Durham, North Carolina has always had a way of standing out as a Southern anomaly. Any outsider preconceived notion of what the South is quickly shatters upon entering the Bull City. Since its inception, far before its incorporation, Durham has had 3 things: a reputation, its own way of doing things and grit.
Some things never change.
In 1929, writer Thomas Wolfe wrote about Durham, North Carolina as a “dreary tobacco town” under the fictional name Exeter. For many years the press, followed by radio broadcasters and news stations, would go on to write scathingly biased, distorted and misreported content about Durham’s high crime rates. A cheap, easy means to sell the daily news, despite the fact the Bull City’s crime rates have been no different than neighboring, straight-laced Raleigh.
Somewhere in between all that nonsense a man named John R. Green who would straight steal the bull branding right off of Colman mustard to brand the world’s finest tobacco as Bull Durham tobacco. The famed “Father of Durham,” W.T. Blackwell would ignite Durham’s ingenious marketing fire that still burns today by taking the Bull branding concept to whole new levels. This act of Robin Hooding would prove to be the apex in Durham’s fate.
Blackwell’s building, lovingly known as the Old Bull Building, is still standing on Blackwell Street. In fact, it’s the oldest building in the Bull City built in 1874. At one point it was two stories taller and at another point, a much lower point in Durham’s history, it was covered in pink metal. Because Durham. While the top two stories were removed and thankfully the pink metal as well, Blackwell’s spirit and his impact on the Bull City remain.
It is said the city of Durham was nearly renamed Blackwell at one point, but well, Durham. Admittedly there’s some solid ideology behind renaming the city for the man who put Durham on the map as a branded tobacco empire over an alcoholic doctor with no proof of attending medical school… nor practicing medicine. The Dukes surely had the money and clout to implement it. What it came down to was being too much work – pick your battles. Durham always has and always will have better things to do.
Perhaps it was the vibe set down when the Civil War was surrendered in Durham at Bennett’s Place on April 26, 1865, but the Bull City has and continues to pick its battles choosing the side of progress for all. Putting resources into pushing the Bull Durham brand forward rather than renaming the city proved to be a wise choice that would lead to global domination of the tobacco industry, the first black millionaires, and a world renowned University.
The spirit of the bull charged through the city and in 1902 the first recorded branded bulls outside of Bull Durham Tobacco would take the field as the Durham Bulls baseball team. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? You can catch them playing the Charlotte Knights this evening. Like all Bulls games it’s sure to leave the audience with a once in a lifetime experience.
The first official recorded businesses boasting Bull City would also appear in 1902 – Bull City Tailors and Bull City Drug. Both businesses were owned by African American men. That is something Durham is rightly proud of and gave way to thriving, history changing Black Wall Street.
The same spirit of innovation that created a tobacco empire out of the ashes of the Civil War rebranded the Duke name from the tobacco that caused cancer to the one of the highest regarded medical facilities in the world, that in many cases treats said cancer. The innovation and rebranding continued as the formerly abandoned tobacco warehouses became the most expensive real estate in North Carolina as apartments, restaurants, bars and businesses.
Perhaps the reason Durham is home to the brightest minds, best medicine, awarding winning musicians, thriving creatives, and best food you’ll ever have in your life is the first world in the Bull Durham tobacco ads: Genuine. While other cities worry about getting the edges straight and the presentation ironed out for the masses, Durham has proudly and effortlessly kept it dirty.
For 148 years on record, a many more off record, Durham has made its mark on the world, all the while keeping it dirty. In the last year a Durham newcomer had the bright idea to get the story behind the bulls of Durham and create a living history book of the Bull City. She spent early mornings and weekends climbing all over the city “bull spotting,” trying to capture all the city’s bulls with her iPhone. Despite many attempts to put the idea out of her mind, the spark of creativity had ignited that special brand of Bull City innovative fire. She’d soon come to find out the locals fuel that fire rather than put it out.
She is me, Sheila Amir, writer of “The Bulls of Durham” book project and the overly-idealistic lady who thought she could complete the research for this book in a year. That foolishness stems from genuinely have no idea just how incrediBULLy collaborate, supportive and Durm Durham is.
As I learned in interviewing local hip hop innovator The Real Laww, John Lawrence, when it comes to Durham, North Carolina, check your expectations in at the city line. Laww would be the first of many to tell me, “You’re here. You’re Durham.”
Now “The Bulls of Durham” has a publisher, Swiner Publishing, and an expected release date, April 10, 2019, Durham’s 150th official anniversary as a city. The project also has a website TheBullsOfDurham.com, as well as an Instragram, Facebook and Twitter account. All because from the moment of inception this project has been, is and will always be Durham’s. This is Durham’s story. I just happen to be the woman lucky enough to be the medium it goes through.
The Instagram account launched a year ago today, August 2nd, 2016, made the project official and within less than 24 hours one of the first ‘background’ bulls Chris of Bull City Tees reached out to send me a Bull City t-shirt featuring his locally famed design of the Bull City hand sign. Southern hospitality is real y’all.
As fate would have it, Anne Niemann, owner of Bull Street Gourmet and Market on Shannon Street would be the project’s first interview. She continues to be the project’s first and biggest supporter. When she discovered that I was selling Bull Love mugs to begin funding this project, she cleared shelf space and ordered a dozen… which sold out in 5 days and continually have to be restocked.
Anne also proved to be the key to scoring an interview with her husband Tom Niemann. Tom is the impassioned, historic real estate genius behind West Village.
Up next was an interview with two more incrediBULL women, Bull City Dental owner Dr. Desiree Palmer and Dr. Audrey Kempt. Dr. Palmer would be the second woman who unlocked a hard to get interview with her husband, Michael Palmer. His interview was so profound it left me reeling, frozen in my seat at Beyu Caffe on Main Street long after he departed. I steeped in astonishment, awe and Bull City feels for a quick minute before I could stand up and walk out into the city with an entirely new perspective.
Dr. Palmer unknowingly did something else, she completely changed the project for the better, all by being her genuine self. I end every interview asking the interviewee(s) who would make a great contribution to the book. In this way Durham is organically writing its own story. If memory serves me correctly, Desiree mentioned a couple names and then said, “Make sure you call my friend Bill.” I asked what Bill did and she nonchalantly said, “He’s the Mayor.” She was telling me to call Mayor Bill Bell like it wasn’t a big deal.
Admittedly the exact wording of this wasn’t captured and the memory has been fogged up by a year of Bull City feels. There I was, not even a Durhamight for a year, and not only was I getting to write a book about the Bull City, but I was being encouraged to call up the Mayor. The Mayor.
That was a pivotal moment. The bull was out of the chute. It was at that very moment I learned not 1, not 2, but 3 Bull City truths.
1.) Not all the bulls in this city are statues, signs and in business names. In fact, the true bulls are the genuine people who move and shape this city. It was that way before Green and Blackwell inadvertently branded the Bull City and it’ll always be that way.
2.) Durham has what both Casey Steinbacher and Michael Goodmon would term in their interviews as a horizontal culture. Regardless of your income, title, ethnicity, whatever, if you’re here, genuinely here, you’re Durham. We’re all in this together to do one thing, best coined by my dear friend Angel Dozier, be dope together.
3.) It took many more months before it fully sunk in, but CEO of the Art of Cool Dr. Cicely Mitchell was there to give me a reassuring head nod and a high-five when I spoke it aloud. Women run the Bull City. Durham is cool like that. They may not be out front like Cicely Mitchell or Jesica Averhart the Director of Triangle Leadership and Co-Disruptor of Black Wall Street, but they’re there, making moves and at times, sitting their husbands down for book interviews.
This is probably the point where Dr. Nicole Swiner, my publisher, would step in and correct me to say, “We’re” here making moves. In the Bull City there is no mean girls club, no time for acting sheepish and the women take no bull. Doc Swiner has been one of the many women who have lifted me up and pushed me to step into my potential. The first woman to do that was my first Durham friend, Katelyn Belch. Known for her kind heart and capturing the je ne sais quoi of the Bull City through her website and Instagram account Best of the Bull.
That’s not to say the men, and everyone else across the gender spectrum, of Durham are to be slept on. When I did sit down for that interview with the Mayor, a man who somehow manages to show up to EVERYTHING, I learned that compassion can be a part of effective leadership. I would see that again when I interviewed Mayoral candidates Steve Schewel, Pierce Freelon, and Farad Ali.
That compassion would truly shine through Chief Magistrate Don Paschall’s interview. He’s spent his entire life in law enforcement, in Durham, and is the kindest human I’ve ever met. He was recommended to me by his also kind nephew Johnathan Paschall when I interview him and Neal Carlton of Vega Metal Works and Cricket Forge.
Another Durham Original who spent many years in law enforcement is John Morris, the General Manager of American Tobacco Campus. Despite enforcing the law during Durham’s roughest times he too remains compassionate and thoughtful. His perspective of Durham is amazing and out of the 80 interviewees for this project, he has been the only one to ask for a copy of the book. By ask I mean he told me I would give him a copy of the book. It wasn’t rude or boastful. It was a very Durham way of saying he BULLieves in me. A man, who was born, raised and went on to serve and protect Durham believes I’m aBULL to capture this city’s story. I will hand deliver the signed copy myself.
Bill Kalkhoff would be the one to teach me that what it takes to succeed in Durham is BULLieveing in an idea so big it seems impossiBULL. One of his Downtown Durham Inc. successors, Matt Gladdek, took a more humBULL approach in sharing the names of a great many people who have helped make Durham Durm in their own way.
In interviewing Richard Morgan of Morgan Imports, I learned age is nothing but a number. Mr. Morgan has better things to do with his time than getting old and it’s a task to keep up with him. Ethel Simonetti would echo this notion with her stories of all she’s done in her time in Durham. She is yet another woman who has molded and shaped this city. She also is so humBULL about it that I came to the understanding there is yet another type of bull in this city, the background bulls. These are the people who show up every day to make the city a better place for all and take no credit for it.
Bull City artist Candy Carver rides the fine line of background bull and woman upfront. She is behind much of the Durham art community. Her art and her person provoke thought and diversify the local art scene. Her interview led me to Kompleks Creative owner Tobias Rose, who is also a Co-Disruptor of Black Wall Street, and to the previously mentioned Laww. All roads in the local art community would lead back to Candy many times over, like in interviewing artist Darius Quarles who somehow finds time to make Candy’s canvases in between painting history honoring murals and diversity embracing paintings.
At this point I’m well beyond the maximum word count I set for this blog. I had a hunch I’d be waxing poetic about the Bull City for quite some time. This is all to say thank you to the incrediBULL humans of Durham for welcoming me into the fold. This project has never been a matter of who told me I couldn’t write this book. Nor has it been a matter of who said I could write it. It has been an entire city saying, “What can we do to help you make this a reality?” That’s Durham.
I’ve officially interviewed 80 Durhamights, including everyone from TJ McDermott who brought community treasure King’s Sandwich shop back to life, to Gabe Eng-Goetz and Justin Laidlaw, who’ve made Durham stylin’ with Runaway Clothing, to Leon Barrera who is opening the 3rd Cocoa Cinnamon proving that an appreciate for diversity can create a sustainaBULL business. In all of that, I’ve learned I’m halfway done with interviews.
While not all interviews will make it into the book, they have all been important in creating this project and leading to the next interview. All interviewees will get to shine as blog features on TheBullsOfDurham.com well beyond the book publication. And as I end every interview, I will end this 1 year anniversary blog with asking you, the Bull City reader, who do you think would make an excellent contribution to “The Bulls of Durham” book project?
To support the project, spread love and have some incrediBULL goodness in your life, head over to The Bulls of Durham store. Swag, love and coffee y'all.
Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.