Located at 804 Old Fayetteville Street in Durham, North Carolina, the Hayti Heritage Center (HHC) first opened to the public in 1975.  Near downtown in the historic Hayti community, the center is a celebrated cultural arts and arts education institution.  It is situated in St. Joseph AME Church, which was built in 1891, and is managed and supported by the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation (SJFH).  The opportunity for the Hayti Heritage Center to operate in this beautifully-restored church arose when the St. Joseph AME Church relocated to their new building. 

The departure of the congregation did not halt the immense regard they held for the building and they established the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation.  Incorporated in 1975, its purpose was to preserve yet modernize the building in order to be of greater cultural and civic use for the community.  The mission of the SJHF, according to its website, is “preserving and advancing the heritage and culture of historic Hayti and the African American experience through programs that benefit the broader community locally, nationally and globally.”

This mission of the foundation aligns with the historic outreach of the church, as St. Joseph AME Church has long been a pillar in the African-American community of Durham.  Its origin is traced to 1868 when Edian Markham, a formerly enslaved AME missionary, came to establish a church in Durham.  He bought land from Minerva Fowler and Brush Arbor was constructed for worship. As the church began to grow in membership, the name was changed to Union Bethel AME Church and Rev. George Hunter and Rev. Andrew Chambers served, respectively, as its pastors.  It expanded to a log church, then two more frame churches and, ultimately, a brick church.  In 1891, masons laid the cornerstone of what would be known as St. Joseph AME Church.  On it, were names, including Samuel L. Leary, of those integral in the creation of this building.  The opening ceremony was well-attended by Blacks and Whites citizens of North Carolina.

Samuel L. Leary of Philadelphia was commissioned by Blacks who had sacrificed much to have their new church home built.  Their contributions were aided by philanthropic Whites, including donations from the wealthy Duke family.  The Center’s website discusses Leary’s incredibly beautiful work, stating that St. Joseph AME Church is, “one of Durham’s more interesting vernacular examples of Victorian religious buildings.  It is reminiscent of the Richardsonian Romanesque design of the Gothic Revival from the Neo-Classical movement … The original structure of St. Joseph’s AME Church with its grand steeple and elegant stained glass windows, constructed in 1891 through the efforts of a proud and determined African American congregation and the support of local White philanthropists, has long symbolized the dignity and resolve of a people in what was once known as the most prosperous African American community in the United States.”

Many Blacks worked on the construction of the edifice and they included members of the Fitzgerald family who fired the bricks for its exterior.  They had arrived in Durham from Chester County, Pennsylvania.  The grandeur and elegance of the church, according to the HHC website, prompted African-American author, educator, leader and presidential advisor Booker T. Washington to exclaim, “Never in all my travels have I seen a church as great as St. Joseph’s!”

The placement of St. Joseph AME Church in Hayti, a community populated by primarily Blacks, was natural.  Hayti had become prosperous, like many segregated African-American communities in the United States during the early 20th century.  It offered businesses and amenities that met the needs of its residents.  From schools, doctor offices and grocery stores and to theatres, art galleries and clubs, Hayti was a bustling area for African-Americans.

However, over the next century, the Hayti community declined, much like other Black communities in America.  Racial discrimination, integration and social phenomena of “White flight” and urban blight greatly impacted Hayti, including St. Joseph AME Church.  The church still had purpose, as the website of the Hayti Heritage Center states, “The church’s stately architecture was as distinct as the community for which it was built; it exemplified the spiritual nourishment of its members and their pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the era.  The historic structure’s role in community development continues today.”

The mission and vision of the SJFH to transform its home to the Hayti Heritage Center became even more critical in honoring the Black past of Durham and celebrating its present in order to continue to design a future that is relevant and empowering.

The Hayti Heritage Center, listed as a National Historic Landmark, is a 21st century center that enlightens and engages the public.  This enlightenment and engagement of African-American culture occur via activities, programs and events.  In order to accomplish this, their outreach uses the arts to also create and promote inter- and intra-cultural understanding, appreciation and advancement.

The St. Joseph Historic Foundation and the Center are committed to their outreach and signature programs greater allow them to be successful in advancing their vision.

Called “Anchor Programs”, they are, as the HHC website states:

  • Lyda Moore Merrick Gallery Exhibitions
  • Bull Durham Blues Festival
  • African Dance and Aerobic Boxing Classes
  • Concert Series (Jazz-Rhythm & Blues-Gospel)
  • Kwanzaa Celebration
  • Afrofuturism (formerly Raise-A-Reader)
  • Jambalaya Soul Spoken Word/Poetry Slam Team
  • Tours Year Round
  • Hayti Heritage Film Festival

Also onsite at this Black cultural complex is, according to the National Performance Network website, “an acoustically flawless 400-seat Performance Hall, upper and lower galleries, classrooms, a dance emporium, a community room with kitchen, a board room and offices.”

The Hayti Heritage Center is celebrated as a site on the United States Civil Rights Trail.  It is open Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sunday, 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.  Self-guided and group tours are available. 

The HHC hosts various gatherings such as film screenings and discussions as well as community and special events.  Additionally, the facility may be rented for occasions such as conferences and private events including weddings, reunions and receptions.