A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

I lean against the trunk of a loblolly pine and watch the Eno River toss sunlight over boulders. I discovered this trail within a few weeks of moving to Durham,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I lean against the trunk of a loblolly pine and watch the Eno River toss sunlight over boulders. I discovered this trail within a few weeks of moving to Durham,

Beyond the Skyline

I lean against the trunk of a loblolly pine and watch the Eno River toss sunlight over boulders. I discovered this trail within a few weeks of moving to Durham, and for several years, I hiked here simply appreciating its natural beauty. The trees, water, rocks, and turtles were a welcome change from my suburban neighborhood. But never once did I wonder about the history of this place that I enjoyed so much. It never crossed my mind to ask, Who lived here? Why is it called the Eno? Then something happened to change the way I saw not only my favorite hiking area but also many of the places that I visit on a regular basis.

When I first heard about the Durham Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope, I thought that it would be a historical tour of the city. Being new to the area and coming from the Northeast, I signed up hoping to learn more about Southern history and culture. Right away, the organizers corrected my misperception. “This is not a tour,” they emphasized. “It’s a pilgrimage.” I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, but I quickly learned.

I squeeze my eyes shut for a moment and listen to the Eno gurgling over rocks, and I think back to the first stop on the pilgrimage.

• • •

“What’s your favorite place in Durham?” It seems like an innocent question, meant to break the ice among this group of 12 strangers who are about to spend the weekend together on the Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope. The man across the table doesn’t look familiar to me from our orientation meeting last week. He’s wearing a Marine veteran baseball cap and a necklace strung with what look to be claws from a large animal. I glance at my itinerary: He’s John “Blackfeather” Jeffries, a member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. He’s listed as our first storyteller. But first, the icebreaker. One by one, my fellow “pilgrims” share their favorite spots in Durham: a burger place, a tapas restaurant, an ice cream shop. When it’s my turn, I say, “The Eno River. I love taking my dog hiking there.”

In past years, pilgrims might have been accompanied by the late John “Blackfeather” Jeffries. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

Jeffries locks his eyes on me. In a low, unhurried voice, he says: “I am the Eno River. The Eno River is me.”

I try to listen as he talks about his Occaneechi ancestors, who joined the Eno and other Sioux tribes and built their town on the banks of the Eno River. But I have a hard time focusing. His response plays on repeat in my mind: I am the Eno River. The Eno River is me. We’re less than an hour in, and I can understand why this is not going to be the simple history tour I expected.

• • •

Dust particles swirl in the dim light. Now we’re on the second stop of the pilgrimage: Historic Stagville, a preserved remnant of one of North Carolina’s largest plantations. We’re standing shoulder to shoulder in a cabin that once housed enslaved people. “Three or four families lived here at a time,” the Stagville guide says.

Our group is quiet and somber as we wander the property. On the chimney outside the cabin, I run my thumb along the ridges of bricks made on-site by people enslaved here and press my finger into the groove of a fingerprint. Who were you? I wonder about the person who made the print. Was this an accident or did you leave your mark here on purpose? One of our group members is an African American woman who looks to be in her mid-70s. What must this be like for her? I wonder. She’s three generations away from the people who lived here enslaved and mistreated. What must this be like for him? I wonder about Jeffries, who is with us on the plantation tour.

I drive home from Stagville, a mere 15 minutes from my neighborhood with its landscaped lawns and two-story homes that are 20 times the size of that cabin. Fifteen minutes. Three generations. I am the Eno River. My stomach feels like I swallowed a brick.

• • •

Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. It’s Saturday, the second day of our pilgrimage, and the July morning is off to a simmering start. Past and present collide as we walk around downtown Durham. Here is Parrish Street, home to my favorite burger joint — and once a thriving hub for Black-owned businesses known as “Black Wall Street.” Here, just across the train tracks from the tapas restaurant that was someone’s answer to the favorite-spot-in-Durham question, is the former home of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company — founded for Black people at a time when other insurance companies wouldn’t offer policies to the community. And here we are at One City Center, downtown’s tallest building. I pull out my water bottle and tilt my head to look up 27 stories. Hundreds of people live in these brand-new apartments. I wonder how many of them know the story we just heard — that a Woolworth’s used to be in this spot, and that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited here in 1960, a week after the store shut down its lunch counter in response to a wave of sit-in protests happening across the South.


After lunch, we meet Virginia Williams, who, in 1957, was arrested with six others for sitting in the “whites only” section at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor on the corner of Roxboro and Dowd streets. Someone from our group calls her brave, and Williams waves a hand dismissively. “I was young,” she says. “I didn’t know enough to be afraid.”

Now, my own past and present collide. I’m in seventh grade, regurgitating memorized facts for a quiz on the civil rights movement. I’m sitting three feet away from a woman whose name could be an answer on that quiz. Question: Among the “Royal Seven” who helped ignite lunch counter sit-ins throughout the South, who is the last member still residing in Durham? Answer: Virginia Williams.

• • •

“The concept of pilgrimage is a millennia-old practice,” says Reynolds Chapman, director of DurhamCares, the nonprofit that runs the Durham Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope. “We go places for lots of reasons — business, research, education, leisure. On a pilgrimage, you go to listen and learn. You go to be transformed, to encounter God.”

I sure am listening and learning — a lot. The rest of the weekend is packed. Over a pasta dinner at the Hayti Heritage Center, I learn how the construction of the Durham Freeway in 1970 displaced hundreds of Black-owned businesses. At a panel with Durham leaders, I learn about the discriminatory practice of redlining. During a group reflection time, I listen as a fellow pilgrim shares a memory from her first-grade classroom: White students line up here. Black students over here. During lunch at the Latino Community Credit Union, I learn that immigrants to Durham are far more likely to be robbed because thieves know they often have jobs that pay cash and don’t have bank accounts.

• • •

I went into this weekend thinking it would be a history lesson, but it’s so much more. The Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope is a heart-wrenching look at how past injustice crashes into the present. It’s a chance to hear stories that aren’t often told. It’s an intense time of personal reflection. And it’s well-named: There is tremendous pain in Durham’s story. Native people are plundered. Africans are enslaved. Black people are displaced. Immigrants are robbed. Generation after generation, people mistreat one another.

As a member of the “Royal Seven” (right), Virginia Williams (left) participated in an early sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in 1957. photograph by DISCOVER DURHAM; “THE ROYAL ICE CREAM STRIKERS PRAYING,” NCC_0040_0126, DURHAM CIVIL RIGHTS HERITAGE PROJECT COLLECTION (NCC.0040). NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION, DURHAM COUNTY LIBRARY, NC

And there is hope. Jeffries helped lead an initiative to rebuild a replica of his Native American village along the Eno River. Williams and the Royal Seven sparked a movement. Neither Jeffries nor Williams betrays a shred of bitterness when they tell their stories. Instead, they remain hopeful for Durham’s future. Generation after generation, people demonstrate resilience.

“My hope for the pilgrimage is for the people of Durham to find a way to be in community with our neighbors in a way that’s not abstract or reduced to generalizations and labels,” Chapman says. “I hope it helps the church and people of faith encounter the city with a posture of listening and learning, to see with empathy, and to see the land as sacred.”

• • •

Back on the Eno River trail, I can hear Jeffries’s words in my mind. I am the Eno River. The Eno River is me. I’ve recently learned that Jeffries died earlier this year, and it surprises me how sad the news makes me feel. I did not know him at all. But I’ll always remember him and think of him when I walk these trails.

“No one could have grounded our pilgrimage like Elder Blackfeather,” Chapman says. “We have all learned so much from him, and he will be sorely missed.”

Before continuing my hike, I press my palms onto the chunky bark of the loblolly pine. These trees have stood through it all. They’ve seen the pain that past generations have endured — and the hope that carries us forward.

For more information about the Durham Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope, visit durhamcares.org/pilgrimage.

112 Broadway Street
Durham, NC 27701
(919) 937-2192

This story was published on Aug 28, 2023

Karen Langley Martin

Karen Langley Martin is a writer based in Durham.