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Environmental Factor

March 2011

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Revisiting an almost forgotten chapter of local black history

By Matt Goad
March 2011

left to right, Kelvin D. Allen, Jaisun McMillian, and Beverly Washington Jones, Ph.D.

The creators of "Hayti: The Heritage - The Legacy of Black America," left to right, Kelvin D. Allen, Jaisun McMillian, and Beverly Washington Jones, Ph.D., took part in the discussion after screening the film in Rodbell Auditorium. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Veronica Godfrey Robinson and Brad Collins listened to the Hayti discussion

Veronica Godfrey Robinson listened to the discussion about Hayti. Seated beside her is Diversity Council chair and NTP chemist Brad Collins. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Michael Watkins

Michael Watkins, a media and glassware contractor at NIEHS, made a comment during the discussion after the film. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Schelp

John Schelp, special assistant to the director in the Office of Education Outreach, talked about report card day in the community, when children in Hayti were expected to show neighbors their report cards. If they had A's, they got a nickel. That spirit of community has been lost, he said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

left to right, Laurie Johnson, Chris Long, and Bryan Haynes

Acting Associate Director for Management Chris Long, center right, was on hand to show management's support for the celebration. Seated beside him are Budget Officer Laurie Johnson, left, and media and glassware contractor Bryan Haynes, right. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As part of the NIEHS Black History Month celebration Feb. 2, employees had an opportunity to take part in a history project about the black experience in Durham, N.C., and found themselves right in the middle of the making of a new documentary.

The NIEHS Diversity Council and the Research Triangle Park (RTP) chapter of Blacks In Government (BIG) sponsored a screening of the documentary in progress about the nearby area of downtown Durham once known as the Hayti community, "Hayti: The Heritage - The Legacy of Black America."

Hayti was the center of a vibrant black community during most of the 20th century. Black-owned businesses thrived in Hayti until suburban flight and urban renewal efforts in the 1970s killed it off.

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The film comes to NIEHS

Event facilitator and NTP biologist Veronica Godfrey Robinson, chair of the Diversity Council's Black History Month Committee and secretary of the RTP Chapter of BIG, attended a screening at the Hayti Heritage Center( Exit NIEHS earlier this year and decided NIEHS employees could benefit from seeing it.

"While Duke has done some positive things in the Durham community," Robinson said, "there are also other groups making important contributions to the quality of life and culture in that vibrant city."

The documentary is work in progress, said producers Jaisun McMillian, Victor Stone, and Kelvin Allen, and project historian Beverly Washington Jones, Ph. D., who all attended the NIEHS showing. They were here not only to answer questions and give out information, they said, but also to draw on the knowledge of NIEHS employees who remember Hayti and to get advice on how to improve the film.

The producers hope to turn the 20-minute film they have now into a 56-minute documentary with three parts - the past, the present, and the future.

After the screening in the NIEHS Rodbell Auditorium, the producers answered questions and listened to comments from NIEHS employees for about an hour.

"The thing that impressed me the most was the interest that people had in that time period," McMillian said after the discussion, "and it tells me that our mission is a good one."

Allen pointed out that the story of "Black Wall Street" in Durham and some of the bigger businesses of Hayti is well known. He wants to tell the story of the underbelly of Hayti - the blue-collar workers and Mom-and-Pop stores.

"That's a part of the story that we really wanted to tell," Allen said.

Spirit of community

One theme that came through in both the film and the discussion following was that there was a strong sense of community and cooperation in the old Hayti, something that ironically was lost as desegregation provided for upward mobility for some African-Americans and allowed them to move into the suburbs.

The producers said they hoped this project would help bring back that sense of community.

"When I think about Hayti, I think about a spirit," Jones said. "I think about a community. And though the demolition came, our role is to rekindle that spirit."

(Matt Goad is a contract writer in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Wanda Holliday

Like many younger Durham residents and transplants in the audience, Contract Specialist Wanda Holliday was interested in learning more about Hayti, which almost completely disappeared when the Durham Freeway joined I40 and I85 - and split Durham in half. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Annette Rice

RTP Chapter of BIG President and NIEHS Biologist Annette Rice, center, said the documentary was an excellent way to celebrate Black History Month. "The documentary was a historic re-visiting to what Durham was like for African Americans during segregation," she said. "It was representative of the ways the community worked together on all levels." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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