A Queer People’s Atlas of Bull City: Exploring the History and Movement of Queer Bars in Durham, North Carolina (Part 1)

By Mad Bankson & Duncan Dodson

Introduction

A 2019 Durham-based advertising campaign asserted that “Durham is the most diverse, proud and vibrant destination in North Carolina.”[i] For those outside the state, Durham is most well-known for housing Duke University and for its large research industry. However, the Bull City’s history is defined by the presence of vibrant Black communities like Hayti, Walltown, and Bragtown, Civil Rights demonstrations and activism, burgeoning immigrant enclaves, labor struggles in the textile and tobacco mills, and much, much more.

Interwoven throughout these narratives, less visible but no less central, is a diverse queer history. Durham has long been a location of queer celebration and activism and features a somewhat quieter history as a lesbian and transgender stronghold in North Carolina.[ii] In qualifying the City’s assertion of diversity, this series traces Durham’s LGBTQ+ community from the 1960s through the present by examining the history of the primary gathering spaces for its community members: bars and nightclubs. Historic and modern accounts of queer representation in the city affirm a queer community centered around safety, expression, and activism, much of which was cultivated by bars and similar queer enclaves.

This series chronicles the history of prominent bars and nightclubs in the area, with some discussion of such spaces in connection with other marginalized groups along lines of race and class. It draws much of its fact basis from the archival work of the Love and Liberation Durham LGBTQ+ History Project assembled by the Durham Public Library, online forums, oral histories, and alternative newspapers.

No comprehensive research project of this sort exists, therefore this series aims for breadth over depth, addressing the reality that much of queer history is challenging or impossible to recover. As Durham continues to rapidly grow and bring new interests, it still stands to be seen what will come of queer bars and meeting spaces in an area with exacerbating economic issues, soaring rent, redevelopment pressures, and growing divides among people of color and white communities in space. Tracing gay bars and inclusive spaces through space and place offers some insight into these divides and helps identify what has been lost and which vacuums remain to be filled in Durham’s queer nightlife spaces.

This series is broken up into three parts. Part I tells the story of some of the first queer spaces in the Research Triangle through from the 1960’s through the 1970’s. The second part chronicles queer spaces from the 1980’s to more recently, focusing on notable spaces such as The Power Company and Ringside. The last section of this series focuses on Durham’s current queer bars and night clubs.

Pre-1970s

In attempting to create a historic archive of Durham’s LGBTQ+ community, researchers at Durham County Library remarked that “Little documentation about LGBTQ life prior to the 1970s exists, especially for trans people and people of color.”[iii] Because queerness was considered a vice, gay happenings were rarely put into the written record. Much of what we know from this period comes from oral history, particularly an interview with Bill Hull, a white gay man born in 1947 who lived in the area his whole life. Hull describes the Durham-Chapel Hill gay community prior to 1970 as “insular, but friendly — centered mostly around small, underground gay bars, close friends and private parties.”[iv] Though they were far from accepted by mainstream society in a conservative Southern state, available accounts suggest that gay people during this time were mostly left alone as long as they were not publicly visible or flamboyant.

The most famous bar location from the 1960s is the Ponderosa. Located in a “nice little colonial house” near the entrance of the Hope Valley subdivision between Chapel Hill and suburban Durham (“the boonies” according to Hull), the Ponderosa was a private club that required a secret passphrase to enter. The property had a small diner with a drive-in grill setup. Behind the diner was a large concrete building where people would party and dance, an extremely rare type of establishment for the time. Both men and women attended the well-known queer parties here. In addition, one visitor recalled that the Ponderosa was almost always attended by at least a few black people even in the 1960s.[v]

The Ponderosa attracted little outside attention. Though some attendees experienced gay-bashing from Marines (who Hull speculated were likely closeted themselves), the club amazingly had few police interactions. The city authorities were aware of the illegal land use and gay meetings, but “as long as there was no trouble there, as long as people are discreet and don’t break traffic laws and don’t do it in the street and scare the horses, there would be no problem.”[vi] In keeping with the general theme of queerness being allowed to exist in Durham so long as it was not hyper visible, Ponderosa never experienced a raid in its almost decades-long lifespan. When or why it closed is not well known.

Chapel Hill and Raleigh had more active queer scenes during the1970’s. While Durham gays gathered unofficially in places such as the Washington Duke Hotel bar (now Jack Tar restaurant), both cities had official established gay bars. Chapel Hill, home to a very large and connected queer community, was generally much more open than Durham (at least for white gay men). Bill Hull spoke of the cruising scene of UNC’s Wilson Library and several residence and academic buildings. There is less information about Raleigh, but it did have at least one gay bar called The Anchorage that opened in the early 1950s. It should be noted that gay men and lesbians did not interact much very much at these places. Many gay Durhamites made the drive to these places as well, just as today there is significant interchange among the various queer nightlife locations in all three cities.[vii]

The next post continues this narrative into the 1980’s and beyond.


[i] Strahm, A. (2019, June 20). LGBTQ Pride in Durham, North Carolina. Discover Durham.

[ii] City Data. (2008). [AfAm LGBT in the Triangle? (Raleigh, Durham: Chapel, Home, Neighborhood)] Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary – North Carolina (NC) -The Triangle Area – City-Data Forum.

[iii] Durham County Library (2016). “Before the 1970s.” Love + Liberation: A History of LGBTQ+ Durham.

[iv] QNotes Staff. (2011, July 8). Durham bar to close, reopen under new management. goqnotes.com.

[v] Hull, B. (2001, June 21). Documenting the American South, interview by Chris McGinnis.

[vi] Hull 2001

[vii] Hull 2001


Mad Bankson is a queer planner and geographer raised in the South. In their capacity as a researcher at DataWorks NC, Mad focuses on issues related to property ownership, gentrification, and eviction in their current home city of Durham, North Carolina. A second-year Master’s student in City and Regional Planning concentrating in land use and environmental planning, Mad is most interested in planning practice that centers land justice, climate resiliency, and community self-governance.

Duncan Dodson is a queer planner and researcher from Oklahoma. Community engagement efforts, disaster-relief administration, and data-driven conservation in Durham and DC brought Duncan to Carolina. He is a second-year Master’s student in City and Regional Planning, exploring mitigation of climate change impacts on low-income and marginalized communities. He is most interested in strategies designed and driven by community members and organizations, and those that center on climate justice.

Edited by Eve Lettau

Featured image courtesy of Durham County Library, Meredith Emmitt Papers