by Rachel Fraade, Duke senior

I’ve done a lot of driving in the past six weeks. My gas tank is constantly emptying itself, fuel seemingly sucked dry by the hot asphalt of a North Carolina summer. I-40 and I-85 have become familiar routes, replete with my own personal landmarks and punctuated by cities and towns I keep meaning to visit. I try (and often fail) to commit to memory the names of counties I pass through, creating a mental map of the state.

What hidden history lies in this street name?

What hidden history lies in this street name?

Chatham County is west of Wake County and north of Lee County, which is north of Harnett County… it goes on and on. Those I interview mention far-off counties as familial homes and sites of organizing efforts, and I am continually reminded of my newcomer status. My New England upbringing may seem long ago, warped as my sense of time is by youth, but three years is just passing through to most people. In fact, many of us at Duke are just passing through. And I pass through cities and counties nearly every day, ignorant to the places where people make their lives.

After returning home from a longer drive, I often open my computer to see all of the places I drove past. I pull up a map of North Carolina counties and a map of cities, mentally pairing the two images up. I’ve long loved maps. I’m fascinated by the transferal of a community – living, breathing humans with their own businesses, schools, and homes – into a tiny dot on a flat piece of paper. I want to know where I’ve been, and what that means. Each city, each town, has a history and an equally vibrant present. When browsing books this week, I came across Jean Bradley Anderson’s Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina spanning over 600 pages. There are 100 counties in North Carolina – the seventh most in the nation, despite its average size. Granted, Durham may hold more major historical events than certain counties in North Carolina, but perhaps it doesn’t. After all, who decides what counties are worthy of having their histories recorded? Standard history is a victor’s game, which almost always means a wealthy white man’s game. Though perhaps not as grand, family histories are just as poignant – and, similarly to oral histories, often provide a people’s lens into apparently sweeping phenomena. Either way, imagine the thousands of pages that could be dedicated to a county-by-county history of North Carolina.

Unlike the sterile suburb in which I was raised, many of the streets that I’ve driven after are named after – and represent – this history. I recently drove down Barbecue Church Road, a name that so amused me that I pulled over my car to take a photograph of the street sign. Upon reaching the end of the road, I realized that it was not a quaint combination of Southern standbys, but rather the name of a historic church that still sat there. In that same day, I drove past a street titled Wagon Wheel, a name at which I couldn’t resist smiling a little. I found myself scanning the names of street signs as I drove past, searching for – and often finding – distinct names that reminded me that I was in rural North Carolina.

But on that same day, I passed streets called Cherokee and Papoose, the lone reminder of those displaced and murdered to make room for white colonists’ ventures. I drove down streets named after past inhabitants of the area, dubbed with the first and last names of men – and only men. These intrigued me the most. These men must have been influential, I thought. Who were they? And then, jarringly, I realized that the same rural North Carolina of charmingly named streets is also the North Carolina of streets named after men, likely white men. Financial donations are one of the quickest ways of acquiring influence, and the capital to provide these gifts is often passed down and multiplied through generations. Given that the wealthiest families in the south were slaveholders for generations, it is not unreasonable to infer that some of these streets must be named after men whose wealth came from slavery.

This is hardly a rural phenomenon. Back in May, I attended Historic Stagville’s Freedom 150 celebration. Stagville, located on the outskirts of Durham, is a historic site containing the remains of the Bennehan-Cameron plantation. Sitting in an educational panel, I was shocked to learn that the Cameron name is not one of a university coach or simply a wealthy family as I had always assumed. The Camerons, who gave my beloved Cameron Indoor Stadium its name, were slave owners. The money that they donated to Duke, the money that has spread their name across streets, towns, and communities in North Carolina, was slave money. It was, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently put it, money born of plunder – plunder “of bodies… of labor… of families.” This plunder peaked during slavery, but hardly ended there. The Duke family earned their fortune from a massive tobacco company, the production of which required exploitative labor both in the field and the factories. The robber barons of 19th-century America, similarly to the Dukes and the Camerons, donated massive amounts money to institutions of higher learning. These philanthropic ventures, from which I certainly benefit today, funded white, wealthy institutions of learning. The money for these undertakings and the labor required to bring them to fruition came at the expense of low-income workers, usually workers of color.

It’s not as though this doesn’t exist in the North, but it’s more easily erased. Magnates and factory owners are often remembered as entrepreneurs and bootstrappers, absolved of their role in exploitative labor systems. We forget that plantations were not the only sites of plunder in our nation’s history, incomparable though their horrors may have been. It’s far easier to act as though the South is the epicenter of American racism than to acknowledge the way that white supremacy permeates every crevice of our country. It’s more comforting to pretend that my hometown is 95% white by happenstance, rather than through conscious urban planning designed to facilitate white flight from cities. But just because the streets of my childhood were named after trees and plants rather than the descendants of slaveholders does not mean we are any less complicit in the racism that runs rampant through the nation.

As graduation looms, I’ve been thinking about what it means to call a place home. I came to North Carolina for Duke and nothing more, but over the course of the past three years have fallen in love with its complexities. Wandering downtown Durham makes for a fun afternoon, and the food is delicious, but that’s not what draws me in. Throughout Durham and North Carolina, the history and tension of the struggle for justice are palpable. I’m aware of how little I know of Durham and North Carolina; I am constantly reminded that I am from far away, and that I am indelibly shaped by where I’m from. But it is my firm belief that to live somewhere, to call it home even for four years, means we must do our utmost to understand that place. This means reading, listening, and driving, all the while understanding that we are far from the first to see what we see. It means taking the lead from those who have called these communities home long before we ever thought of arriving.

North Carolina is a state filled with messy contradictions, just like the rest of the world. Our lives and communities are only linear when we view them as dots on a map, zooming out until we lose sight of the details. When I look at maps of counties and of cities, I see a lot of names, many of which don’t mean much to me yet. These places have their own ponds and forests, their own bookstores and supermarkets, homes filled with families and schools filled with children. They have a past and present rife with discrimination, combatted by those who have joined together to work towards justice. There are streets and communities named after slave owners across the state, but there are also streets named for Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t yet live in a world where the names of white supremacists have been stripped of their honor, but that’s why the activists I interview keep working. That’s why I keep working. And for good measure, there’s always Barbecue Church Road.

 

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