Ascendant Durham Draws on Diversity

North Carolina city's unusual attitude on race highlighted in this week's election.

One candidate in this week's race for mayor of Durham was black, liberal, and a veteran of the city's political circles. The other was a white, conservative businessman with an office in the suburbs.

In most cities across the South - and many in the nation - a campaign between such starkly different candidates might have devolved into a grisly fight with strong racial undercurrents.

But Durham - as a city slogan says - is different.

Voters in this comeback Southern city were treated to one of the most dignified and issue-oriented races in the country.

"This year the political climate has changed, and candidates are having to address the issues that are affecting Durham's people," says Ken Spaulding, president of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, one of four local groups that power the city's vibrant political scene.

The race provides a glimpse into how this city of 154,000 - home to Duke University and the minor-league baseball team made famous by the movie "Bull Durham" - has developed a reputation as a dynamic, forward-thinking enclave. Indeed, it is one of a cluster of mid-size Southern cities - from Louisville, Ky., to Jacksonville, Fla., - that have slowly transformed from depressed and racially tense towns to communities that are successfully managing economic growth, sparking cultural development, and engaging citizens of all races.

"This is a city where the much-talked about 'marketplace of ideas' really lives," says the Rev. Carl Kenney II, senior minister of the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church. "There's a respect that allows for conversation to be had."

Of course all those voices can - and frequently have - created more cacophony than harmony. The road to racial inclusion has not been smooth.

Until recently, Durham was seen by neighbors as severely polarized - nearly stagnated by fighting among the four political groups. "The joke has always been that if you wanted to get something done in [nearby] Raleigh or Chapel Hill, you spoke to five people and that was the end of it," says Sylvia Kerckhoff, Durham's popular outgoing mayor. "In Durham, you have to convince 50 people, and even then it might not get done."

The latest evidence of divisions caused by having so many voices was the school board's choice in February of a school superintendent.

Tensions over the decision go back to the 1992 union of the wealthy, majority-white county school system with the poor and almost-totally black city system. The move - which aimed to head off legal challenges on the basis of inequities - has been viewed as positive. But it was a painful process - typified by the tough choice of a new leader.

The candidates were a white woman from a rural North Carolina county and a black man who was an inner-city superintendent from St. Louis. The school board split along racial lines. And Ann Denlinger stepped this school year into a still-simmering community.

In fact, the racially tinged process prompted Durham's leaders to admit that black-white tensions needed further healing.

This reassessment spawned one of the most positive steps the city may have made in decades - and one that holds lessons for other cities as President Clinton urges dialogue to deal with race problems in America.

In August, Mr. Spaulding and David Smith, the leaders of Durham's two most powerful - and distant - political groups signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" calling for an end to race as an ingredient in politics and the beginning of a series of race-based discussions.

"I think people, black and white, are sick of race and the problems that it causes," says Mr. Smith, head of the Friends of Durham, a largely white, conservative political group. "In politics, especially, race keeps getting in the way. We need to be talking about economics and not race."

History of tolerance

The ability to strike such a conciliatory deal may well be rooted in the city's history of wealth and vibrant culture not only in white society, but among black citizens too. In the 1920s, Durham was a tobacco and textile-manufacturing town. These industries discriminated less than others in the South, spawning a thriving middle- and upper-class black population in the city.

As long ago as 1898, when blacks began the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., the city has seen active participation by black organizations.

Today, North Carolina Mutual is the nation's largest black-owned insurance firm and ranks among the top 10 percent of all US insurance companies. The city, with its 50-percent black, 50-percent white population, is home to 37 black millionaires - more than any other Southern city except Atlanta, whose population is 20 times Durham's.

That same diversity is evident in the city's cultural scene as well. Not only is it home to the American Dance Festival - America's premier modern dance event, there is also the Hayti Heritage Center, which encourages the growth of black artists.

Hand in hand with the Durham Arts Council goes the Bull Durham Blues Festival, celebrating the Duke Ellingtons and Benny Goodmans who once hawked their harmonies outside the city's tobacco warehouses.

Races grow together

This history of success among both races helped set the stage for growth that benefitted most citizens when the region's economy began racing in the 1980s.

As high-tech firms flooded the area, Durham begin recharging its fading downtown. The city's new ballpark and a refurbished theater draw diverse audiences.

As Nick Tennyson, the new white mayor steps in, observers say he will be able to preserve the gains Durham has made and focus on reducing crime, managing growth, and bringing the city together even more - a task perhaps tougher than anticipated as voting on Tuesday split largely along racial lines.

He recognizes diversity as the city's strength. "What is it that Mao said about the flowers? 10,000 flowers? We let them bloom here," he says. "It can frustrate, but it's also a lot better than having everything be just one species of rose. The way we have it, you've got a much more interesting garden."


* Population: 154,000

* Unemployment rate: 2.4 percent

* Nearly 1 in 3 citizens is employed in the health industry.

* Home to the American Dance Festival - America's premier modern-dance event.

* Home to the Durham Bulls - made famous in the movie "Bull Durham."

* Home to Duke University and John Hope Franklin, one of America's preeminent scholars on race.

* Headquarters of the largest black-owned insurance firm in the US - North Carolina Mutual.

* Fortune magazine named Raleigh-Durham among America's top-five best cities to do business in.

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