The history of Durham’s Black Wall Street

Last month, UNC Press published Blake Saya-Hill’s biography Aaron McDuffie Moore: An American Physician, Educator, and Founder of Durham’s Black Wall Street. The book marks the second project released by the Durham Colored Library — a local organization aimed toward elevating the stories of African American figures throughout history. 

To that end, Saya-Hill’s book tells the story of her great-great-grandfather, Dr. Moore, who alongside John Merrick and C.C. Spaulding, is credited with establishing Durham as a hub for black-owned businesses and the black middle class.

During the early 20th century — and despite Jim Crow-era regulations across North Carolina and the South — black-owned businesses thrived in downtown Durham. In 1906, the country’s largest (and oldest) black-owned insurance company, NC Mutual Life, moved its headquarters to Parrish Street. A year later, Merrick, Richard Fitzgerald + other local businessmen founded the country’s first African American bank (Mechanics and Farmers) in Durham, and helped fund the growth of local businesses and ventures. In a census conducted in 1905, it was estimated that 75% of revenue for Parrish Street businesses resulted from those investments. Both financial institutions continue to operate from Durham today.

Back then, Parrish Street comprised a four-blocks district located adjacent to the city’s Main Street. And while other similar districts evolved in other cities as well, Durham’s was known nationally for its cultivation of black entrepreneurism, and by the 1950s, Parrish Street was being called “the Black Wall Street.”

Between 1890 and 1910, Durham saw a 200% increase in the population of black residents — and by 1920, black-owned businesses and property totalled more than $4 million (that’s $51 million in 2020 dollars). A residential neighborhood called Hayti grew up nearby, and the black and white community alike were served by the Parrish Street-based barbers, tailors, printers, masons, physicians, lawyers, newspapers, periodicals + the Bull City Drug Company.

Founders of Mechanics and Farmers Bank | Photo courtesy of Durham County Library Archives

Durham continued to grow and was known broadly as the capital of the black middle class in America during the mid-20th century. Authors Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois celebrated the economic situation of blacks in the city through their letters and writing. By the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, urban sprawl and desegregation had pushed Parrish Street past its economic heyday; however the influence of those early black-owned businesses persists even today.

In 2004, the City of Durham partnered with a local advocacy group to launch the Parrish Street Project — aimed at revitalizing the district as part of  the downtown area’s redevelopment. Six historic markers were erected to commemorate the leaders of Black Wall Street and celebrate future generations of local business owners and entrepreneurs + you can click here to see what it looks like now.