Housed in the Nationally Historic St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Hayti Heritage Center opened its doors in 1975 and since that time it’s been a cultural hub for the African American community with diverse arts programs and events for everyone to enjoy throughout the year.
But six years back, when Angela Lee joined the Center as Executive Director, the vibrancy of this iconic and historic space was at a crossroads.
“People thought we had closed or were preparing to close,” Lee said. “The community played an enormous part in keeping it alive, fortunately the city of Durham provided support and people advocated for Hayti to stay in place because of the value of the institution.”
Because of the dedication of residents, funders, and the staff at Hayti Heritage Center, the organization is now thriving.
“We pride ourselves on bringing different arts and artists (performing or visual) into this space,” Lee said. “Because of our history as an activist organization, we try to bring in groups with convenings and meetings around community topics. We are a cultural arts organization and historical space with a rich history that is tasked with advancing and promoting not only the heritage of this community, but also with promoting and advancing the African American experience through arts.”
Lee credits the ambitious success of the organization in part because of funding from LANE (Leveraging a Network for Equity), a 4-year opportunity through membership in the National Performance Network. Currently in the second year of this initiative, they receive consulting and financial capacity building support, and Lee says it has afforded them the opportunity to brand and promote the center, and create a clear vision for the future of Hayti.
“It’s really exciting to have gone from – how do we keep the doors open – to creating a real shared vision for this organization,” she said. “We get to think about what’s next, and what we want to strategically see for the future of Hayti and the neighborhood. That’s pretty inspirational to me.”
And when she thinks about the future of the neighborhood and of Durham, Lee says you can’t help but think about progress and how important it is to be a part of the planning.
“A part of what we’re intent on doing is keeping the history infused in the future,” she said. “Not all change is good but change is a part of life and necessary. We can’t always predict what that will look like, so it’s incumbent upon me to make sure that Hayti stays informed and plays an active role in the change in Durham.”
“Durham was great before it was great. We had it all – entertainment, science, technology,” Lee remarked. “We want to help this community, the part of downtown that was cut off by the Durham Freeway half a century ago, thrive. And like a phoenix, we want it to rise.”
Hayti Heritage Center is proud of their work in building partnerships in the region, with organizations like Extraterrestrial Projects, the Durham Symphony, NC Central Arts and Sciences, the Durham County Library, Playmakers, Raleigh Little Theatre, and the Museum of Durham History, to name a few.
“These types of relationships are so important ,” Lee said. “When you have limited capacity in terms of manpower it makes it so much easier and more possible because you can combine your resources.”
But what is Hayti Heritage Center really known for? The exciting and fun programs they put on, bringing those with a love of the arts into this vibrant community.
Each year, the center hosts a significant number of events, including WIMMIN at Work, a Blues Festival, a Kwanzaa Festival, and most famously, their film festival in February, now in its 26th year, which engages the entire Durham community.
“It has really been amazing to continue this important festival for our city,” Lee said. “It’s a wonderful three days that’s more than just showing films – we engage everyone – for example, on opening night, the NC Central drum line walked everyone in and kicked things off.”
Involving local spoken word artists, and a vocal jazz ensemble alongside a visual montage of historic Durham was only a small part of the festivities. The center also opened a dialogue with filmmakers and funders, discussing funding projects and what’s needed.
“[The Festival] is our signature event,” Lee said. “It has bloomed and elevated. We want to make it the premier film festival for Black Filmmakers in the south – and we’re on our way.”
Learn more about Fund for the Triangle, and our Arts Programs here. Join us in creating a thriving arts culture in the region!