Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Community’s Deeply Rooted Progressiveness

Progressive roots in Durham, North Carolina go back at least to the 1880s, a few years after the business wing of the Republican Party overwhelmed its social justice wing putting an end to a decade of “Reconstruction” following the Civil War.

Agrarian populists filled the void, standing up to a Democratic Party dominated by white supremacists.  Even Durham’s conservatives at the time manifested a progressive streak back then when they stood up against white supremacists as well.

But today’s progressivism in Durham can be traced to a local insurance executive in the late 1940’s when the city’s population was cresting 60,000, with just 80,000 countywide.

John Leslie Atkins Jr. was a Durham native and Duke graduate, who sharing that name with both his father and his pre-school son at the time, preferred to go by Leslie.  When I lived in Trinity Park for a time, I would often walk past his 1939 family home on Dollar Avenue  which was built when nearby Northgate Mall was a cow pasture.

A disease similar to polio in one of his legs resulted in the use of a brace to be able to walk.

In the late 1940s following World War II, Atkins, then in his mid-30s, began holding extraordinary meetings for the time.

Just a few floors below the office of George Watts Hill in a building now undergoing adaptive reuse as one of a handful of 21C Museum Hotels in the nation, Atkins was forging a coalition of labor unions with members of the black community and other progressive whites.

Labor unions had taken hold in Durham’s booming factories as well as among workers on the trolley line here as Atkins was growing up.  But in 1938 during his time at Duke, he witnessed the closing of a cotton mill, leaving the neighborhood of Smoky Hollow (now called Edgemont) in decline.

In addition, Atkins’ progressive sensibilities were probably also greatly influenced by Dr. Howard Jensen, one of the first sociologists at Duke and a Durham community activist on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged such as those in Edgemont, then an all white neighborhood.

In 1949 this unique coalition helped secure the election of a forward thinking mayor, Daniel K. Edwards, a lawyer, former U.S. Army colonel and also a Durham native who had been serving in the state legislature.

Atkins had passed away a decade before I arrived in Durham in 1989 but I was able to talk in passing to former Mayor Edwards back then as he passed by daily near the temporary offices we had in the Brightleaf District.

The year after Edwards was elected mayor, Dr. Jensen helped found the community fund, a precursor to a United Way chapter and famously gave a speech entitled “Durham’s Unmet Needs,” which evolved into a series of op-eds and essays.

Atkins’ fledgling coalition didn’t stop with the election of Edwards.  In the early 1950s, they successfully elected two women to the City Council, including the progressive Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans.

Mary, who became a good friend after my arrival and who passed away only recently was the great-grand daughter of Washington Duke who helped bring what became Duke University to Durham in the 1800s.

In 1953, the Atkins coalition spearheaded the election of retail executive Emanuel “Mutt” Evans, one of the first Jewish people elected mayor in the south.

Evans by then had crossed over norms by adding bathrooms for blacks in his stores and famously removed stools at the lunch counter in his stores to circumvent a prohibition against whites and blacks sitting together.

During his six terms as mayor, Evans, who passed away a few years after I came to Durham, led Durham collectively through tumult around desegregation.

In 1953, the Atkins coalition also spearheaded the election of Durham’s first black city council member, Rencher Nicholas Harris, a real estate appraiser.

Durham’s progressiveness in the early 1950s transcended politics.  This is a period when Durham natives working in the same building as Atkins began working with Durham native and North Carolina Governor William Umstead to make Research Triangle Park here a reality, transforming the state’s economy from textiles and tobacco.

This is also a period when two Durham movement entrepreneurs began to coalesce around a proactive plan to achieve equal civil rights.  This was an unusual nexus at the time across so many areas but especially for a community in the South with not yet a population of 80,000.

Atkins’ coalition was ripped apart by reaction to the Supreme Court’s dramatic ruling in 1955 based on the 1954 case Brown vs. Board of Education declaring separate facilities on the basis of race unconstitutional.

But Leslie Atkins kept working to bring people back together into the 1970s when he served on the City Council.  Before his death in 1977, he had passed Durham’s progressive torch to an extraordinary new generation, nearly all of whom, such as former mayor and long-time state senator Wib Gulley have become friends during my tenure here.

Gulley continued Durham’s long heritage for progressive politics through coalition building, surviving an attempted recall in the late 1980s for endorsing gay rights.  He deepened Atkins’ commitment to affordable housing in Durham.

Atkins’ influence is still felt today in elected officials including a newly arrived IBM engineer back then named Bill Bell with whom he crossed paths and whose span in local elected office of nearly 40 years includes his now-seven terms as Mayor of Durham.

In addition to what I have gleaned by living here now 25 years, I owe some of this information to historians and friends such as Jim Wise and Jean Bradley Anderson and the recollections of his father shared with me by John I. Atkins III, an acclaimed architect in Durham.

As I set out in 1989 in my former life charged with reclaiming and fostering Durham’s story and identity, I was inspired by a story of passion involving the younger Atkins, who is only a few years older than I am.

He must have identified with the challenge I faced because as a college student body president, he fought to preserve the storied name and identity of North Carolina State University when state officials sought to change it to the University of North Carolina at Raleigh.

This essay is intended to reinforce my belief that a community’s personality is almost temporal and manifestations today can be found rooted in the past.  These are among the things that make a community distinct.


Anonymous said...

Mary Semans was the granddaughter of Benjamin Duke, not James b Duke

Reyn said...

Oops, thank you. Correction made.

Unknown said...

Great post on my Grandfather and his influence in the Durham community. A tradition my Uncle continues to this day. Thanks for the historical glimpse into my past and for recognizing the accomplishments of these two men