Most recently updated on September 5, 2021
Originally posted on April 6, 2021
We’ll get a good look today at North Carolina’s past and future before we bunk down in the heart of the Confederacy.
This center slice of North Carolina along today’s virtual route features towns that are trying to reinvent themselves as the industries that built their communities fade into the past.
Out of Charlotte, we take Interstate 85 north through the smaller towns in this portion of the state.
The region was first settled by Europeans around 1760. Land grants were passed out to those willing to set up camp in this undeveloped area.
The pioneers were early resistors of British authority. In the late 1760s, they formed a group known as the Regulators to protest what they felt was high taxation from the colony’s British governor. The largest was a group of 300 organized by Benjamin Merrill. By 1771, that band had caused enough trouble that British authorities set a legion of 1,500 soldiers. Merrill and 12 others were captured. They were tried for treason. On June 19, 1771, Merrill and five others were hanged.
The executions didn’t intimidate the Regulators. They continued their guerilla warfare. In 1775, they defiantly named their town in honor of Lexington, Massachusetts, in recognition of the famous early Revolutionary War skirmish there. The Regulators spirit is remembered today with a historic marker dedicated to Merrill in Court Square.
Initially, Lexington grew slowly with less than 100 residents listed in the 1810 census.
Things picked up in 1839 with the opening of the Silver Hill mine, the first such operation in the country. During the Civil War, the mine produced lead for the Confederate war effort.
A downward trend in textiles started in the 1970s. Most factories closed their doors by the early 1990s.
Lexington Home Brands began operations in 1901 and was the city’s largest furniture maker for decades. Other firms, including Lexington Chair, Hoover Chair and United Furniture, also had factories in town. The furniture industry started to get squeezed in the 1990s, so efforts were made to diversify the economy.
Some of that change can be seen in the tobacco fields that surround Lexington.
North Carolina still produces the most tobacco of any state with Kentucky being a distant second. However, as smoking decreases in the United States, that yield is dropping. Tobacco production decreased by more than a third from 2017 to 2019. Tobacco land is being plowed under and converted to sweet potatoes, pears, strawberries, blueberries and, in particular, vineyards.
One of the largest is the Childress Vineyards, established in 2004 by NASCAR race team owner Richard Childress. His 70-acre winery is the gateway to Yadkin Valley, which became North Carolina’s first federally recognized American Viticultural Area in 2003. The state had 21 wineries in 2000. It now has more than 200.
Changes in Lexington’s economy are needed.
The community has an annual median income of $32,000, well below the state average of $57,000. A home costs an average of about $113,000 and the poverty rate hovers at 27 percent. It’s 31 percent for the Black community, which makes up almost a third of Lexington’s population.
One industry that remains a staple is barbecue foods. Lexington calls itself the “Barbecue Capital of the World.” It has 19 barbecue restaurants, one for every 1,000 residents. That’s the highest per capita rate of any city in the world.
The specialty of Lexington-style barbecue is pulled pork shoulder slowly cooked over a hardwood fire with a vinegar-based sauce. Most barbecue sandwiches here are served with a side of Lexington-style red slaw.
The city began hosting the Lexington Barbecue Festival in October in 1984. The event draws 200,000 visitors in a typical year. The festival was cancelled in 2020 and in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is scheduled to return in October 2022.
The barbecue industry inspired an annual art project that began in 2003. The Pigs in the City event takes place every year from May to October. Donors pay artists a $1,000 fee as well as a commission to decorate fiberglass pigs that are then placed throughout the downtown area. The pig sculptures are sold at the end of October. The project is designed to publicize the city’s barbecue restaurants.
The topic returns to furniture as we continue to head northeast through North Carolina.
The community was established in 1852 and named after its founder, State Senator John Thomas. A few years later, the railroad arrived with a depot being built in 1870. The refurbished structure remains the state’s oldest surviving railroad depot.
The furniture industry began to accelerate in 1866 when residents started making chairs from their homes. Standard Chair opened a factory in 1898. It was followed by Cramer Furniture, which began operations here in 1901. Thomasville Chair soon followed in 1904.
Textile mills and hosiery production factories joined in the town’s manufacturing mix.
During World War Two, the local furniture industry received a boost from the federal government with orders for everything from Army bunk beds to tent stakes.
During the 1990s, Thomasville Chair had 11 factories in town and employed half of the city’s workforce.
The downfall came quickly. The first series of layoffs were announced in 2001 when imports cut into the nation’s furniture business. Thomasville Chair closed it last two plants in 2014. It still manufactures furniture, but most of that is done in other countries. The company still operates a showroom on Main Street.
The furniture industry is still remembered in Thomasville. The town is home to the Big Chair, a 30-foot landmark with a 10-foot seat. It’s noted as the world’s largest Duncan Phyfe chair. It was built of concrete and steel in 1948 and placed on a granite pedestal in the town square in 1951. Senator Lyndon Johnson sat in the chair during the 1960 presidential campaign.
Another landmark in Thomasville is the city cemetery, which is believed to be the only cemetery in the country where Union and Confederate soldiers were buried in a common grave.
The city also hosts the “Everybody’s Day Festival” in September. The event started in 1908 as a way to bring every sector of the community together. It’s now the oldest street festival in North Carolina. In a typical year, the festival brings in 15,000 to 20,000 visitors. It’s scheduled for September 25 this year.
Furniture is still the prime topic as you head another 15 minutes up the road.
The area was settled around 1750 by English Quakers. It was laid out in 1853 and incorporated in 1859. It was given its name because it was the high point on the North Carolina Railroad between Charlotte and Goldsboro.
The railroad established High Point as a place to deliver and transport raw materials such as cotton and lumber as well as finished products. The most important early industries were textiles, woodwork and tobacco.
The furniture industry got rolling in the late 1800s. High Point Furniture Manufacturing Company was formed in 1889. By 1900, there were more than 40 furniture companies in town.
In 1905, the first North Carolina furniture exposition was held in High Point. In 1921, the 10-story Southern Furniture Exhibition hall was built.
During World War Two, 60 percent of the country’s furniture was built within a 150-mile radius of High Point.
As happened in Thomasville, the local furniture manufacturing industry began to decline in the 1990s due to competition from foreign companies.
High Point is trying to inject some high-tech magic into its furniture manufacturing sector.
One of the key components is Plant 7, a center that will offer working space to designers looking to revitalize furniture making by using smart technology. Construction began on the offices in 2019 and the initial opening was held in November 2020. The facility is in a refurbished 98,000-square-foot, 100-year-old former hosiery factory. The Plant houses offices, restaurants and a space called The Generator, which contains 11 pieces of high-tech manufacturing equipment that most small companies can’t access.
Plant 7 resides in Congdon Yards, a $30 million complex created by the Chamber of Commerce in 2016 to provide the downtown area with office and meeting space as well as a creative center. Besides Plant 7, Congdon is also home to The Factory and Stickley Furniture. The High Point Community Foundation also moved into the complex a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the furniture sales industry is still alive in High Point.
The city is host to the semiannual High Point Market furniture show that is usually held in April and October. More than 75,000 visitors from around the world come to the 12 million square feet of show space in 180 buildings to see what the 2,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries have to offer in furniture products. The event is the largest home furnishings industry trade show in the world. The spring 2020 show was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a 9-day version of the fall show was held in mid-October. The spring edition returned in early June. This year’s fall show will be from October 16-20.
The semiannual furniture show has prompted High Point to re-label itself as the “Home Furnishings Capital of the World.”
Not to be outdone by Thomasville’s Big Chair, the city of High Point boasts the “World’s Largest Chest of Drawers.” The 40-foot-high structure has two socks hanging out of a drawer as a nod to the city’s hosiery industry. It was built in 1926 and then remodeled in 1996. The chest is actually the front of an office building. It was purchased in 2018 for $157,000 by a museum that plans to use it for offices, meeting rooms and community events. A children’s museum is also planned near the chest of drawers.
The other prime industry in town belongs to Thomas Built Buses. The company has been in operation in High Point since 1916. The firm was initially a street car manufacturer, but in 1936 it switched to school buses. It’s estimated that one in three school buses on the road today is a Thomas Built. In 2018, Thomas Built laid off 115 of its workers, but it remains the largest manufacturer of school buses in North America with 1,500 employees.
You wouldn’t necessarily think of High Point as a poor place. Its $48,000 median annual household income is only slight below the state average. Its 15 percent poverty rate doesn’t cry out either.
However, the city and the surrounding region do struggle with the issue of hunger.
Two studies done in 2015 and 2016 listed the High Point-Greensboro area as having the highest level of food hardship in the country. One study noted that about one-quarter of High Point households were “food insecure.”
The reports stated that hunger wasn’t spread across all of High Point. Certain neighborhoods and demographic groups were harder hit as were a sizable percentage of senior citizens.
In the midst of the reports, the Greater High Point Food Alliance was formed. At a Food Summit that year, the alliance members laid out 90-day plans as well as 32 goals. The strategy of the group is to empower activists to make change, to unify the community around its program and to help people become self-sustaining instead of relying on charity organizations.
Three major food pantries are helping to stem the tide of hunger in High Point.
One of the big factors in the city’s hunger problem is its pockets of poverty. A 2019 analysis focused on five lower-income housing tracts in High Point. It noted that 30 percent of children in the community are considered poor. Black and Hispanic households were also twice as likely to be poor as white households.
High Point is by no means the only place in the United States where hunger is an issue.
A November 2020 report in the Washington Post noted that 26 million American adults, about 12 percent of our nation’s citizens, say they don’t get enough to eat in a given week. That number rises to 25 percent for people who are out of work and have children at home. The report stated the COVID-19 pandemic had driven hunger levels to heights not seen since the federal government began collecting data in 1998.
Hunger is pretty much everywhere from high-income suburbs to rural towns to inner cities. Many times, especially in upper echelon communities, the problem is hidden.
We look more in depth at the issue in a Hunger in America Spotlight story on this website.
Before we leave High Point, we make note of a famous hometown musician.
John Coltrane, the renowned jazz saxophone player, and his family moved to High Point when he was infant. Coltrane grew up in the city and attended William Penn High School, where he began playing the saxophone.
We leave behind the furniture industry as we head east on Highway 85 into North Carolina’s agricultural territory where growers are replacing their fading tobacco fortunes by cultivating a product that until recently wasn’t even legal.
In its 2014 farm bill, Congress approved a plan to allow states to start pilot programs to grow and market industrial hemp, a plant in the cannabis family that since 1937 had been lumped in with marijuana by the federal government and was therefore considered illegal.
In 2018, another farm bill legalized the production of hemp as an agricultural commodity and removed it from a list of controlled substances. It also allowed the product to be transported across state lines.
Industrial hemp has been used worldwide for thousands of products, including clothing, shoes, tents, sails and even parachutes. Native Americans grew hemp for its strength and durability. They used it to make thread, cords and other items. Recently, hemp has grown in popularity due to its ability to produce cannabidiol.
So far, 47 states have approved programs to regulate hemp production and license growers.
The North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association was formed to promote the industry. It is now part of the Southeast Hemp Association, a collective of 650 members from seven states.
In addition, a pilot program for hemp cultivation was started by North Carolina State University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University under the guidance of the state Department of Agriculture.
A number of North Carolina farmers seem willing to give hemp a try.
As of December 2019, North Carolina was the sixth highest state in terms of licenses for hemp cultivation with 396 licenses. Tennessee had the most with 2,913 licenses. Oregon was next with 2,534 licenses.
North Carolina is listed as eighth when it came to hemp acreage with 16,433 acres licensed. Colorado has the most with more than 40,000 acres. Arizona is second with 34,000 acres.
One of North Carolina farmers who have converted acreage to hemp is Waylon Saunders on the family’s 200-acre farm near Asheboro, about a half-hour south of High Point. Saunders and his father planted a half-acre of hemp in 2017 and then upped it to 5 acres in 2018.
They work through Founder’s Hemp, a company in Asheboro that produces hemp products and sells them on their website and retail stores. In 2018, Founder’s had 10 farmers under contract to grow hemp on a total of 35 acres in this region. Saunders is now director of farming operations for the organization.
Civil Rights, Polio and Junk Mail
Highway 85 gets you back onto Interstate 85 east and in less than a half-hour after departing from High Point you reach the city of Greensboro.
In the 1960s, Greensboro was a flash point for civil rights protest. It also has an interesting history that includes the Underground Railroad, Vicks VapoRub, polio and denim.
Members of the Saura and Keyauwee tribes occupied this region for centuries. The first European settlers were Quakers of Welsh and English descent as well as German and Scotch-Irish immigrants who arrived around 1740.
Following the Revolutionary War, the settlement was named after Major General Nathanael Greene, whose troops battled the forces of British Lt. General Charles Cornwallis in the 1781 Battle of Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro. The confrontation was one of the largest in a series of skirmishes between the soldiers of Greene and Cornwallis in which the British suffered heavy losses. The British were eventually forced to retreat to the sea. The depletion of British troops is listed as one of the factors that led to the British surrender seven months later in the decisive battle at Yorktown, Virginia, that ended up being the final major battle of the Revolutionary War.
Greensboro was founded in 1808. The first textile mill opened in 1828.
During the first half of the 1800s, the Quakers in this region helped form the nation’s first Underground Railroad, the secret system in which white citizens opposed to slavery helped runaway slaves escape to “free states” in the North. It was illegal to assist slaves in these journeys, so the Quakers and others faced fines and even jail.
In the Greensboro area, cousins Levi and Vestal Coffin were among those who helped. They established a system that provided hidden shelters for fugitive slaves as well as assistance in their travels to Northern states and even Canada. It’s estimated Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine, helped more than 2,000 fugitives escape to freedom.
The first documented escapee to use the Underground Railroad was John Dimery who was escorted to safety in 1819. In 2019, a commemoration was held in Greensboro on the 200th anniversary of Dimery’s escape.
There are other cities along our 60-day journey that were also prominent in the Underground Railroad. We will discuss them later in the coming weeks.
Greensboro began to grow in the 1840s and 1850s as it developed into a railroad stop. It was known as “Gate City” for its ability to transport goods to and from the area’s cotton textile mills. Among them was the Mount Hecla Mill, the state’s first steam-powered mill that operated from 1834 to 1850.
In the late 1800s, Northern investors built large textile mills in Greensboro and the city expanded. In 1891, there were 16 manufacturing plants in the city with 60 trains coming through every day. The factories included lumber, furniture and metal facilities, but the city was still considered a textile center, eventually producing overalls, flannel and denim. Greensboro, in fact, was once home to Cone Mills, the world’s largest producer of denim.
The Vicks Chemical Company was founded here in 1905 after Lunsford Richardson invented Vicks VapoRub, initially called Vicks Salve, in his Greensboro drug store. The product quickly grew in popularity as a remedy for “croup” and other chest-related ailments. Demand for Vicks VapoRub soared during the flu pandemic of 1918.
As part of his operation, Richardson convinced the U.S. Post Office to allow him to do a mass mailing of his advertising circular to “boxholders” at specific addresses. For that accomplishment, Richardson earned the perhaps dubious title of the “father of junk mail.”
The Vicks company grew rapidly. It was eventually bought up and its operations were moved out of state.
During World War Two, Greensboro was home to several industries vital to the U.S. military. One of them was a petroleum tank farm. The citizens were wary that they might be the target of an enemy attack, so they went inside their homes after sunset and closed their curtains to dim their indoor lights.
In summer 1948, Greensboro suffered from one of the highest outbreaks of polio in the country. The town’s residents banded together to build a “polio hospital” at Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital. The facility treated polio patients until 1958 when the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk curbed the viral epidemic.
The civil rights era exploded in Greensboro in February 1960 when four Black college students from North Carolina A&T University staged a sit-in at a lunch counter in the F. W. Woolworth’s department store downtown, a place that refused to serve Black patrons even those who had purchased products at the store. These four students had bought toothpaste and kept the receipt to prove they were customers. Nonetheless, waitresses refused to bring the four students the cups of coffee they had ordered. The students were asked to leave, but instead they quietly sat on their stools. The restaurant closed early that day.
Two days later, 60 students engaged in sit-ins at Woolworth and the nearby Kress department store. A few days later, more sit-ins, which included white protesters, spread to cities throughout North Carolina. The demonstrations against segregation continued, crossing into other Southern states. In July, the two Greensboro stores agreed to integrate their lunch counters. The success inspired a series of similar protests in 54 cities in nine states.
The Woolworth store is now the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Among the exhibits is the original lunch counter and stools. A monument called the “Greensboro Four” was dedicated in 2002 at the A&T campus.
Protests against discriminatory practices by Greensboro businesses continued in 1962. The segregated establishments included hamburger stands, stores and theaters. Demonstrations were held regularly over the next year and reached a high point in May 1963. Hundreds of protesters engaged in acts of civil disobedience over two days. More than 700 were arrested, most of them students.
Four days later, 2,000 African-Americans of all ages marched through the streets. A few days after that, more than 1,600 white Greensboro residents placed an ad in the local newspaper expressing their support for the integration of businesses.
In early June, a series of marches were held in downtown Greensboro. They were led by Jesse Jackson, then a student at A&T University. The mayor proceeded to tell businesses they needed to end their discriminatory practices. One by one, stores, restaurants and other establishments opened their doors to all races. By September, 40 percent of Greensboro businesses were integrated. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act the following year, all businesses were compelled to comply.
In the early 1960s, there was also segregation in the healthcare industry. Many hospitals in North Carolina would not treat Black patients. Most African-Americans had to seek medical care at crowded all-Black facilities. That changed in 1963 when a federal appeals court ruled in Simson vs. Cone that separate but equal hospital practices were unconstitutional. The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 1962 by Black doctors and their patients against Moses H. Cole Memorial Hospital and Wesley Long Community Hospital in Greensboro.
Another civil rights protest happened in May 1969 when students at James B. Dudley High School became angered because the administration wouldn’t let Claude Barnes run for student body president due to his membership in what officials considered “Black power” groups. Students from AT&T joined the high schools in protest, throwing rocks at police in the process.
The National Guard was called in, but the protests continued. At point, African-American students attacked white motorists, dragging several from their cars and beating them. On the A&T campus, gunfire was exchanged between troops and protesters. One student was shot and killed.
In the aftermath, the federal troops searched dormitories at the college and took some students into custody before releasing back to college officials. The demonstrations died down in the days following.
Finally, in November 1979, members of the Communist Workers Party held an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in Greensboro. Neo-Nazi counter-demonstrators showed up. The two groups exchanged gunfire, resulting in the deaths of five Communist Party members. The event became known as the Greensboro Massacre.
In 1980, an all-white jury acquitted nine KKK members in the incident. In 1985, the families of those killed sued. A jury found five police officers and two others liable. They were ordered to pay a total of $400,000 in damages. A historical marker now sits at the site of the clash.
Since the 1970s, Greensboro had seen an influx of refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia as well as from west Africa and Latin America. There are now an estimated 65,000 immigrants and refugees who speak 118 different languages living in the Greensboro area.
The textile industry and its related businesses remained a center of Greensboro economy until 2000. The industry shrank after the turn of the century as companies moved overseas or went bankrupt.
Nonetheless, textiles and manufacturing still remain a part of the local economy as does tobacco. ITG Brands, the third largest cigarette company in the country, has its headquarters in Greensboro. ITG’s products include Winston, Kool and Salem cigarettes.
Greensboro is also known as “Tournament Town” due to its large number of sports facilities. The city has been the host of the men and women’s Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) basketball tournaments as well as the PGA Wyndham Championship and the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The Greensboro Coliseum Complex is one of the biggest employers in the city.
Among Greensboro’s famous citizens is short story author William Sidney Porter, better known as O Henry, and broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, who was born in the Greensboro area and grew up in Washington state.
Out of Greensboro, Interstate 85 merges with Interstate 40, our companion from the first day of our trip as well as our journey through Oklahoma and Arkansas.
We head due east through the middle of North Carolina, first passing the Alamance Battleground State Historic Site.
This memorial commemorates the Battle of Alamance in May 1771 where British troops clashed with local frontiersmen. They were part of the Regulators, the defiant band of pioneers we discussed in Lexington.
The historic site includes two granite monuments dedicated to the “first battle of the revolution” as well as historic battlefield markers and artifacts such as a powder horn used by one of the Regulators.
The town started out as a trading center even though in 1851 town commissioners rejected a plan to bring the North Carolina Railroad by the County Courthouse due to concerns over smoke and noise.
In 1881, the Scott and Donnell Mill was built, the first such facility in Graham. It was later renamed the Oneida Cotton Mills. The mill closed in 1994. In 2015, plans were initiated to build 134 loft apartments on the 7-acre site. In 2017, the first tenants moved into the Oneida Mill Lofts.
The economy today consists of the hosiery, plastics, electronics and metal works.
The lynching occurred in 1870. Wyatt Outlaw, a former slave who fought on the Union side in the Civil War, was the town’s first African-American commissioner and constable. The White Brotherhood, a local supremacist group, was upset that Outlaw had started a chapter of the Union League, a group that critics said advocated violence against whites.
On February 26, 1870, more than 50 White Brotherhood members rode into town at night. They knocked down the front door of Outlaw’s home with axes. They dragged Outlaw from the house while his 6-year-old son screamed and hanged him from an elm tree.
Graham still struggles with some racial inequities.
The town is 50 percent white, 28 percent Black and 18 percent Hispanic. Its median annual household income is $42,000 and the poverty rate is listed as 26 percent. It’s 44 percent for Black residents and 33 percent for Hispanic/Latino residents.
This week there is debate in town over the hiring of a new police officer.
The Stop Killing Us Solutions Campaign has filed a civil rights complaint with federal justice officials. The complaint was lodged against the Graham Police Department for the hiring last month of officer Doug Strader.
The complaint states that Strader was one of several Greensboro Police officers involved in a 2018 incident in which a man was restrained and died while in police custody.
The Greensboro News & Record reported in early April that Strader was terminated from the Greensboro Police Department in September after firing his gun at a vehicle being driven away from a crime scene. In an earlier press release, Graham police officials said Strader was hired after passing a strict background check.
About 100 protesters gathered in early April in Graham to demonstrate against the hiring.
Tobacco, Research and Bullish Baseball
About 45 minutes after leaving Greensboro, Interstate 40 branches off again and Interstate 85 takes you into the city of Durham.
This is a city built on tobacco, rejuvenated by the energy industry and made famous on the big screen by a minor league baseball team.
The Eno and the Occaneechi tribes originally lived in this region. They helped established the Great Trading Path, one of a number of trail systems used by Native Americans that connected villages. These paths were later used by European traders to transport goods between settlements.
European explorers first arrived in the 1700s. One of them, John Lawson, described the beauty of the region as “the flower of the Carolinas.” English, Scot and Irish settlers set down stakes in the mid-1700s. They built grist mills and farmed.
The city was known in the 1800s for its mild flavored tobacco. It became quite popular, ironically, because of the Civil War.
The Durham area was where Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered nearly 90,000 soldiers to General William T. Sherman, effectively ending Civil War hostilities. Union soldiers who stayed in the region after the surrender discovered the mild tobacco. They liked it so much that when they returned home, they sent away for the product.
The tobacco industry flourished in the decades after the Civil War.
The first tobacco factory was opened in 1854 by R.F. Morris. The Blackwell Tobacco Company was formed soon after. It created the Bull Durham cigarette brand. The cigarette boxes eventually included baseball cards and the company advertised at baseball games.
In 1874, Washington Duke built a tobacco factory on two acres in town. In the 1880s, his son, James B. Duke, installed a new mechanized system that rolled cigarettes much more quickly than human operators. The automation proved to be a big success.
In 1890, James Duke and his sons merged their company with four competitors to form the American Tobacco Company. By 1906, the new company had secured four-fifths of the country’s non-cigar tobacco market. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that American Tobacco had to be split up. One of the spinoff companies was R.J. Reynolds.
Textiles were another major industry in the late 1800s. That business began to expand in the region in the early 1900s after the Southern Power Company, which was renamed Duke Power in 1924 and later Duke Energy, used funds from the Duke family’s tobacco fortunes to bring in hydroelectric power from dams along the Catawba River in South Carolina. The abundance of electricity helped establish the first mill to make denim as well as the world’s largest hosiery factory.
Duke Power became one of the early adapters of nuclear energy. In 1997, Duke Power and PanEnergy merged to become Duke Power. In recent years, Duke has branched into other areas such as natural gas and expanded operations into the Midwest. The firm made news late last week when it named as one of 55 companies that paid $0 in federal income taxes last year.
The tobacco and textile industries began to decline in the 1930s. The old tobacco buildings are now part of the American Tobacco Historic District and have been converted into restaurants, shops and loft apartments.
As tobacco and textiles faded, Durham developed into a major research center.
It began when an organization dedicated to building the Research Triangle Park was formed in 1959. The initial idea was to use the research capabilities of the region’s three major colleges – Duke University in Durham, North Carolina State University in nearby Raleigh and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It was envisioned as a place where educators, researchers and business leaders could collaborate.
In 1962, the research center opened with the U.S. Forest Service as its initial tenant. In 1965, IBM and other clients announced they’d be moving in.
Since then, companies and institutions representing health services, pharmaceutical sciences, informational technology, microelectronics, biotechnology and environmental sciences have set up shop.
North Carolina Central University has joined the original three colleges as a partner.
The Durham center operates in conjunction with research facilities in nearby Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
The Research Triangle now occupies 7,000 acres in a corridor two miles wide by eight miles long. It houses more than 170 research and development companies, including Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as nearly 50,000 employees and contract workers. It’s the world’s largest university-related research center.
Some of the technologies that have come out of the complex are the universal product code, 3D ultrasound technology and Astroturf. In addition, the anti-cancer drug Taxol was developed here as was the HIV drug AZT.
Before the success of the research triangle, a thriving African-American community emerged in Durham in the 1920s after Blacks migrated to the town to work in the tobacco industry. Businesses and banks were located along Parish Street in what was known as the Hayti district. The district was called “Black Wall Street,” like the neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The district began to fade in the 1950s as businesses and residents moved to other parts of town. A historic marker sits along Parish Street today.
The success of the Black business community didn’t do much to integrate the city. Durham was actually the site of the first lunch counter sit-in. It happened in 1957, three years before the catalyst protest in Greensboro.
The target of the Durham sit-in was the Royal Ice Cream Parlor, which had one door on Dowd Street labeled “white only” and another door on Roxboro Street labeled “colored.” The white entrance had a seating area while people coming through the Black entrance had to stand and eat.
On June 23, 1957, seven African-American men and women entered Royal Ice Cream through the “Black door” but went to the white section and sat at the counter. They were arrested for trespassing and eventually convicted by an all-white jury. They were fined $10 each plus court costs. They appealed their conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.
A boycott by the Black community of Royal Ice Cream continued into the early 1960s.
The Durham sit-in was cited as motivation by protesters in Greensboro and other towns. A historical marker now sits at the site of the ice cream parlor.
From tobacco to textiles to research, the local economy has prompted growth in Durham throughout its history.
It also looks like the city will finally get a Publix grocery store. The Florida-based chain announced in spring 2021 it plans to build a food store and pharmacy near the Research Triangle headquarters. The 45,000-square-foot facility will employ 150 people when it opens. Publix had tried to get approval for a store in 2017, but the City Council rejected the proposal.
Durham has its quaint side, too.
The Duke Lemur Center is the world’s largest sanctuary for these types of primates. The complex opened in 1966 and now has 240 animals across 17 species. The center hosts an annual Lemurpalooza where visitors bring blankets and picnic lunches.
There’s also The Scrap Exchange, the country’s largest nonprofit creative art reuse center. The center receives more than 26,000 donations in a typical year that bring in 850 tons of reusable materials. The purpose is to make recycled items available in art projects and other endeavors.
Finally, there’s the minor league baseball team. The 1988 film “Bull Durham” was based on the Carolina League team here. The character “Crash” Davis played by Kevin Costner was based on second baseman Lawrence “Crash” Davis, who was a member of the Durham Bulls in 1948.
Today, the Durham Bulls are a Triple A squad in the International League and play their games at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, a centerpiece brick stadium opened in 1995. Their season usually begins in April, but minor league baseball teams started play this year four weeks later due to COVID-19 pandemic safety protocols. The team has had a successful 2021 season. In early September, the first place Bulls had a record of 68-38.
Out of Durham, we head northeast on Interstate 85.
After nearly an hour, you reach the border with Virginia. It’s another hour and a half before you enter the state capital of Richmond.
That’s where we rest on this 18th day of the virtual journey.
There’s plenty of Civil War and other U.S. history to discuss in this state known as Old Dominion.
But we’ll wait until Day 19 to lay it all out.
Today, it was all about North Carolina.
Tomorrow, it’s nothing but Virginia.