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"This sign really belongs in a local historical museum," filmmaker Steve Channing says. "Maybe one day somebody will build one."

Years in the making, Durham: A Self-Portrait premieres Friday 

Tobacco to medicine

click to enlarge Steve Channing interviews Durham civil rights activist Kelly Bryant for Durham: A Self-Portrait. - PHOTO COURTESY OF VIDEO DIALOG
  • Photo courtesy of Video Dialog
  • Steve Channing interviews Durham civil rights activist Kelly Bryant for Durham: A Self-Portrait.

Nearly an hour into our interview, Steve Channing suddenly rose from his chair and sauntered toward the interior brick wall of his downtown Durham video production office, located within the old Penny Furniture Co. building.

"Let me illuminate our conversation a bit," said Channing wryly as he clicked the pull-chain switch on a wall sign that, at first blush, looked more befitting the offbeat decorative taste of a college dorm room.

Suddenly, the neon tubing encasing the sign flickered to life, its soft green and white glow spelling out a more luminous lineage: Royal Ice Cream. Fifty years ago, the sign hung inside the old Royal Ice Cream parlor located at the intersection of Roxboro and Dowd streets on the day seven African Americans, led by the Rev. Douglas E. Moore, staged North Carolina's first "sit-in" of the civil rights era, two and a half years before the launch of the Greensboro sit-ins. The building that housed the parlor, and later Charles Dunham's soul food restaurant, was demolished last year. "This sign really belongs in a local historical museum," Channing said. "Maybe one day somebody will build one."

Indeed, Channing, a former college professor and current filmmaker, might have assembled the foundation of such an endeavor with the completion of Durham: A Self-Portrait, his long-awaited, long-suffering documentary ode to the Bull City. The nearly 80-minute finished product debuts Friday, Nov. 16 in the 1,000-seat Fletcher Hall at Durham's Carolina Theatre. As I spoke with Channing, more than a week before the screening, he learned that all tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show had been distributed and two additional free screenings would be scheduled.

The enthusiasm with which Durhamites are receiving Channing's film is indicative of the city's proud, diverse and sometimes combustible history. The central issue permeating the documentary, and Durham itself, is race. Yet, its historical context here is somewhat atypical of many Southern cities. "Ever since the 19th century, Durham's population has been roughly 40 percent African American," says Channing. "So, for most of its history, Durham has been regarded by African Americans as a 'sanctuary city.' The tobacco markets and cotton mills provided opportunities for work. During the 1930s, this was the only stop between D.C. and Atlanta for performers such as Duke Ellington. Meanwhile, some of the first black-owned businesses flourished in the Hayti district and along Parrish Street, which prompted visits by and praise from both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois."

"Indeed, the same year of the Wilmington Race Riots [1898], the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company was chartered in Durham. That is an amazing contrast in the same year and in the same state."

To that end, the springboard for the story of the so-called "Secret Game" in 1944 between the all-white Duke Navy Medical School intramural squad and Coach John McLendon's all-black varsity team from the N.C. College for Negroes, later to become N.C. Central University. The game took place on a Sunday morning inside a locked gymnasium on the N.C. College's campus, and remained relatively unknown for nearly 50 years after it took place.

"You just know that any movie about Durham has to begin with a basketball game," jokes Channing. "Seriously, that game is the heart of the film. Here we are in the heart of the Jim Crow era, and a group of white and black students risk expulsion, arrest and maybe more to play a game of basketball. And, not only do they play each other, but they mix players and play 'shirts and skins' for a second game."

Channing purposely avoided interviewing sitting political office-holders, nor did he solicit or accept city or county funding for the project, all designed to preserve the film's objectivity and avoid turning it into a promotional propaganda piece. Channing's first on-camera interview took place in 2004 with the late Dr. Charles Watts, founder of the Lincoln Community Health Center and the first African American certified by a surgical board in North Carolina. The rest of the 37 interviews featured range from former mayors to historian John Hope Franklin to Reynolds Price to Mary Semans—granddaughter to Benjamin Duke and chair of the Duke Endowment—to business leaders such as Capital Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon, West Village developer Tom Niemann and retired Liggett CEO K.V. Dey. "As a child of the 1960s," recalls Channing, "I came from a background that saw corporate businessmen as evildoers. The truth is that they are the real change agents because they possess the philanthropic resources to facilitate progress."

Structurally, Durham: A Self-Portrait melds the interviews, voiceover narration, vintage film footage and a few re-enactments into six chronological chapters. "Chicago of the South" begins during the Civil War era and follows through the rise of Durham's industrial elite, particularly its tobacco industry and the Duke family. That segues into "Brothers Under the Skin," which details the rise of the African-American business community, including the secret collaboration between the Duke family and pioneering African-American business leaders such as Dr. Aaron Moore, John Moore and C.C. Spaulding. Then, "Bells and Whistles All Over the Town" follows the 1930s and 1940s industrial heyday, particularly the rise of the textile mills.

"Durham Gets the Blues" runs from World War II through the Royal Ice Cream sit-in. Ironically, it is during this time that Channing contends the optimism and incremental progress built upon Durham's long-standing black/ labor alliance gave way to a civil rights storm that, while necessary, also played on white fear of racial equality and created a rift between the white and black communities that continues in large part today. "Twilight of the Game" tracks the 1960s rise of street politics and integration of retail and employment institutions, as well as the ascendance of Duke University.

Finally, "All One Place, All One Story" documents the city's recent struggles, from the exodus of the city's manufacturing base to ongoing racial strife, including a brief mention of a certain court case involving Duke lacrosse players. It also speaks to the city's efforts at rebirth, from refurbishing the historic warehouse district to the downtown renewal project. As Channing observes, "Durham's renaissance is literally being built upon its history."

It is a history that also finds ways of repeating itself. Several years ago, the N.C. Highway Historic Marker Advisory Committee denied a request to erect a state historic marker at the site of the Royal Ice Cream parlor, finding that the 1957 sit-in "did not rise to the requisite level of statewide historical significance." An appeal hearing of that decision has been scheduled for the Dec. 17 meeting of the full Historic Marker Committee in Raleigh. Until then, perhaps the only tangible memorial to the sit-in remains hanging on Steve Channing's office wall.

Free tickets for the newly added screenings of Durham: A Self-Portrait at 9:40 p.m., Friday, Nov. 16, and 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 18, can be picked up at the Carolina Theatre box office or by calling 560-3030. For more on the film, visit www.portraitofdurham.com.

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