances were in Durham."

Durham razed Hayti institutions like the Biltmore Hotel, Regal Theatre and the Service Printing Company with $41.6 million in federal funds. In 1958, the city established the Durham Redevelopment Commission, which titled an early report "A Workable Program for the Urban Renewal of Durham, N.C." and charged UNC-Chapel Hill's Department of City and Regional Planning with identifying the city's slums and deciding their fate.

To buttress its case, the commission attached a packet of three month's worth of editorials from the Durham Morning Herald pledging support for urban renewal. Mayor E.J. Evans wrote a letter avowing his approval for the plan, referring to the city's poorer neighborhoods as if they were worthless crops lying fallow in a field: "An area that becomes blighted needs more municipal services, but contributes less in taxes to pay for them. We in Durham are anxious to get started ... to change the direction of that financial spiral."

The city marked seven areas for renewal, and Hayti became just another number, N.C. R-17. In 1962, urban renewal—or, as it was later called, urban removal—relocated 1,255 Hayti households, more than in any other Durham zone, and 63 businesses. Renewal funds paid for the Durham Expressway, N.C. 147, built as a quick outlet to Raleigh and the new Research Triangle Park. The wide road sloughed off the corner of Hayti north of St. Joseph's, separating the lower portion from the struggling downtown its workers had long serviced. In 1976—while a study indicated one in five Durham families still lived in substandard housing—the city hustled to finish its renewal projects ahead of schedule.

"It was my understanding that the concept of redevelopment was to clear decayed areas that were blighted and to put something back on the tax books," Mayor Wade Cavin said in a 1976 Durham Morning Herald series. "The program has not put new structures back on the land; it's just standing vacant."

But St. Joseph's steeple stood. When Edian Markum's congregation moved a mile south on Fayetteville Street in 1975, it donated the building and less than half an acre to St. Joseph's Historic Foundation. But the church, standing since 1891, was in disrepair.

Blues music and an influx of city money helped revive the foundation and its home. In September 1987, the foundation, led by Walter Norflett, cosponsored the Bull City Blues Festival. The next year, county voters approved a $2.5 million bond to fund construction that turned St. Joseph's shell into the Hayti Heritage Center. St. Joseph's took over the blues event in 1988, renaming it the Bull Durham Blues Festival and featuring Etta James, Dr. John, Otis Rush and a dozen others over two days.

Then Norflett died. Pledger was working in Chapel Hill when she spotted an advertisement for the job in the Carolina Times, another Hayti institution. She applied for the executive director's job and got it. Her mission: Build the staff; upgrade the programming with more music, art, education and outreach; and raise enough money to restore the church's leaking congregation hall. Like Markum did with a congregation of six, Pledger decided to teach and reach her community.

"If you talk about the Hayti Heritage Center, you think about Dianne Pledger in the next breath," says Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who was chairman of the County Commissioners when voters approved the bond referendum in 1988. "She seems to eat, sleep and live that center."

click to enlarge Dianne Pledger of the St. Joseph's Historic Foundation - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Pledger has been awake for 48 consecutive hours. She missed a rare day of work yesterday to rush to a Greensboro hospital where her sister was in intensive care. With only three weeks left before the 20th annual Bull Durham Blues Festival, Pledger is back at St. Joseph's, hustling through a morning of meetings.

At 1:30 p.m., she gets her first break of the day. She's waiting to be interviewed for Triangle Profiles, a local Time Warner interview program. Pledger will be on the air for five minutes at most. She could talk about the blues festival in her sleep for five minutes, but she's ripping through artist biographies, familiarizing herself with some of the musicians she's booked for this year's festival: Booker T. & The MG's, Shemekia Copeland, Li'l Malcolm Walker & the Zydeco House Rockers.

Then, she hears a voice: "Mrs. Dianne, I guess we're ready for you now."

In front of the cameras, Pledger's excitement flows effortlessly. Gayle Hurd, the national radio personality who hosts Triangle Profiles, once sat on St. Joseph's board. Hurd raves about the smells and sounds of the festival, and Pledger mentions Blind Boy Fuller, the Durham bluesman who's commemorated with a historical marker less than a mile from St. Joseph's. His descendant, Betty Pride, is performing this year. As for Big Bill Morganfield, a Chicago-born guitarist who'll play on Saturday night's bill, Pledger says, "Oh, he's just the blues all the way through."

Time Warner is a longtime sponsor of St. Joseph's, and Pledger takes pride in that connection. She networks—like a politician or a businesswoman. With a broad smile and an understanding ear, she gets close to people and figures out how they can work togetheras she's done in Hayti.

Earlier this morning, she attended a board meeting for the Durham branch of the United Negro College Fund. This is Pledger's first year on the board, and she's the planning director for UNCF's annual fundraiser, Evening of Stars. At the meeting, she's flanked by Mayor Bell and a half-dozen representatives from Shaw University, a historically black college in Raleigh.

"I have to do my part for other people, you know," she says, smiling. She reminds everyone about the Bull Durham Blues Festival, placing buttons and paper fans on a table.

After the meeting, Pledger drives to one of three Mechanics & Farmers Bank branches in Durham and continues to network. She leaves brochures for the festival with both tellers. On her way out, she spots Christopher "Play" Martin, former member of hip-hop duo Kid 'n Play and a current Durham resident. He produces informational segments for Durham television, and Pledger is convinced he needs to do a blues festival piece. "Just call me," she says, flashing a smile.

Pledger's talent is for finding the city's interlocking parts and fitting them together. In 1996, when the City of Durham could meet only about half of the center's $5 million financial goal to begin St. Joseph's chapel renovations, she helped find the other half through private donations. And, despite its humble beginnings, the Bull Durham Blues Festival has no less than 44 sponsors this year, from Millennium Hotel to Southwest Airlines.

"She thinks big, and it's been that way since I first met her," says Dasan Ahanu, the founder of the Bull City Slam Team sponsored by St. Joseph's. "And she's willing to put in the work to make it happen."

Ahanu led slam teams in Charlotte and Raleigh before participating in a slam workshop during the center's first Spoken Word & Hip-Hop Festival in late 2004. He wanted to build a team in Durham by holding small, one-on-one slams. But Pledger saw an opportunity and seized it. She asked Ahanu to form a Bull City Slam Team immediately and prepare it for regional and national competitions in that first year. Ahanu moved to Durham. The team, which wasn't even supposed to exist, placed in the top third nationally.

click to enlarge Dianne Pledger in front of St. Joseph's A.M.E. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

The Hayti community crumbled to the city's wrecking ball 49 years ago. It still hasn't recovered. Near the once-bustling thoroughfare of East Pettigrew Street, just north of St. Joseph's steeple, small houses, diners and an abandoned housing project now stand, the area shunted from its other half by the busy expressway that cuts through the quiet just 50 yards to the south. Crossing from north Hayti into south Hayti means crossing the expressway. But St. Joseph's, Hayti's earliest cornerstone, stands on the other side. It's there that nearby businesses—like those two dozen in the Phoenix Crossing Shopping Center—thrive.

"I want to give the people in the neighborhood a nice, clean place to eat and make it so you don't have to go across town to get a drink," says Charles Hodge, who owns Bull City Wings and The Red Onion, two successful restaurants within 200 yards of Hayti's distinctive steeple. "They let me put flyers there and advertise. People come from their events to here. One hand washes the other."

Under Pledger's direction, St. Joseph's and the Hayti Heritage Center have expanded their offerings to the community. The center presents dance classes, film festivals, literacy workshops, art exhibits and concerts. In 2001, nearly $5 million worth of renovations in St. Joseph's congregation hall—filled with 19th-century pews, a rich glow of stained-glass windows, and high-quality sound and lighting systems—were completed. Roberta Flack opened the space to a capacity crowd. Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis have both recorded in the hall, which boasts some of the best acoustics on the East Coast. In 2009, the Hayti Heritage Center will host a regional poetry slam.

Pledger hopes to expand St. Joseph's blues ties into a year-round Durham resource with more concerts, more artists in public schools and more young people rediscovering that heritage. And, earlier this month, architects at Durham's Freelon Group submitted a plan to Pledger and St. Joseph's board of directors for the next wing—a permanent exhibition space. It could stand as high as three stories, and it could stretch as far as the center's new Fayetteville Street front. At any size or shape, says Pledger, its mission remains constant—to educate about Hayti's rich past and advocate for its future.

"I feel like that's what the center has been missing, because we can tell the story semi-visually with some photographs, some videos and orally," she says. "But we feel like it's very important to move forward to ensure that the stories of the people, places and things of Hayti are told so that all people can experience them."

Pledger is the teacher at St. Joseph's. Just like Edian Markum.

View larger (PDF, 350 KB) • A panorama of Hayti landmarks today, painted in a mural at Heritage Square Shopping Center - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

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