Bull City 150 is a new public history, geography and community engagement project based at Duke University and grounded in strong community partnerships. We build conversations around the deep history of inequality in Durham, North Carolina so that that our city can build towards a more equitable future.
Durham, North Carolina will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2019. Much has changed in the one-hundred fifty years since the city’s beginnings as a depot on the railroad between Raleigh and Hillsborough. Today, Durham is a midsize southern city on the rise. Located in one of the fastest growing regions in the country, it is staking out its place as a hotspot in the new economy.
But not everyone is benefitting from Durham’s renaissance. Gentrification is rapidly displacing historic working-class communities. One fifth of the city’s population is living in poverty, wages are failing to keep up with quickly rising housing costs, and the public-school system exhibits large achievement gaps by race and class. By nearly every measure, great disparities exist, and, in many ways, are deepening.
This situation is not new. Durham has always been a town of haves and have-nots. For example, tobacco and textile industrialists made great fortunes, while locally-owned black financial institutions built up “Black Wall Street.” At the same time, low wages in manufacturing and domestic services kept many Durhamites in poverty, and Jim Crow ensured that economic opportunity was separate and unequal. In so many ways, inequality is deeply woven into the social and physical environment of the city and county.
The purpose of the Bull City 150 project is to show Durhamites how the current landscape of inequality cannot be reckoned with, without a deeper understanding of the roots of inequality in the place we call home. History is a powerful tool of meaning-making and the stories we tell each other impact the policies we create and how we collectively seek to address the inequality in our community.
We recognize that even though we are embedded in broader political and economic systems, there is still a unique way in which local decision-making shaped, and continues to impact, who has access to high quality housing, education, and other services, who feels safe or unsafe, and who is able to create opportunities for a better life.
This project aims to undertake extensive community engagement, with policymakers, non-profit leaders, grassroots activists, and the broader Duke and Durham community to facilitate educational opportunities, deep dialogue, and a collective reckoning about how we got here, and what is needed to ensure a more equitable Durham in the future.
Bull City 150 focuses on one geographic area (Durham City and County) from its founding in the Reconstruction period to the present. Using the interdisciplinary tools of history, geography, public policy, sociology, and documentary research, the project will develop vivid descriptions of the origins of race and class disparities in Durham and how they have evolved over time. It calls on the public to become actively engaged in the process of making sense of history and imagining a more equitable future.
A particular focus of BC150’s public education is to grapple with white privilege, which is often left in the background of historical narratives. This is important in order to break down deep-seated perceptions that tend to individualize a social groups’ successes or failings, without properly reckoning with the long history of structural advantages and disadvantages.
Survey data show that few whites attribute their success to policies and programs that benefitted them at the expense of others. Local history, populated by familiar people, geographies, institutions, and landmarks, is a powerful teaching tool for describing how white privilege was built and sustained.