History Groves Honor Durham’s Community Leaders, Past and Present

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Andre Vann holding a photo of Dr. John Hope Franklin at a History Groves site

By Brandee Gruener  |  Photography by Beth Mann

Fourteen plaques scattered around Durham contain stories about the people who dedicated their lives to the betterment of our community. These honorary sites, known as History Groves, feature environmentalists, teachers, philanthropists, business owners and others. Some contain gardens, others a bench with a simple memorial. 

Steve Channing, local historian and documentary filmmaker, spearheaded the idea while on the board of the Museum of Durham History. He had an interest in bringing history outdoors to the public, an appropriate project for an institution that touts itself as a “museum without walls.”

 “What is the purpose of history if not to remember, as the cliche goes, ‘on whose shoulders we stand,’” Steve says. He was driven first to honor John Hope Franklin, a trailblazer in African-American studies and “just a tremendously admirable figure, a noble person.”

With the help of a Durham Parks and Recreation open trails grant, the Franklin History Grove was installed with a bench at Durham Central Park in 2012. After that, Steve considered how to honor more of the city’s leaders. It seemed appropriate to open that question up to the people of Durham.

The History Groves became a true community effort, made possible by fundraisers, landscapers and volunteers who maintain the sites. The museum continues to provide some funding and assistance with the projects.

Steve says they are working with groups that want to honor a Duke historian and a CEO of Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company. Finding open land for sites can be tough, but he’s determined to remember the people who made Durham unique. He believes the groves serve as reminders that history matters. The legacies of those who came before inspire others to continue those missions today. Here are just a few examples:

Dr. John Hope Franklin, Durham Central Park

Andre Vann’s office at N.C. Central University contains an autograph of every book Dr. John Hope Franklin ever wrote, photos, conference programs and more. You could say the history instructor and archivist is a fan.

The first time the two met, they discovered a Harvard connection. Andre’s great-great aunt ran a boarding school for black students attending Harvard University. Dr. Franklin stayed at the boarding house next door as a doctoral student and still remembered her 50 years later. The academic world for African-Americans in that time period was small and tight-knit, and earning a doctorate in history was extremely rare.

Racial tensions were high in the 1940s, but Dr. Franklin “never allowed the constraints placed on him by his race to hold him back,” Andre says. Dr. Franklin taught at N.C. Central, then called the N.C. College for Negroes, and published the seminal textbook, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans.” It was updated and used in African-American history courses for decades.

In the 1950s, Dr. Franklin went on to become the first African-American chair of an all-white faculty at Brooklyn College. He took teaching appointments around the country, participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, earned a presidential Medal of Freedom and served on a national panel on race relations.

In 1983, he returned with his wife to Durham to teach at Duke University, where the law school eventually founded the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.

Though Dr. Franklin died in 2009, Andre says his “lengthening shadow” lives on in the historians he trained. His son John Whittington Franklin is at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Many historians in African-American studies, including Andre, continue to share Dr. Franklin’s pioneering work today.

Dorothy Kitchen at Oval Park, one of the History Groves sites

Dorothy Kitchen, Oval Park

Dorothy Kitchen taught music to scores of neighbors in Watts-Hillandale over the years. Fittingly, they honored her at Oval Park with a violin bench sculpted by artist Perry Whitted and a performance by a children’s chamber group.

“I was so thrilled with that,” Dorothy says. “I thought that was such a beautiful thing.”

The growth of the Duke University String School over 50 years was another beautiful thing. Dorothy, who studied at Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and Brandeis University, formed the school with Arlene di Cecco of the Ciompi Quartet in 1967. Dorothy remained the director until retiring in 2014.

There weren’t many formal music education options for children in Durham then, so demand was high. Dorothy’s 25 students met in a campus building, though they did not officially become part of Duke until the university received a grant from A.J. Fletcher to start a program.

“Pretty soon it was 250 people,” Dorothy says. “We started with one orchestra and ended with 15.”

As the school grew, Dorothy started a music program in Durham Public Schools and taught in Haiti in the summers and at other universities. She took a group of high school students to play at the White House during Clinton’s presidency, a personal high point. Somehow the mother of two also played in three orchestras. 

Dorothy, who’s won numerous awards for her lifetime service to music, delights in seeing her students’ successes. They write from all over the world, and some have started schools of their own. Son Nick is an internationally known violinist who runs into former students. A Duke String School scholarship fund named in her honor allows more students in Durham to attend.

“Our hope was always to get people to love music,” says Dorothy, who still teaches adults in her private studio at home. “It’s kind of like a little seed that was planted and grew into a tree, and a lot of really wonderful people have gone on.”

Mark Bailey of Maureen Joy Charter School

James “Jay” Marshall Rogers Jr., Maureen Joy Charter School

Jay Rogers’ ideas about equity were formed at a time when the South was struggling with desegregation. He grew up in Durham, graduated from N.C. Central in 1962 with a history degree and was a leader in the Neighborhood Youth Corps during President Johnson’s war on poverty. After getting his master’s degree, he taught at Durham High School, one of the first all-white schools to integrate in the city. Jay made an impression, because in 1972 he became the first African-American teacher of the year at the local, state and national levels.

Jay later spent decades teaching history at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. He was instrumental in their efforts to transform into a multicultural school.

Today, Jay, who died in 2013, is honored with a bench and a plaque under a stately pine at Maureen Joy Charter School on Driver Street in East Durham. Jay’s commitment to equity and access are mirrored in Maureen Joy’s mission, says Mark Bailey, principal and executive director. “That’s what drew me to this school,” says Mark, who took the job four years ago. He was looking for a school dedicated to strong outcomes for kids and families who were underserved. “I wanted a community that wants the best for everyone and has the resources in place to make that a reality, too,” Mark says.

Bela Kussin, equity and community facilitator at Maureen Joy, also sees parallels with Jay’s commitment to students. She met him when he retired to Durham in 2004, but still traveled to train teachers on diversity. 

“He stayed connected with a lot of people because he was kind of a hero in town,” she says. “He was just a very deep intellectual. Everybody wanted to listen to what he had to say.”

Bela wishes more people knew about the History Grove.

“If we don’t keep honoring our stories and our people locally, they just disappear.”

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, Forest Hills Park

To say Mary Semans was well known around Durham is an understatement. She was the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, the first woman elected to Durham City Council, a longtime Duke University trustee and a founder of the North Carolina School for the Arts. From the civil rights era until her death in 2012, the philanthropist also was known for her interest in opening up opportunities to others.

Sherry DeVries at Forest Hills Park

The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, which she led for years, continues her work. The foundation gives grants to K-12 educational programs and arts organizations. Sherry DeVries, executive director of the Durham Arts Council, most remembers Mary for her passionate support of artists.

Mary helped found the Emerging Artists Program at the Durham Arts Council about 30 years ago. The program supported the creation of the Durham Children’s Choir and the work of jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, among hundreds of other recipients. Mary, a “dynamo” with “amazing energy,” attended their awards ceremony every year and sometimes closed the place down.

“I just loved her,” Sherry says. “She and [husband] Jim both were so enthusiastic about the arts and understood how important they were to making a community vibrant and livable.”

Mary also played a big part in the Durham Arts Council’s capital campaign to rehabilitate the old City Council building into the organization’s new headquarters and in the establishment of Duke’s art museum. The Durham Arts Council has thrived in its new home and has a second-floor gallery named in Mary’s honor. The Emerging Artists Program became a national model, and today the program also extends to surrounding counties. Mary, who is honored by a History Grove in Forest Hills, would be pleased to see her unwavering support for burgeoning artists continue.

She was very passionate about “the development of their talent,” Sherry says. 

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