Former Durham mayor and World War II Army veteran Robert Wensell “Wense” Grabarek died Sunday morning. He was 100 years old.
Grabarek served as mayor from 1963 to 1971. He was elected the same day mass demonstrations against racial inequality in Durham led to 850 arrests, and nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision struck down segregation in the nation’s public schools.
Three days into his term, on his birthday May 21, Grabarek spoke to a crowd at St. Joseph’s AME Church, promising change if given time. Lavonia Allison, longtime civil rights organizer and former chairperson of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, said he did not avoid public appearances in divisive times.
“He would come out and attend,” she said. “He was different than some of the politicians now.”
Two days later, Grabarek created the Durham Interim Committee, to “resolve and reconcile” racial issues in the city. Segregation ended at many of Durham’s restaurants, hotels, libraries and movie theaters over the next few months.
“When I was elected mayor, the entire country was involved in a state of chaos in the matter of civil rights,” Grabarek said at the city’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2018. “We should all be extremely proud of Durham, because for all of our diversity and turmoil throughout the country and other cities, Durham desegregated voluntarily.”
On May 21, 2018, the Durham City Council celebrated Grabarek’s 98th birthday as “Wense Grabarek Day in Durham.”
Former City Councilman Eddie Davis, who organized the day said Grabarek helped bring about a more equitable society in Durham. “He was able to pull together business leaders, city leaders and black leaders to make change,” Davis said.
Sylvia Kerckhoff, Durham’s first female mayor, said Grabarek “brought us out of very crucial times.”
Fought in Battle of the Bulge
Grabarek was born in Pennsylvania and married his wife, Marion, in 1944. During his service in World War II, he rose to the rank of captain, was awarded three Battle Stars and one Bronze Star and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
He worked as a certified public accountant until retirement, at 98, and established scholarships at 10 universities, including Durham Technical Community College, Meredith College and Duke Divinity School.
“Our diverse togetherness is life to the soul of the city of Durham. May it ever be so,” Grabarek said, late last year.
A visitation will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22, at Hall Wynne, 1113 W. Main St., according to the funeral home. Burial will take place at 1 p.m. Monday, Dec 23, at Maplewood Cemetery, and a memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. at Watts Street Baptist Church, 800 Watts St.
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