The 50th anniversary of a key moment in the desegregation of Durham, North Carolina came and went largely without fanfare last month. It was in May 1963 that, amid growing racial discord in the city, Mayor Wense Grabarek prevailed upon business and community leaders, black and white alike, to cooperate in desegregating the city. The mayor was in an unusual position: having held office for less than a day when a series of sit-ins around Durham resulted in 130 arrests, Grabarek’s first task upon being sworn in was to stop a riot at the jail. Achieving this by letting supporters deliver sandwiches and cigarettes to the jailed protesters, he then turned his attention to the NAACP and CORE, who promised mass demonstrations in the wake of the arrests. Jean Anderson, in Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina, tells the story this way:
He went in person, a slight, dapper man, always with a red carnation in his lapel, to a meeting of protesters, one thousand strong, held at Saint Joseph’s A.M.E. Church. Habitually soft-spoken and immensely polite, he asked permission to enter and address them. Then, pointing out that by their demonstrations they had informed the community of their deeply felt grievances, he spoke about the danger of racial tension and division and promised to take positive steps to respond to their complaints. Finally, he asked for their support and understanding. Impressed by his coming, his tone, his words, they accepted his sincerity and promised to halt demonstrations and give the mayor time to act on his promises.
Mayor Grabarek formed the Durham Interim Committee to reconcile the community’s opposing groups, in so doing acknowledging the damage of segregation and the real possibility that Jim Crow could prevent Durham from realizing its potential, particularly given the economic promise of the newly formed Research Triangle Park. The efforts of Grabarek and of the leaders appointed to the Committee allowed Durham a degree of progress that eluded many other southern cities.
A modest man and a successful accountant who continues to work full time six days a week, Wense Grabarek is now 93 years old and eager to add his perspective to the history of Durham, the adopted hometown that called him mayor from 1963 to 1971. To this end he has donated to the Rubenstein Library a number of recorded interviews he has given since the early 2000s, as part of a larger collection of papers that he is gathering for donation later this summer. You can check out the finding aid for the interviews here.
The recordings include an interview with Steven Channing for his documentary Durham: A Self Portrait, an 8-hour conversation with author and scholar Tim Tyson detailing his work as mayor, and, presented here, with the permission of WTVD, an interview with Angela Hampton on the events of May 1963:
An oral history has been scheduled with Mr. Grabarek in July, and this time the interviewer will be the Rubenstein Library. We hope to learn more about the mayor’s life before and after the 1960s, including his experiences as a soldier in World War II and the philanthropic work he and his wife have done over the years in education.
Post contributed by Craig Breaden, Audiovisual Materials Archivist in the Technical Services Dept.
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The Devil’s Tale Archive
- Louis E. Williams papers, 1951-1971 and undated. July 28, 2014
- Jean Kilbourne papers July 23, 2014
- Williamston, N.C. Civil Rights journal, 1963 November 11-20. July 22, 2014
- Theater Three Collaborative records, 1970-2014. July 22, 2014
- Ellsa Lucile Hozman travel diary, 1913 April 29-1913 August 28. July 21, 2014
- Das veränderte Russland : in welchem die ietzige verfassung des geist- und weltlichen Regiments : der Krieges-Staat zu Lande und zu Wasser, wahre Zustand der russischen Finantzen, die geöffneten Berg-Wercke, die eingeführte Academien, Künste, Manufacturen, Verordnungen, Geschäffte mit denen asiatischen Nachbaren und Vafallen, nebst der allerneuesten Nachricht von diesen Völckern : die Begebenheiten des Czaergangene, und was sich sonst merckwürdiges in Russland zugetragen, nebst verschiedenen andern bissher unbekandten Rachrichten in einem biss 1720 gehenden Journal vorgestellet werden, mit einer accuraten Land-Carte und Kupfferstichen versehen. July 17, 2014
- L'anatomie pacifique nouvelle et curieuse : conforme à la doctrine d'Hippocrate & de Galien, qui donne les moyens d'accorder les recents avec les anciens, par des experiences nouvelles, principalement touchant les actions du coeur & des poulmons July 17, 2014
- Beytrag zur Geschichte Russlands vom Jahr 1727 bis 1744 : nebst einem Anhange über die damalige Beschaffenheit des Kriegs- des Seewesens, des Handels, der Academie &c. &c. : mit Charten und Planen : aus einer franzöisischen Handschrift. July 17, 2014
- Rhyme? and reason? July 14, 2014
- Now we are six July 14, 2014
- The Railway guide July 29, 2014
- Circular no. 19 July 29, 2014
- History of St. John's Episcopal Church, Macon County, North Carolina July 29, 2014
- Radiant Light II July 29, 2014
- Radiant Light July 29, 2014