Q&A: Angela Lee on Durham's Enduring Arts Center in a Former AME Church
Angela Lee grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, thinking of nearby Durham as “the big city.” Now she serves as executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham’s historically Black Hayti neighborhood. Created in 1975 in a former church, the center provides arts programming for the community while preserving the memories of Hayti’s rich past. In 2021, it received a $75,000 grant from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. We recently spoke with Lee.
What is the history of the building and the neighborhood?
The brick-and-mortar building opened in 1891 as St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by an AME missionary and former slave, Edian Markham, and his wife. It had a foundation laid by Black masons, with materials from a Black-owned brick company.
At the time, Durham was very much a segregated city. The Civil War was over, but Jim Crow laws were in place. The church was part of a district, Hayti, that included Durham’s Black Wall Street, the economic hub of the city’s Black community. It had everything from banks to housing to hotels. There were civic organizations, schools, hair salons, barbershops, Lincoln Hospital. Everything anyone needed to live and work was in the district of Hayti.
Out of all the businesses and homes in the neighborhood that were leveled during urban renewal to make way for a highway, the last remaining structure is the Hayti Heritage Center. When all these buildings were being bulldozed [in the 1960s], people in the community felt like, “No, this is too special a building. We’re going to fight for this one.”
Residents teamed with other people in Durham. They went to the city and said, “You cannot have this.” It was spared.
How did the heritage center come about?
[The group that saved the building] formed a nonprofit and named it the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation. The goal was for the building to continue to be an anchor and cultural hub in Durham’s Black community.
They raised money to fix up the building; the sanctuary was renovated into a performance hall and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1975, the Hayti Heritage Center opened.
How has the center weathered the COVID-19 pandemic?
We had to close our doors [temporarily] in 2020, but we have not skipped a beat. For 27 years we have had our Hayti Heritage Film Festival. We had to decide whether to do it in 2021, and we went for it. We did it virtually, and it was very successful. We streamed it in three countries and 23 states around the country.
We’ve had drive-in movie screenings and moved our poetry slam and African dance programs outdoors. We were able to get grants that have allowed us to continue operations. We’re like the little engine that could.
What are the preservation plans for the building?
Our historic pews and solid wood doors have a lot of age on them. Our 22 stained-glass windows are beautiful, but eight have begun to buckle because of weather damage. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant is an opportunity for us to take care of these things, and also to repair the slate roof. The restoration work will start this spring.
What are you looking forward to at the Hayti Heritage Center?
Our resident house band is the North Carolina Jazz Ensemble. They’ve performed together for over 40 years and have annually performed at Hayti, pre-COVID. It’s not very often anymore that you can go somewhere and be treated to a live, big-band jazz performance. They’re phenomenal. I can’t wait for them to come back and to have all of this wonderful big-band sound coming out of our stage.
Also, the Durham Symphony Orchestra has been around for 46 years. Their maestro, William Henry Curry, is wonderfully gifted and loves to infuse stories into the music. He is one of only [a few] African American classical conductors in the country. They started performing at Hayti about five years ago, and one week before they were supposed to perform here in 2020, we had to shut down. We have a rescheduled date for this April.
Our goal with all our programming is to not just have stories, but to TELL stories and not have those stories told for us. So [future] generations that we don’t even know about yet will know the stories.
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