WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Durham NC – The New South

By Fern L. Nesson

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

In 1939, the North Carolina Guide unflinchingly described the plight of Blacks in the state. Twenty-nine percent of North Carolina’s population was Black, down from 50 percent before the Civil War.

The decline was no mystery; in the decades after the Civil War, Blacks fled North Carolina in great numbers to find better jobs and to escape segregation and discrimination. 

The Guide describes the extent of discrimination in matter-of-fact but compelling, unvarnished terms:  In 1938, there were 30 public hospitals for whites in the state, only 11 for Blacks. Tuberculosis and malaria were rife among Blacks and their death rate almost twice that of whites. Much of the difference was due to death in childbirth, since most Black women had no access to doctors when giving birth.

Most Black farmers were sharecroppers with no possibility of owning the land they farmed.  In the cities, Blacks might find jobs as domestics, tradespersons in their own communities, teachers in Black schools, but only at the lowest rung of employees in the larger, better-paying factories. “In the textile plants, they do only sweeping, cleaning and freight-handling.”  A not-insignificant proportion of whites were unionized in the factories and trades; Black unions were non-existent.

All across the state, segregation was complete and strictly enforced:

“The races are separated in motion picture houses, restaurants, hotels and … libraries. There are separate coaches on trains, separate waiting rooms in bus and train stations…. Buses and streetcars assign the Negroes seats in the rear.”

Schools were segregated and, while “white schools were inadequate; Negro schools lagged far behind them.” Less than half of the teachers in Black schools were college graduates and over 30% of Blacks in the state were illiterate.

Blacks could not vote. “Participation in civic affairs such as office holding, policing and jury service is practically nonexistent”. Churches were segregated as well. “The color line has divided all the churches since emancipation.” 

While it maintained strict segregation, Durham was a bright spot for Blacks in the state, offering economic advancement that was unavailable in other cities and rural areas. In large part, the enormous demand for workers by the tobacco industry provided that opportunity.

American Tobacco, the world’s largest tobacco company, dominated the town’s center, its economy and its cultural institutions. Organized by James B, Duke in 1890, American Tobacco “established Durham as the world’s tobacco capital, manufactured one-fourth of all of the tobacco products in the country and the wealth that James Duke amassed was so great that he endowed $80,000,000 to establish Duke Unversity,” several large hospitals, and formed the Duke Power company which provided water power and electricity to all of central and western parts of the state.

Employment in the American Tobacco enterprises provided a stepping-stone for Blacks to advance economically and Durham’s downtown became the locus of a growing number of Black-owned businesses careering to Black customers and neighborhoods. In particular, Parrish Street, in the center of town, came to be known as the “The Black Wall street.” 

The Guide reports: 

“Notable in Durham is the status of the Negro population. The Negroes have a college and operate businesses including banks, a large insurance company, schools, newspapers, a library, and a hospital. [They] own land [worth] $4,000,000 and businesses [worth] 7,000,000.

The North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company [is] the largest Negro Insurance Company in the world, operating in eight states and employing 1267 persons.”

Visiting Durham today, it is wonderful to see that these landmarks are preserved, marked with respect and, in the case of the American Tobacco property, converted in to a thriving residential, business and entertainment center in the heart of the city.

Here’s how the American Tobacco mill was described in the Guide: 

“The American Tobacco Company plant manufactures Bull Durham smoking tobacco, Lucky Strike, and some 35 other brands of cigarettes. It employs about 2,500 persons. The Plant manufactures 5,000,000 Lucky Strike cigarettes per hour. 

The air of Durham is permeated by the pungent scent of tobacco from the stemmeries and the sweetish odor of tonka bean used in cigarette manufacture. From 9 to 5 o’clock Durham’s streets reflect the activity of its [mills]. Then the hoarse bellow of the bull whistle at the American Tobacco factory reverberates over the town…. The iron gates of the factory yards are flung wide and an army of workers pours forth, — men and women, white and [Black]. Buses and trucks, heavily laden, rumble along thoroughfares. For an hour or two the streets are alive with the hurry and noise of a big city. Them the bustle subsides and calm is resumed.”

( American Tobacco Factory Buildings)

The American Tobacco Company is no more, having closed some of its divisions and sold the rest to R.J. Reynolds. But its Durham campus has been completely transformed in a truly interesting way. 

The old factory buildings are now upscale condominiums and offices, with their original features highlighted as interesting aspects of the new spaces.

         The iconic old outdoor landmarks—the Lucky Strike water tower and smokestack, the railroad delivery system, the water power channels have all been preserved as design features of an interesting and quite beautiful outdoor recreation space. Even old advertising signs (like the original “Bull Durham” billboard) have been preserved as art. 

The complex now houses restaurants, outdoor cafes, human-sized chess boards with cigarette- themed pieces, health clubs, the WUNC public radio station, theatres, microbreweries, art galleries and Burt’s Bees.  

Surrounding and harmonizing with this extraordinary panoply are DPAC, a performing arts center featuring Broadway shows and concerts and a new baseball stadium, home to the Durham Bulls.

What could have become the centerpiece of a ghost town has become the engine for a revival for the entire downtown. 

Most heartening to see is the respect that remains for Durham’s history, especially the extraordinary history of its Black population.  Black Wall street looks almost as it did in 1939, with the Mechanics and Farmers Bank and the North Carolina Mutual Insurance building preserved in its original form. 

The Bank is still operates in the building but the insurance company now occupies in a much larger modern building one-half mile away. 

A skyscraper, housing expensive new condominiums opened in early 20219 but, with respect for Parrish Street’s history, it, that building designed its storefronts in the 1930’s architectural styles that surrounds it. 

The city is determinedly modern (and its downtown streets are lively and no longer deserted at night) but it honors its past. We could all learn from Durham’s example.