Come Sit at Our Campfire

The following article by Dr. Steven A. Channing first appeared in the monthly column in the News and Observer and also in the Triangle Downtowner. The column features essays on Durham history by members of the MoDH’s History Advisory Committee. 

It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since our film February One premiered at Full Frame, Durham’s own international documentary film festival.  This came to mind when I learned that Franklin McCain, one of the famed Greensboro Four, had passed.  We helped to tell his story in that film, along with his NC A&T freshman classmates, Joe McNeill, Jibreel Khazan (then Ezell Blair) and David Richmond.  This got me thinking about how I moved from the world of academic history teaching and writing to producing documentary films.  Bear with me a moment, and you’ll see the connection to Durham and the Museum of Durham History!

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, and came to UNC-Chapel Hill in the midst of the Civil Rights movement to study the history of the South and the jangled story of African Americans.  My dissertation was entitled Crisis of Fear:  Secession in South Carolina, and I see more clearly now how the Black freedom movement influenced my thesis in that book, which was that “The War” was precipitated mainly by issues of race, maintaining the economic and social control of enslaved people, and the political use of fear to keep down and exploit a vast  and wondrous population of people from Africa.

I went on to teach at the University of Kentucky and came to write a short history of the Blue Grass State for a “States and Nation” series commemorating the Bicentennial of the American Revolution.  Somehow, my name popped up in several unexpected places, and soon I was helping to produce a mini-series for Kentucky Educational Television, hosted by the great actress and Kentucky native, Patricia Neal.

Bitten by the documentary bug, I eventually returned to Durham to re-invent myself as a documentary film producer – and marry my wife of now 30 years, Nancy Clapp!  I produced a series with UNC Television on the “Lost Colony” hosted by Andy Griffith, building and burning down Native American villages in the wilds of Orange County and such, and producing Alamance, a regional Emmy Award-winning drama on the North Carolina Regulators, farmer-rebels who helped push America into rebellion and independence.

But what I found more personally meaningful than re-enacting the past was helping to preserve stories of those who had actually made history.  Soon we were fortunate to secure the cooperation of the Greensboro Four to tell the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in story, that speaks so powerfully to the courage of young people to change the world.  I soon began a round of interviews about the unique history of Durham, resulting in our film Durham: A Self-Portrait, in which secret basketball games and the interplay of race figure prominently.

When I watch that 2007 film now – and here’s where I come full circle back to our new museum, the “History Hub” – I see half a dozen extraordinary individuals who, like Frank McCain, have now passed.  There are the great John Hope Franklin and Mary Semans, NCCU’s Alex Rivera and visionary corporate citizen and preservationist K.v. Dey.  All are now gone, but their stories and a sense of their complex and beautiful personas are preserved for us to experience, learn from and enjoy.

As a proud member of the founding board of the Museum of Durham History, I invite you to come visit, not just passively, but to share your special story. Whether you’re a third generation Durhamite, a recent newcomer retiree or an eager young entrepreneur, remember:  all history is made of human stories. The Museum has a story-saving room. Come sit at our campfire and tell yours!


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