Happy Hour with John Schelp



V&V friend and team member, Marcie Cohen Ferris, had a chat with Durham’s highly regarded community advocate and ‘unofficial’ historian, John Schelp. Read their conversation and then come hear more from John at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour event on Friday, July 19th, from 5:30 – 6:30 pm. In tribute to Durham's 150-year sesquicentennial celebration, John will introduce the fascinating history(s) of Durham and its downtown through his awesome collection of vintage Durham postcards. In August, PBS will air its new series, “Family Pictures USA,” featuring photographs from three cities, including Durham. John is the ‘street historian’ on the Bull City episode. Catch him at V&V before he becomes an even bigger star!


John Schelp

John served for fifteen years as president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. He was vice-president of the NAACP-Durham branch and the People's Alliance, as well as an early member of the Pauli Murray steering committee. He is a member of the Museum of Durham History’s advisory board, the People’s Alliance Fund, and the Mayor's Sesquicentennial Commission. He was president of the North Carolina Peace Corps Association, and he served in the Peace Corps and USAID in Congo for seven years. He was an elections observer with President Jimmy Carter in Liberia. John has worked at the National Institutes of Health for more than thirty years. He has a undergraduate degree from St. Lawrence University with a double major in Government and French and a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.






There are few individuals as passionately committed to neighborhood and community, including the value of history and diversity--in all its connotations--as you.  Tell us a little about the communities of your childhood, and what inspired your activism.


I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. As a kid growing up in the 1960s, I remember standing in my backyard and seeing the night sky glowing red and orange. Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis that day, and reverberations were felt around the country. Soon after, my mother took her three sons to Resurrection City to learn more about the Poor People's Campaign. (She also took us to President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, and on trips behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ and to China soon after these worlds opened to outsiders.)


I grew up surrounded by history. I mowed Texas Senator John Tower's lawn (the rumors of excess drink and ‘womanizing’ were true), delivered the Washington Post to Speaker of the House Carl Albert's mistress and, as a choirboy, explored the secret tunnels under the National Cathedral.





You write, “To understand Durham history is to understand the ridge.”  What is the “ridge,” and is it still visible to us today?  


When folks mention Durham's confusing streets, I say, "Follow Main Street." Many of Durham's important historic landmarks are located near the Main Street railroad track corridor: Duke hospital, West Campus, Erwin Mills, Ninth Street, East Campus, Brightleaf, Chesterfield, downtown, City Hall, banks, American Tobacco, the old Courthouse, Golden Belt, and the other cotton mills of East Durham. That's the ridge--- the high-ground that separates the Neuse River basin from the Cape Fear basin. A “ridge-spur” follows Fayetteville Street where you'll see North Carolina Central University, historic churches, the Carolina Times, many businesses, as well as larger homes along its top and smaller houses at the base of the ridge.)





Durham exists at the historical intersection of agriculture, labor, industry, and education.  Name your ‘top 5’ institutions, buildings, or historic sites that illustrate this phenomenon.


My top-5 institutions are important Durhamites who've made significant contributions to both the city’s history and that of the nation.


– Pauli Murray was Durham's patron saint and champion for civil rights. Murray sat in the whites-only section at the front of a bus years before Rosa Parks. She integrated a segregated lunch counter in Washington D.C. years before the Greensboro 4. Murray also crafted a legal strategy for the Brown v. Board of Education case for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and others who litigated to desegregate public schools. Read her powerful autobiography, Proud Shoes.


– John D Loudermilk composed the song, “Tobacco Road,” a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in Durham. Listen to Lou Rawls’ version on YouTube. Loudermilk's songs have been performed by Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Edgar Winter, the Jackson 5, and Nora Jones.


– Blind Boy Fuller & Reverend Gary Davis were fathers of the Piedmont Blues. Fuller and Davis Influenced folk artists around the world including Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Everly Brothers, and Keb’ Mo’. See the “Bull City Blues” historical marker on Fayetteville Street.


– Dr. Lucinda McCauley Harris founded Durham College in her living room at the height of segregation. Muhammad Ali dedicated the college's gymnasium---the first building in the United States named after Ali. Durham College closed after Duke and UNC were forced to accept African American students.


– Governor Terry Sanford received death threats for endorsing President John F. Kennedy in 1960. In his last day in office, Sanford announced the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was coming to a struggling RTP. Six weeks later, IBM announced they were coming, too. This one-two punch changed everything. Today, 100,000 people work in and near the Park. North Carolina transitioned from dying cotton mills and tobacco factories with the second-lowest per capita income in the country, to the economic powerhouse it is today. By bringing NIH to the state, Governor Sanford changed the course of North Carolina history.






For over fifteen years, you served as president of the dynamic Old West Durham Neighborhood Association (OWDNA) in Durham, and even created its impressive website, which includes a wealth of community resources, rich historical background on the region, and practical information for residents. A three-part question: 1) How did you come to live in west Durham, 2) Why create a neighborhood association, 3) “Diversity, Harmony, and Community” is the motto of OWDNA. That’s beautiful. How so?


– We looked at more than twenty-five houses before picking one near Ninth Street on July 4, 1993.


– In 1995, two women residents in the neighborhood were victims of racist and homophobic language. Neighbors mobilized and offered financial, legal, and moral support. One of the three perpetrators was removed from his duplex and another was indicted under North Carolina’s new hate crime statute.

This traumatic event was the spark that created the neighborhood association. Our credo reflects this early history.


Durham is vitalized by its strong, distinctive neighborhoods. How do you describe this ‘necklace of neighborhoods’ to folks who are new to the area or just visiting?


In 2003, one of the world's largest makers of cement came to town to build a new plant at the end of a residential street. We found out about it on Monday and the vote was Friday, back when we had an in-house Development Review Board (DRB). By Tuesday, we posted our three concerns on multiple neighborhood listservs; on Wednesday, reporters started calling; by Thursday, County Commissioners were talking about a temporary moratorium on cement plants. Seeing the sudden opposition, the company pulled its measure for two weeks to regroup. This gave us time to get the nearby churches involved, and that was all we needed. Two weeks later, in a packed room filled with pastors, elected officials, and neighborhood groups, the DRB voted down the measure. 


Few other cities have neighborhoods with the strong voices we celebrate here. One reason is that Durham’ town politics are not dominated by a single industry. (The cement plant site on the Eno River is now Durham's designated emergency water reservoir in times of drought.)





How would you characterize GOOD development in Durham? What is non-negotiable to you?


Everything is negotiable. No other neighborhood association has hammered out written agreements on as many large projects as Old West Durham. For example, we negotiated a compromise with Terry Sanford, Jr. to protect what's special about Ninth Street, yet allow larger development nearby. New buildings on the east side of Ninth Street can't be taller than two stories. The west side is fifty percent three-story and fifty percent four-story buildings. Instead of its typical commercial design, our Harris Teeter reflects the neighborhood with its red brick with windows and skylights. Where you see the Hilton Garden Inn, Station Nine and Berkshire Apartments today, we wanted residential options in this location instead of another shopping ‘strip’.

We also worked out set-backs and gradual step-downs to surrounding streets – and had the parking decks hidden in the middle since exposed parking decks kill street life. And we negotiated eighty-five percent brick and masonry exteriors instead of stucco and ‘hardiplank’ – so we don't have the “plastic shoebox” apartment buildings you see elsewhere in Durham.


Today, Duke has no Barnes & Noble down the street from the Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street. Duke administrators lost their attempt to get unlimited retail on Central Campus. Several historic mill houses were saved from the landfill. There are no parking decks on East Campus. And because of our negotiations, Duke's softball field and new luxury dormitory are set back from the East Campus wall.





Your famous neighborhood history walking tours (co-sponsored by the Museum of Durham History and the Sierra Club) have drawn more than 200 participants. Can you share one or two of your favorite sites? Factoids we wish we knew, too!?


– The Ark on East Campus was built from the old grandstand at Blackwell Park back when horse racing was king. The college played and lost their first basketball game in the Ark -- and, as an American Dance Festival student, Madonna took dance lessons here.


– The old Sears & Roebuck house on Rosehill Avenue was the parsonage for the West Durham Church of God. After years of protesting the sale of liquor on Ninth Street, the church on Hillsborough Road was torn down and replaced by an ABC Store.



And, as it is Happy Hour, your no-fail-choice of libation for Durham’s best block party?


Anything cold on the roof of the Durham Hotel, especially a Gin & Tonic.