Aaron McDuffie Moore: The Black Wall Street savant

The discovery of Black America is an ongoing research project. Every February seems to bring out an unearthing treasure trove of untold Black stories. Familiar stories get a re-birth with differently told narratives.

The unfamiliar break new ground in the storytelling business. The cluster of stories about the Black experience breathes life into the past and the present to a group of people still in search of identification and reconciliation.

The discovery of untold stories of Black heroes and Black heroines probably number in the hundreds, if not thousands. The month of February, better known as Black History Month or the celebration of Black history, usually provides more insight into those overlooked and brushed aside tales.

“I think outrage is a fine word that Black History, particularly the history of the Reconstruction Era and particularly the history of families who were land-owning with these pre-dating the nation on land in this nation, were not front and center or at least covered in my own very excellent education,” author Blake Hill-Saya said in a telephone interview.

“Even as a mixed-race woman, I continue to be moved to action and moved to study by the tremendous anemia of the presence of Black stories, especially Black success stories surrounding this period of time in our frequent lexicon, in our nation’s narrative, in our definitions of what great Americans are,” Hill-Saya also stated.

The extraordinary life of Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore is one of those stories that have been inexplicably slightly hidden from sight. In other words, while Moore is known to historic scholars and in the academic arena, his name does not roll off the tongues of laymen the way a Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would.

Looking for Black Wall Street

But thanks to roughly seven years of doing painstaking research and writing, Hill-Saya has put together a 223-page biography (not including bibliography and index) about Moore, the chief architect of Durham, North Carolina’s Black Wall Street.

“What is special about Dr. Moore is that he was not only a product of an incredibly precise window of time that happened post-Civil War and through early Re-Construction in which many things were possible for a young Black male of that time to take advantage of and then that window closed rather quickly behind him.

“And so maybe two, maybe three generations got through that window,” Hill-Saya added. “And then he spent the rest of his life trying to retroactively open that window just a crack to let one more generation through to the kind of education and opportunity that he knew was possible because he kind of got through that window really almost as an accident of birth more than anything else.”

Moore fit the description of a mover and shaker. He was born to do more than just exist. Moore’s calling was helping Black people see the best in themselves through the channels of education and economic empowerment.

Born around the time of the Reconstruction Era, Moore helped turn a four-block neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina into the original Black Wall Street. The other Black Wall Street-Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, piggy-backed off of the Durham model of Black economic success.

Durham’s version of Black Wall Street set the standard of a thriving Black middle-class in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Both eras represented Black social progress. Greenwood kicked off its roots in 1906. Greenwood would flourish until the Tusla Massacre in 1921, desecrated the highly populated Black township.

Building and Forging a Legacy

In the case of Durham being dubbed “The Capital of the Black Middle-Class,” segregation, as it did in Greenwood, helped the Black community thrive and become self-sufficient. Durham’s Hayti District, which Moore founded along with John Merrick, James Shepard, and Charles Clinton Spaulding, was at the center of this Black hub.

A life insurance company was formed. A hospital was built. A library was erected. Schools were constructed. Businesses were established. But the fate of the Hayti District is reflective of what usually happens to largely minority neighborhoods in America: gentrification.

In other words, the urban renewal process suffocated Durham’s Hayti District of its Black residents as it became a victim of desegregation when the Civil Rights Movement went into full effect.

“Greenwood in Tulsa came much later,” Hill-Saya said. “Greenwood was a much more of a commercial district. They definitely played up the commercial area a little bit more like a Black Beverly Hills. I would say that Durham’s Hayti was a bit more understated by design. I think that they learned the lessons of Wilmington (North Carolina) which came before it.

“The Wilmington coup (insurrection) which is in everybody’s minds quite a bit of late, having been one of the more successful coups on American soil,” Hill-Saya also stated. “So Wilmington happened in 1898, and that was right about the time that Durham was starting to get its feet under it and build a fairly prosperous Black middle-class. They earned a lot of lessons from the Wilmington disaster that made them both and made sure that they were interdependent and mutually beneficial enterprises between the races that made them safe.”

Author Blake Hill-Saya all smiles about her new book, "Aaron McDuffie Moore. Courtesy photo
Author Blake Hill-Saya is all smiles about her new book, “Aaron McDuffie Moore.” Courtesy photo via FB

Hill-Saya said the deadly Wilmington rebellion which came into play by white insurrectionists wanting to oppress Black Americans, weighed on the minds of Moore and his colleagues. The collaborative group of businessmen purposely built their foundation in Hayti in a way that would not be alarmist to white dissenters.

“They tended to have a much more understated neighborhood, not a whole of ostentation wealth,” Hill-Saya said. “Greenwood was a bit flashier. Greenwood was also located in a much more volatile area.”

A Pipeline Life of Service 

The sensational and tireless work of Moore, Durham’s first Black doctor, was instrumental in this as Hill-Saya carefully details in her book “Aaron McDuffie Moore.” At first glance, like many unheralded African American heroes, Moore’s achievement as the town’s first Black physician seems like a nice little novelty crown.

But there was a lot more to Moore and his incredible life of service. The list runs deep. There was the Durham Drug Company he formed and founded. Moore, who attended the historically black college Shaw University, was just getting started in his quest to help Durham’s Hayti District become self-reliant and free of white interference. An education advocate, Moore founded the Durham Colored Library.

Driven to provide more infrastructure for his community, Moore had the gumption and the audacity to build Lincoln Hospital, erected specifically for Durham’s Black population. Sandwiched in between all of this movement, Moore had time to come together with Merrick to form the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance company.

According to Hill-Saya’s noted records in her book, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company had as much as a $40 billion economic impact. Yet, despite the enormous success that he was able to attain, Moore had this share of adversity to overcome, Hill-Saya said.

Author Blake Hill-Saya

“His first and biggest obstacle was getting the Black population in Durham to even trust him as a European-educated by white physicians Black doctor,” Hill-Saya said. “It was hard for them not see him as one of them, and therefore a threat. That was an initial stumbling block. Once he had established the trust and respectability within his community through his work in the church and his work in medicine, he was able to take what he learned going into people’s homes to then address things like a community healthcare service, getting a hospital, founding an all-Black, freestanding hospital.”

The Family Tree

A direct tie-in to Hill-Saya’s quest to bring Moore’s many accomplishments to life is the fact that family matters. Hill-Saya’s mother was a literate scholar and came from a well-to-do family. Her father had a much different and unceremonious background. Their Black and white union automatically forged its way into the Moore linage. Moore is Hill-Saya’s great-great-grandfather.

“I am an odd combination or maybe not so odd, unusual in my experience, a combination of a white father who came from very uneducated and factory-working whites and picked cotton in the summers himself and a Black mother who came from an established, middle-class daughter of a surgeon kind of family,” Hill-Saya said.

“I don’t have a lot of extended history back into the white side of my family, but am tremendously proud and extended history back into the Black side of my family, and definitely back into this kind of Reconstruction Era Black Wall Street world, which has always seemed kind of like a Black Atlantis to me,” stated Hill-Saya.

Family connection withstanding, Hill-Saya said that is not the singular reason why she decided to pursue capturing Moore’s life work in a book. Stories like Moore are screaming out to be told, she said.

“There’s no greater American story in my opinion,” Hill-Saya said. “Of course, there are many great American stories, but this is quintessentially an American story, especially when all of the things that he (Moore) pushed to achieve and all the things he stood for took place in the context of a nation that was scientifically trying to prove that he was innate.

“So, it’s an extraordinary story regardless of context,” continued Hill-Saya. “But the context makes it that more important and that much bigger than my family history. This wasn’t a scrapbooking exhibition. This was me drilling down on who I am as a person and why I want to be the person I’m trying to be in my DNA. And it was also a drill down on why more people don’t know him and those like him because everywhere you look when you’re standing in his world there’s another story. I get quite emotional about the fact that they are crying out to be told.”

Featured image credited to Creative Commons

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