By Wendy Diaz EMGV
Fall is the season when nature displays its brilliant colors and thanks to trees planted recently in the Black Wall Street Gardens, we should see more of that fall splendor in the coming years right in downtown Durham. Black Wall Street Gardens is a small but centrally located green space that was improved in 2018 as part of the 2014 Downtown Open Space Plan that intended to further develop the former park located at 102 West Main Street into the ‘southern node of an enhanced linear park connecting City Hall to Main Street’.1 The improvements included the planting of four small Black Gum trees alongside a new curvilinear path and larger brick pavement center area with tables and chairs for seating. A public art piece to ‘commemorate and illuminate the importance of Black Wall Street and the legacy of Durham’s African-American business community’2, will be located at this location in the near future.
Black Gum or Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
Black Gum, also commonly known as Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) is a slow-growing tree species native to Eastern North America and a deciduous hardwood tree recognized for its brilliant display of red and almost purple colored leaves in November. The spring flowers are small and produce excellent nectar for bees3. It is dioecious as the female tree needs a male pollinator tree to set their dark-blue fruit. The tree prefers acidic soils, has long taproots, tolerates poorly drained soils so it can be used in rain gardens and endures droughts due to its deep root system4. The Black Gum typically grows from 30 to 50 feet tall with a crown spread of 20 to 30 feet. They can live to be very old and some live more than 600 years.
The pyramidal growth habit along with a centralized leader and the Black Gum’s ability to tolerate compacted soils are all desirable attributes for the urban environment.5 One undesirable attribute for an urban walkway is the fruit litter of the female trees unless plant cultivars such as Nyssa sylvatica ‘Firestarter’ or Nyssa sylvatica ‘Red Rage’ are planted which do not produce fruit5. Another quality of this tree is the strong connection between its smaller branches and the trunk (branches grow at wide angles horizontally along the trunk) requiring less pruning and maintenance and making it a good candidate for wind tunnels between high buildings in the city.
Black Gum trees are perhaps best known for their brilliant scarlet fall color display in North Carolina. Only a couple of leaves have turned red on the newly planted trees in the Black Wall Street Gardens this week and the waxy green summer leaves predominate.
Fortunately, not far from downtown on North Broad Street is a grand old blazing specimen in the backyard of a home in Old West Durham neighborhood and a subject of a previous Master Gardener blog post6.
Its fall foliage is a little past its prime in mid-November but one can still see some very bright crimson and scarlet leaves this week and maybe even into December. This brilliant display is something to look forward to in the coming years for downtown.
Black Wall Street
The four young Black Tupelo trees are located near the north end of the garden park close to West Parrish Street or Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street referred to an area ‘of concentrated African-American wealth, economic and political power’ along the north side of Parrish Street in downtown Durham during the first half of the 20th century. In the early 1900’s, West Parrish Street started to convert from light industrial to commercial use when the black-owned and operated North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association (later renamed the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company) purchased several lots along the north side of this street.9 After the insurance company’s construction of its first office building in 1905, the street soon became known as “Black Wall Street.10 This two-story brick building, also housed the Mechanics and Farmers Bank on its first floor. By around 1910, the entire north side of the block was a black business complex of two- and three- story brick buildings11 . At the start of the 20th century as many as 200 businesses including groceries, shoe stores, banks and insurance companies comprised this interconnected business sector. Scholars Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois nationally acclaimed the street as an exceptionally prosperous black middle class business sector. Perhaps the most well known black-owned businesses were the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Mechanics & Farmers Bank8 at 106 West Parrish Street, located around the north corner from Black Street Gardens. After urban renewal projects and desegregation, black-owned businesses no longer concentrated downtown.
On the south side of Parrish Street, a commemorative sculpture is located near the north entrance of the Black Wall Street Gardens and the former site of a two story building built between 1910 to 1915 and demolished between 1968 and 1973 and formally housed a shoe store, Jewelry store, Tailor and Loan company11.
Prior to 1970 and the construction of the Durham Freeway, Parrish Street businesses actually connected all the way to Fayetteville Street to the Hayti Neighborhood. ‘Urban Renewal’ displaced more than 4,000 families and 500 businesses, and the freeway cut off Hayti from what’s now considered downtown Durham12. Leaders in the community are trying to reconnect Hayti community to Black Wall Street by planning a safe walking route along Fayetteville Street to the Black Wall Street Gardens for Hayti residents.
The northwest corner of West Main Street and North Magnum Street was known as Angier Corner long before it became the south part of Black Wall Street Gardens. The first mercantile store built in Durham was located here and operated by M.A. Angier and the store and corner became known as Angier’s General Store and Angier’s Corner, respectively13.
Brick buildings replaced the wood frame structures in the 1890’s. In 1899, 102 West Main was occupied by the Haywood King drugstore. In 1906, King sold his interest in the drugstore to D. L. Boone, and the drugstore became Haywood-Boone. In 1937, Haywood and Boone sold this store to Walgreens. Walgreens operated here throughout the mid-20th century. John Schelp a local historian, who interviewed John Loudermilk, said this was the store where Loudermilk picked up a candy bar (for his East Durham girlfriend) and flowers were on sale and inspired him to write the song “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” in 195612. These buildings were demolished around 1970 by the city as part of the Federal Urban Renewal program as they were vacant for some time and the area was developed into a park.
What a better way to commemorate and beautify such an important and central part of Durham’s commercial legacy of its diverse communities’ industriousness than the planting of such beautiful long-lived trees and the promise of fall color in a park dedicated to black entrepreneurship during the Jim Crow Era.
More on Black Wall Street: