The Soul of Durham


I came to historic preservation in a round about way. I started my professional life as an archaeologist. I love a good puzzle, and the challenge of figuring out a long ago community from what remains in the ground was a great one. What I learned from that work was that the material we found revealed the community’s collective choices and values, not just their art, houses, or public spaces, but even the trash spoke to what they valued, and what they did not.

After a while, I got to wondering what the decisions we are making today say about our priorities and values. What do we chose to save and reuse, and what do we teardown and throw away? Where do we put a new performing arts center or a park (or, even, a police headquarters)? These decisions reflect what is central to our community and what we chose to push to the edges.

On a smaller scale, I’ve always loved old things. I have surrounded myself with objects that are worn from use and full of memories. The church pew that my grandmother sat on practically every Sunday of her life is now in my dining room. My poor husband has had to haul around the heaviest steel desk in the world (it gets heavier with each move) because my dad sat at it when he sold typewriters for IBM in the 1950’s. Having these things around me makes me feel connected to those folks. They help me to remember to take the long view and that today’s drama is just for today. I feel that way about old buildings, too.

Main Street trolley tracks, c. 1910. (Durham County Library)

Durham is my adopted hometown and the birthplace of my children. One of the things that my husband and I loved right away about Durham is that it has a tangible sense of history. Surrounded by all this brick and so many railroad tracks, you feel like it’s not too far from what it was 40 or 80 years ago. You can imagine in your mind’s eye the streetcar rumbling down Main Street, the workers heading in to the tobacco factories. I grew up in Raleigh, and you can still find a sense of history there if you know where to look, but I feel like it is rapidly being blotted out. To me, Durham’s history is still on the surface – still accessible.

Fayetteville Street bus during Liggett & Myers shift change, c. 1930. (Durham County Library)

One of the reasons, I think, why so many of us love Durham is that the history it honors isn’t just tokens of the wealthy. Durham was built largely by and for a working class with an entrepreneurial spirit. To this day, Durham still sees itself as up-and-coming and doesn’t really embrace anyone who is too finely starched. There are still a few grand mansions, but they are outnumbered by many more mill houses. To me the soul of Durham resides in the weathered bricks of the factories where folks worked all week and the wide shady porches where they relaxed on Sunday.

So, I give my time, energy and what money I can to preservation work because I believe in Durham. I believe that it values its history and the contributions of all its citizens regardless of status or race. I want to see those values communicated to long-time residents and new visitors alike. I want to raise up those values in my own and children all across this city. I’ve been a parent long enough to realize that the truth is not in what you say, but what you do. So, I believe that we must not just articulate those values, but also build them from the ground up.

– Liz Sappenfield