The Triangle Tribune
July 8, 2021
by Freda Freeman, Correspondent
DURHAM – Picture a community of hundreds of homes and businesses – all thriving, all bustling, all Black owned. That is what Henry McKoy envisions for Hayti, once home to Durham’s Black Wall Street. “We’ve seen the rise of Hayti. We’ve seen the decline of Hayti. Now, let’s see Hayti reborn,” said McKoy, director of Hayti Reborn: Durham Equity Project, an initiative to revitalize the once prosperous Black area of Durham.
Through Hayti Reborn, McKoy and a group of longtime Hayti residents and their descendants, who have a “vision of widely-shared economic prosperity,” are working to restore Hayti and Durham to its Black Wall Street stature. “Hayti Reborn is about community-oriented investors developing Hayti with community ownership. It’s about redevelopment of these properties by people in those communities, and, as they rise, those people’s income and livelihood rises as well,” said McKoy.
Hayti was named and fashioned after the French colony Haiti, the first independent country created by former slaves. During a recent presentation on Hayti Reborn, McKoy said at its height, Hayti was a unique entrepreneurial ecosystem. McKoy said when W.E.B. DuBois visited Durham in the early 1900s, he marveled at what he saw: a network of Black businessmen all working together to make products and provide services to meet each other’s needs; everything from lumber to build homes, mattresses, clothes, food, and jobs.
Anita Scott Neville, a lifelong Hayti resident, recalled how her father and other Black businessmen could walk into Mechanics and Farmers Bank, talk to the president about economic challenges they were facing, and come out with a check. “That’s how the community supported one another and that was vital in Pettigrew Street and Hayti being able to survive. There was a spirit of community and not competition because everybody helped each other to do and provide and get what they all needed to carry on,” she said.
Today, Hayti is the poorest area of the city, McKoy said. What happened? Highway 147 happened, McKoy said, explaining Hayti was destroyed when the Durham Freeway was built through it in the mid-1960s. He said Highway 147 not only destroyed businesses and houses, but the entire community economic ecosystem.
“Highway systems came right through the middle of Black communities, and Hayti was one of those Black communities. It destroyed hundreds of houses, hundreds of businesses that were never rebuilt. But, in order to understand what it really destroyed, we have to look closer. It destroyed individuals, families, homes, firms, organizations, and, most of all, institutions, which are the backbone of communities,” McKoy said.
McKoy highlighted other factors that contributed to the decline of Black Durham and demise of Hayti, including globalization, which pushed tobacco production overseas, urban renewal, and gentrification. McKoy said Black people were also left out of Durham’s redevelopment phase from 2005-2020. Durham has one of the highest per capita incomes in the state and country, yet Black residents account for half of the people living in poverty, with Latinos accounting for another 20%, he said.