As Durham moves closer to deciding on a new mayor, I want to honor the current Durham mayor, Elaine O’Neal. O’Neal announced on June 23rd that she would not run for reelection to focus on her family, according to ABC Channel 11 News.
O’Neal is a lifelong Durhamite who experienced Durham from every life aspect. She grew up in a low-income, black neighborhood in the West End. O’Neal received a B.S. in Math and a Juris Doctor in Law from North Carolina Central University. She served her community in her profession for the betterment of her community as a district court judge and in the political arena.
She became the first African-American female mayor elected to her hometown in 2021, preceded by Steve Schewel.
O’Neal also made history of “first” in other ways throughout her profession. O’Neal made history as the first female Chief District Court judge in Durham County while serving as a judge of the North Carolina District Court from 1994 to 2011. From 2011 to 2018, she presided over the North Carolina Superior Court as the first female judge in Durham County.
BULL CITY STRONG
She has a heart of gold when it comes to service. She translates that as mayor to make her hometown a better place to live, work, and play. She references her upbringing in the West End community of neighbors looking out for neighbors. She brought the community to the round table for the furtherance of Durham. “It’s going to take the community as a whole to make this city great,” O’Neal states.
She worked diligently with the city council to find some common ground for forward movement on topics such as crime, housing, and economic prosperity, to name a few, to make Bull City strong. She delivered her annual “State of the City” speeches, highlighting community action on gun violence, public safety, the housing crisis, federal funding on public transit upgrades, affordable housing units coming to Durham, economic prosperity, the city’s initiative to support small and minority-owned businesses, and employing over 700 youth through the YouthWork program.
For the first 6–9 months of her tenure, the Durham City Council body did a deep dive review of Durham housing from inside and outside. They met with professionals in the housing arena—realtors and non-profit organizations—to get a thorough understanding of housing and ways to build partnerships to build and renovate housing.
“Every other week in our work sessions, we had presentations on housing. The city had their play in it as well. We partnered with the county by using our ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to build affordable housing units from the ground up,” O’Neal states.
She, along with the city council body and staff, work collectively through strategic, in-depth measures through the Strategic Plan for the future betterment of Durhamites. Those initiatives and goals included crime reduction, collaboration to create an innovative workforce, promoting economic prosperity, community cohesiveness, addressing the housing crisis, and a sustainable natural-built environment to enhance the quality of life for Durhamites. Click on the link to see an in-depth overview of the city’s strategic plan.
In 2022, O’Neal was one of the 40 mayors worldwide picked through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative for legacy cities to bring together and focus on specific projects and needs for city improvement. She uses the project to concentrate on housing and the justice-involved.
She publicly addressed tough conversations on gun violence, which personally affected her, and the root cause behind it, especially among the youth. She believes in the importance of going into those neighborhoods, especially in our marginalized neighborhoods and talking to community and faith-based leaders about the mental health crisis and gun violence.
Additionally, she spoke on News Nation Town Hall with Chris Cuomo to discuss the interconnection between crime and the housing crisis.
“It all comes down to really one basic thing in my mind that we have to address if we’re going to deal with these issues: housing. There’s a housing crisis. When people do not have a place to live that is safe and where they can begin to have a life, you create a life where you are. And then we don’t have a housing crisis in terms of stock; we have an affordability crisis, and people got to realize that,” she stated during the town hall with Cuomo.
As a child, she never envisioned herself as the mayor of her hometown. God directed her path toward public service after she realized that becoming an engineer wasn’t for her. Her love for people allowed her to develop her faith, which evolved into a community leader who gratefully accepted the opportunity to serve her hometown on a larger platform. “I’m here to do God’s purpose in my life,” O’Neal shared.
HEART FOR SERVICE
The Durham native considers herself a public servant before she considers herself a politician, which makes it her mission to serve her community.
Her upbringing in Bull City has also made her into the woman she is now. Being a public servant is a lifestyle for O’Neal. She describes it as a natural extension of her lifestyle to be out in the community.
“I consider myself the child of the most-high God doing what God assigned me to do. Our assignment is to go into the community and be a public servant. It’s a natural part of what I have been trained and called to do,” O’Neal states.
Seeing Durham in every aspect helped her execute plans during her term that God had called her to make her hometown a better place. O’Neal served her role passionately, staying Bull City strong to create a better Durham for citizens to live, work, and play.