NIEHS and the Durham, North Carolina, community were treated to an online tour of their common past in April. John Schelp, special assistant for community engagement and outreach in the institute’s Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED), narrated “Postcards from Durham,” a three-part history series.
The third event, held on Facebook April 16, covered the beginnings of Research Triangle Park (RTP) and the effects of NIEHS coming to the Tar Heel State. Schelp used postcards from his private collection to enhance the learning experience. Preservation Durham and the Museum of Durham History sponsored his presentations. Two earlier sessions highlighted downtown, West Durham, Duke University, Hayti, and other areas.
Origins of NIEHS
The story begins with an April 1960 meeting between Robert Kennedy, brother of the future president, and Terry Sanford, then a former state senator running for governor, at the College Inn in Raleigh. At the Democratic convention three months later, Sanford endorsed John F. Kennedy, who carried North Carolina and won the election.
“We don’t know what was discussed in that April meeting, but whatever goodwill the endorsement earned Sanford bore fruit four and a half years later,” said Schelp.
In January 1965, a federal committee recommended that the National Institutes of Health build its new environmental health sciences center in RTP. On Governor Sanford’s last day in office, he and the U.S. Surgeon General shared the news publicly.
“NIEHS was the first major organization to announce they were coming to RTP,” said Schelp. “IBM announced six weeks later and started building first. That one-two punch transformed the area into an economic engine of North Carolina. Others were here, but they were smaller at the time.”
A 509-acre parcel was designated as the future home of what is now NIEHS. Construction began in 1977, and the new campus welcomed its first scientists in 1983.
Passion for local history
Schelp’s passion for Durham history began when he moved to town and purchased a Sears and Roebuck home that had been used as a parsonage for the West Durham Church of God. “From there, my interest expanded to my former mill village neighborhood and then to the rest of the city,” he said.
2020 marks Schelp’s 30th year at NIEHS. “I started as an intern in 1991 and never left,” he said. He is well known in Durham for being what he calls a street historian. “I like the term. I don’t want to pretend that I’m a Ph.D.”
“When John and I began working together, he knew that I was new to the area, and he was quick to offer me a ‘windshield tour’ of Durham,” said OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D. “It was my first introduction to the city’s history and how it connects to NIEHS. I always refer to him as ‘Mr. Durham’ and the institute’s resident historian. Our visitors enjoy him very much. He is our absolute go-to for tours and information sessions.”
In addition to conducting some 60 NIEHS campus tours each year and showing institute visitors the local area, Schelp gives regular neighborhood walking tours.
“The city has changed so much,” he says. “The Duke family used to control 90% of the world’s cigarettes. Now, it’s illegal to smoke on a Durham sidewalk.”
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)