Where are Durham's new, black leaders? | First Person | Indy Week
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Where are Durham's new, black leaders? 

There's grumbling that no one is stepping up

Let me tell you a secret. There's a lot of grumbling right now within Durham's black community. People have serious issues with what they perceive as a lack of leadership coming from those in political office and from the organizations designed to serve them.

Most people agree Durham gets a bad rap from those around the state. The city's negative image has led many to press for a public relations campaign that will focus on the good things happening in the city—things like growth in downtown Durham and the second wave of development at West Village and American Tobacco. This, coupled with the recent zoning change of Heritage Village and construction on the Black Wall Street, make this a great time to live in Durham.

It should be noted that black businessmen are helping to boost development in Durham. Brian Davis, who is black, is a partner in developing West Village out of the former Liggett & Myers factory. Davis is getting national attention for his bid to purchase the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. If approved, it will make Davis the NBA's youngest owner and one of the most successful black businessmen in the country.

While Davis is pursuing the purchase of the Grizzlies and leading the redevelopment efforts at West Village, Carl Webb, who is also black, is making noise as a partner with Greenfire Development. Greenfire is one of the major players in downtown redevelopment and is backing the Black Wall Street project on Parrish Street. Webb came up with plans for Black Wall Street while serving as partner of Webb Patterson Communications. He recognized there are bigger fish in the pond, and teamed up with Greenfire to become one of Durham's visionaries of economic development.

The dealings of Davis and Webb are reminiscent of the early years of the Black Wall Street, when C.C. Spaulding, Aaron McDuffie Moore, John Avery and John Merrick started North Carolina Mutual and Providence Association in 1898.

C.C. Spaulding called a meeting at the Algonquin Tennis Club on Aug. 15, 1935. At that meeting, Spaulding was named the first president of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. Durham's black business leaders helped make the DCNA (now the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People) the most revered political action committee in the state.

The ascension of Davis and Webb bear witness to a major shift in the way power impacts change in Durham's black community. Spaulding and Moore were a part of the Durham Committee. The Committee was a powerful organization because it was able to galvanize interest from a cross section of the black community. The power was in its numbers, but its strength was in its leadership.

Davis and Webb are the type of leaders who once led the Durham Committee. There are other young, talented black leaders not involved in the Durham Committee—Chuck Watts at North Carolina Mutual, Rosiland Fuse-Hall and Beverly Washington Jones at N.C. Central University, Anita Brown-Graham at N.C. State University, and Sterling Freeman at the Wildacres Leadership Initiative all possess the skills the Committee needs. (One exception is Larry D. Hall, an attorney and former chair of the N.C. Black Leadership Caucus, who has remained active in the Committee while also running a successful campaign last year for the state House.)

It begs the question of why leadership isn't being passed on. Why have the Talented Tenth stayed away from the Durham Committee, and why haven't we seen a wave of new people serving as leaders? This is the basis of the grumbling among those interested in making a difference.

"People in city government try to hold onto their jobs instead of fighting for people," says Inga Willis, former owner of PeaceFire Galleries. Willis and Sema Flowers, her business partner, left Durham in July. They moved to New York, hurting over their stay in Durham. They left confused by the lack of support coming from those in city government, and discouraged with Durham's black leaders.

Willis said the big business moves in Durham make the city look good, but small businesses have vast resources that go unnoticed. Members of the Durham Committee never walked into her gallery. Many members of the City Council walked past PeaceFire Galleries, but never stopped in to support their business. As young business owners instrumental in starting the PeaceFire Relief Effort to help Katrina victims in Durham and across the Gulf region, they are leaders in their own right. They never attended a Committee meeting.

A generation is waiting to take the reins of leadership, but those who hold the keys refuse to let them go. The biggest news coming out of the Durham Committee is the fights at Committee meetings. Members of the Committee have been fighting since the May primaries. The root of the tension is over the Committee's endorsement of Worth Hill (who is white) over Joe Bowser, former head of the NAACP, for sheriff. Lois Murphy, a Bowser supporter and former member of the group's executive committee, wrote a heated letter of resignation in which she blasted Lavonia Allison, the chair of the Committee.

"You often told me that you would not allow anyone to 'pimp' the Committee, and I believed you," Murphy wrote in the letter dated May 24. "I have since come to believe that you do not want anyone else to pimp the Committee because you and you alone want all the spoils a pimp receives from her prostitutes. I just want to know what you have gained from pimping the Committee to johns (the current local mayor, senators, representatives, commissioners, sheriff, and some of the school board members, as well as all of the other elected and appointed positions you have helped these johns obtain)."

Conflict between Bowser and top members of the Committee came when he was forced to vacate the presidency of the NAACP after admittedly passing out fliers on Election Day in 2004 that read: "Joe Bowser, DURHAM BRANCH NAACP PRESIDENT, Recommends for Your Vote the Following Candidates. NO STRAIGHT DEMOCRATIC TICKET VOTING."

Bowser represented Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine during the endorsement meeting of the Durham Committee. NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume notified Bowser in writing that he was suspended as president and that his life membership was also suspended because he engaged in political campaigning using his position in the nonpartisan organization. The endorsement of a Republican candidate did not sit well with Allison and other longtime Democrats on the Committee.

The fighting within the organization distracts the Committee from doing the work Durham's black residents crave. "They are paper tigers with a loud roar and no bite," says Melvin Whitley, a community activist. "They fail to address the problem of the poor and working class. They don't speak out about the 19,000 substance abusers in Durham County when 68 percent of them are people of color. "

The disdain is especially felt by those not connected to the political machinery. The membership of the Durham Committee is fading. Young people aren't joining the ranks of the organization. Those new to the city don't know about the Committee's rich history. Those who have been around for a long time are tired of the rhetoric surrounding the Committee and the local chapter of the NAACP.

"If they purport to speak for the black people in the community, they don't seem to make a point of getting input from the people whose voice they are supposed to be," says Paul Meggett, a 30-something attorney. "As I came to attempt to interact with both groups, I found them to be elitist and pompous. The Durham Committee seemed to only care about a small segment of Durham's black people."

"The Durham Committee has a history and significance in this community that is unmatched. However, succession planning would appear to be a challenge for the group," says Chuck Watts, senior vice president and general counsel at North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance. "No one can challenge Dr. Allison's contribution to the group over the last 40 years or more. Clearly the time for new leadership is nearing, and the decision regarding when a transition might occur and who might become the new leader is fundamentally for the organization to resolve."

Along with a decline in membership, the Committee is struggling to locate people interested in becoming the next chair. Once a powerful position within the black community, the chair of the Committee isn't the jewel it used to be. Rule changes have limited access to the position. The bylaws of the Committee were changed to prevent people from voting who failed to attend four meetings during the year. Before that, only Durham residency was required. The rule change not only impacts voting privileges but has bearing on those interested in leading the organization.

Allison's recent illness triggered concern within the community about who would take the lead of the Committee. The speculation was that she would step down from the organization, passing the reins over to her son, a local dentist. No other challengers have emerged. The disenchanted youth and young adults throughout the city aren't able to vote because they haven't been active. Many feel no obligation to participate because of what they perceive as a lack of vision and leadership. It's a vicious cycle that has negative implications in the way the Committee functions as a voice for all black people in Durham.

Great leaders have emerged. The bad news is the best of the best opt to concentrate on remaining focused on their own mission. There isn't enough time to tackle the demands of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People when there isn't a clearly defined agenda embraced by the community the organization is supposed to represent.

Those lost in the good old days fight to keep things the same. Those hoping for all things found in our dreams seek places to build on yesterday's foundation. You can't go forward when you keep glaring in the rearview mirror.

  • Let me tell you a secret. There's a lot of grumbling right now within Durham's black community.

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