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Durham Academy junior Julia King has lived in the Durham area nearly her entire life. But it wasn’t until this fall — while taking a deep dive into the city’s past through a new Upper School history elective — that she began to truly know Durham.
She came to understand the indelible impact of the 900 slaves who once toiled at Stagville plantation, just 20 minutes from DA. She learned that the tiny railroad stop of Durham really got on the map after the Civil War, when soldiers raved about the tobacco they sampled while encamped here. She discovered that the sit-in movement of the 1960s has its roots in a lesser-known sit-in at Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Parlor in 1957.
“This is the place where you are growing up and where a lot of your memories and earliest experiences are going to be shaped, so I think everyone should take it,” King said of the new History of Durham course. “I think that it’s just so important to know the place that you're in, and know the history of it, and how you fit into that history, and how you can make the history that we’re all creating now better.”
The course, taught by Dr. Rob Policelli, is structured as a research seminar and is split into two halves: the first is filled with guest speakers and field trips, and the second is concentrated on student research projects. The course is a step toward two goals of DA’s 2015 Strategic Plan: more interdisciplinary opportunities and a school more connected to Durham.
The nine guests who visited at the beginning of the semester brought a range of areas of expertise and perspectives on the Bull City’s past and present. Tom Magnuson of the Trading Path Association spoke about how people traveled to the area that would become Durham in the 17th and 18th centuries and their interactions with Native Americans. DA alumnus and parent David Beischer ’85 spoke about Durham history from the perspective of the Watts-Hill family, from whom the Beischers are descended. Fellow DA parent Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, director of El Centro Hispano, spoke about Durham from the perspective of recent Latino immigrants to the city.
Isaac Green — father of a DA alumna and great-grandson of Dr. James E. Shepard, who founded what is now known as N.C. Central University — spoke to students about the geographic challenges that led to North Carolina being settled from the north and south in, rather than from the east in.
“Most of the major cities of any age are along major rivers. South Carolina has the great port of Charleston, Virginia has the great port of Richmond, but in North Carolina, we have the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic,’ ” he explained. “We don’t have good shipping from our rivers out into the coast because of the Outer Banks.”
Until the late 1800s, rail service was very limited, so plantations needed access to water for shipping. The state was primarily home to “small farms and dirt farmers” until South Carolinians and Virginians began to push in and establish plantations in North Carolina, Green told the students. Among the largest of those plantations was Stagville, the remnants of which the History of Durham class visited early in the semester. The field trip was at the center of a study on slavery and historical memory, as well as the plantation’s connections with the foundation and early growth of Durham.
Other field trips included jaunts to downtown Durham — during one of which, the Upper Schoolers created video content for an iBook that second-graders later used on their annual field trip to downtown — and visits to Duke University’s Rubenstein Library and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library, where they were introduced to historical materials relating to Durham history and taught how to use archives and special collections.
In the second half of the semester, students were directed to dive into those archives and interview people who have lived through history as they work on research projects.
“That kind of off-campus research is new for DA, and I think it's fair to say that they're doing the work of real historians,” Policelli said. “This is what historians do: They figure out a question or a problem that hasn't been fully answered and then they go to the archives. Especially when we went to Duke, I think it clicked for the students that they were doing history like a historian. Some of the old maps they were poring over and these really old books — I think when you actually touch these sources, it's exciting for them.”
King wasn’t sure what she wanted to focus her research project on until she stumbled upon a treasure trove in the Rubenstein Library — surveys that Durham County high school seniors took in 1955. They were asked about their socioeconomic status, their parents’ education levels and their plans for the future. Her research aims to better understand the systemic relationship that may have existed between socioeconomic status and education in Durham in the past — and to explore whether those factors are still at play today.
“It's great, because [the surveys were] just a completely accidental find,” she said. “There are like 1,500 pieces of paper from 1955. It's so cool. It's people's handwriting. It's wild.”
Senior Tatum Teer-Barutio was interested in taking the History of Durham course because of her family’s deep roots in the city. It was in Durham that her great-great grandfather started his construction business, Nello L. Teer Company, and it grew into one of the largest construction companies in the world.
“My grandfather wrote a book on my family's history in Durham and my great-great grandfather's construction company here, so I knew what the book told me, which was just specific to my family,” she explained. “But broader than that, I didn't know a lot about Durham history.”
Teer-Barutio’s research project is focused on Durham’s economic booms and busts dating back to the early 1800s and how those changes have affected restaurants — specifically how restaurants have led to the revitalization of downtown Durham’s Five Points area.
“I would have no idea how to access the Duke and UNC libraries or understand what is possible through them if it weren’t for this class,” she said. “And I know that you get that in college, but there are only seven of us in the class and you get a very one-on-one experience learning how to research, which is a very valuable skill.”
For Policelli, a primary goal of the History of Durham course is getting students comfortable with the idea of working with primary sources. Gesturing toward a bookcase filled with books focused on the city and North Carolina more generally, he said there’s a need for more such titles.
“There's a lot of Durham history that has not been written about, and that's another opportunity I saw in this kind of course — that the students are actually writing genuinely scholarly research papers. They're not just summarizing knowledge that's out there, they're doing research and creating new knowledge. They're writing about topics that haven't necessarily been written about, at least not in the way that they're writing about them or with the approach that they're taking.”