Tobacco Warehouses: Memories of Tobacco in Durham

My father says the scent of curing tobacco would often waft through the classrooms of Durham High School when he was a student in the late 1960s. The school was situated between several tobacco warehouses, so it is unsurprising that the classrooms were often filled with the sweet scent. Over thirty years after my father left Durham High, I attended high school in the very same building. Although it is now called Durham School of the Arts, its former name can still be seen through fading paint if one looked for it. By the time I began school, the smell of tobacco had long vanished from Durham, but the warehouses remained. Their massive frames dominated the neighborhood with regal shades of red and geometric brick adornments. I walked alongside the warehouses on my way to school each morning. I took shortcuts through the brick labyrinth that separated the high school and my afternoon job. Growing up in downtown Durham, the old tobacco warehouses were not remnants of a dying industry that had once made the city prosperous. They were the city itself.

Though the smell of curing tobacco has disappeared from Durham, the buildings have lingered, loaning themselves to new purposes while still maintaining their proud exterior. They became apartments, shops, restaurants, and businesses. Their insides have been gutted and their outsides polished, yet despite all the changes, their character remains intact. Historic exteriors stand like monuments to days when names like “Bull Durham” and “Lucky Strike” were famous worldwide. The warehouses preserve within them a unique history and culture that epitomizes what it is that makes Durham southern.

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The former Durham High School, now Durham School of the arts

The history of the South is tightly bound to its agricultural traditions and even today, its culture cannot be separated from these origins. Durham is no exception. The city is home to the Stagville plantation, once one of the largest in the South with 30,000 acres and 900 enslaved people.[1] Slave labor was a huge source of income for the antebellum South–one that came at an incredibly steep price. For the people of the South, the painful legacy of slavery lingered long after the Civil War in the form of segregation and racism. As industrialization swept the world, the Southern agricultural tradition segued into the manufacturing of crops such as cotton and tobacco where there was much money to be made.

The name Duke is undeniably the most famous name in Durham. From the university to the hospitals to the power grid, the Duke name has become almost synonymous with Durham itself. It all began when Confederate soldier Washington Duke returned home from Union imprisonment in 1865 following the end of the Civil War. Despite the challenges of the Reconstruction South, Duke was determined to find success in the tobacco business. He sold off parts of his farm and began to invest in the production of smoking tobacco. His business, W. Duke & Sons, grew quickly in the following decades, becoming the largest cigarette manufacturer in the nation.[2] The firm absorbed its competitors (including fellow Durham manufacturer W. T. Blackwell of Bull Durham fame) to become The American Tobacco Company.[3]

Just as Duke’s tobacco empire grew, so did the city of Durham. With their increasing fortune, the Duke family began investing in the community. Their explorations into hydroelectric power resulted in Duke Energy, which is today the largest electric power holding company in the United States. Their investments in Trinity College, later renamed Duke University, gave rise to the Duke University Health System–considered one of the best health care systems in America–and helped earn Durham the nickname “City of Medicine.” Durham takes pride in its role in “one of America’s greatest entrepreneurial success stories.”[4] The preservation of the tobacco warehouses reveals the city’s dedication to maintaining and expressing its role in that southern memory. In a city built upon the tobacco legacy, the warehouses stand as reminders of Durham’s origins.

But the tobacco warehouses themselves are more than a reminder of history, they are an actual piece of it: material culture seamlessly integrated into the present.

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Old things find new life in both this sculpture at Durham School of the Arts and in the warehouses behind it

Their bricks still bare hand-painted advertisements from generations passed like whispers of another era. Though the paint may be faded, the Durham tobacco murals still shine bright with a rose-colored remembrance of the past. Many Durhamites today reflect positively on Durham’s historic tobacco glory, adopting images from the warehouses onto clothing and stickers such as “sustain-a-bull” and other campaigns which bare the old Bull Durham tobacco logo. Such images are proxies for an imagined picture of Durham’s tobacco industry that often ignores its darker side: racist advertising, the cancerous effects of its products, and a history of labor exploitation. The ideas these murals recall are part of a quintessentially Southern imaginary: glorifying the South’s plantation roots while ignoring divisive racial issues and downplaying the role of slavery and exploitation in creating success for the wealthy minority.

Beyond the maintenance of southern imaginaries and the preservation of southern memory, Durham’s tobacco warehouses epitomize a southern identity in another way, one that looks more towards the future than the past. Though it is impossible to undo the injustice upon which the South was built, it is possible to grow upon these foundations in a positive direction towards a brighter future for the South. The revitalization of Durham’s tobacco warehouses perfectly demonstrate this potential for positive growth.  The warehouses that now house thriving restaurants and businesses were not so long ago empty and abandoned after the tobacco industry’s steep decline. I still sometimes feel a twinge of shock when I see how vibrant the dilapidated buildings of my childhood have become.

Building on foundations of a far from perfect history, the South has the potential to thrive through a new direction of growth, a potential that Durham has already begun to embody through its former tobacco warehouses.

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The “brick labyrinth” between Durham’s old and new

Among the new businesses that have found homes in the old tobacco warehouses is the American Underground, a campus for startup businesses and entrepreneurs. Thanks to developments like these, Durham has begun to emerge as a thriving tech hub, recently attracting attention as a future home for Google Fiber. Durham is not imitating other major tech hubs, it is blending the emerging tech culture into an existing southern dialogue. The branding scheme of the American Underground is reminiscent of Durham’s tobacco “glory days,” featuring a silhouette of the tobacco warehouses and the iconic Lucky Strike tower. Instead of being replaced, ideas of Southern industry and the South itself are being reimagined in a shifting cultural context. The entrepreneurs working in the American Underground today share the same entrepreneurial spirit of Washington Duke, a spirit through which the city itself blossomed. Building on foundations of a far from perfect history, the South has the potential to thrive through a new direction of growth, a potential that Durham has already begun to embody through its former tobacco warehouses.

In his last year of high school, my father was transferred from the all-white Durham High to a historically black high school across town. His last year of high school was the Durham school system’s first year of racial integration. Today, the students at my former high school are 41% black, 34% white, and 17% Hispanic.[5] The faded smell of tobacco is not the only thing that has changed about Durham between my father’s childhood and my own. Though my father and I both spent our youths walking among the very same tobacco warehouses, the South in which we each grew up is very different. For my father, the tobacco warehouses meant the sweet smell of curing tobacco in his afternoon classes. For me, they represent much more. Durham’s tobacco warehouses are reminders of not only the history of the South, but also its future. They epitomize what it is to be southern: conscious of a complicated past and capable of great change. It is this example to which I look as the South perseveres in its ongoing struggle to overcome wounds of the past in the hope of building a brighter future.

Krista Katzenmeyer

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[1] “History,” Visit Stagville State Historic Site, Historic Stagville Foundation, 2014, accessed April 21, 2015, http://www.stagville.org/history/.

[2] Robert F. Durden, “W. Duke Sons and Company,” NCPedia, 2006, accessed September 3, 2015, http://ncpedia.org/w-duke-sons-and-company.

[3] Robert W. Carter, Jr., “American Tobacco Company,” NCPedia, 2006, accessed April 21, 2015, http://ncpedia.org/american-tobacco-company.

[4] “History,” American Tobacco History, 2013. Accessed April 21, 2015, http://www.americantobaccohistoricdistrict.com/about/1/history.

[5] “Durham School Of The Arts,” U.S.News & World Report, 2012, Accessed April 21, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/north-carolina/districts/durham-public-schools/durham-school-of-the-arts-14395/student-body.