My daily commute on South Buchanan takes me past one of the Pauli Murray murals, with quotes from Duke’s Karla Holloway, among others, paying tribute to the civil rights activist Episcopal priest who grew up in Durham. I can see another of her murals while I’m waiting to cross Chapel Hill Street, one block west, on the wall of the erstwhile Durham Co-op. You can see some of these murals and learn more about the Reverend Murray on the Pauli Murray Project website.
Murray wrote about growing up in Durham in the early 20th century in her book Proud Shoes. She spent at least some of her childhood on the edge of Morehead Hill, in an area then called “the Bottoms,” where the land bottomed out along what is now known as Carroll Street (then Cameron and Shaw Streets). I live more-or-less in the Bottoms, myself, on the last block before Carroll, though Cobb Street didn’t extend that far yet (the earliest map I’ve seen with my block of Cobb dates from 1925).
Nonetheless, she writes about this part of the neighborhood in her book. She called it “Vickers Woods,” a name broadly applied to the undeveloped parts of Morehead Hill owned by William Gaston Vickers. By her time, this would have been a pretty small area, since Morehead Hill was mostly developed and Forest Hills had also come along, just a few blocks below. In any event, she describes an incident that occurred in Vickers Woods in 1917. She and some other children entered the woods below her friend’s house on Morehead Avenue, at the point “where Arnette Avenue ended abruptly in a dump heap.” Pursuing the sound of a child crying, they found where another boy had been shot and killed, apparently by a white man who thought the two boys were stealing watermelons from his patch (the boys, like Pauli Murray herself, were black). I say “apparently” because the crime was never investigated, such being the times.
She called the area from Arnette east “Swelltown Heights,” another common moniker of the time. This was the wealthy, white area. She mentions a color line that appears to have run just west of Arnette, and still does, to some extent. Twenty years later (in 1937), the North Carolina Department of Public Works published a map delineating the “White” and “Negro” sections of Durham, and it holds up surprisingly well to this day, even the bit about how Carroll south of Cobb is white, while north is black. In fairness, these lines are no longer near so firm as they must have been back then. There has been progress, after all.