Emanual Evans

Emanuel “Mutt” Evans

May 2, 1907 – February 8, 1997

Family: Father Isaac, Mother Sarah; Sons Eli and Robert

Mutt Evans was the first Jewish mayor of Durham and he served six terms from 1951-1963. Mutt’s father, Isaac, came to America alone at age 13 to see his father, who had already come to Plainfield NJ. Unfortunately, a youth accidentally shot and killed Isaac’s father within a few weeks of Isaac’s arrival. Isaac did whatever he could to make a living, taking a milk route, and starting a four and nine cents store. After winning money in a lottery when he was 19 years old, Isaac boarded a train. Getting off at every stop, including Fayetteville. NC, Isaac helped put out a local fire at what happened to be a Jewish store. The Jewish owner asked him to stay because he wanted another Jew in the town. Isaac worked in the furniture store and became a peddler. Isaac saved money to bring his “girl” from the old country to be with him in America.

Mutt went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he excelled in athletics and in the classroom. He set a track record in the ½ mile, and since he was very tall, he also played basketball for UNC, in 1928-1929. When Isaac died in 1932, Mutt inherited his furniture store.

Mutt met his future wife Sarah when he was invited to the Nachamsom family home to hear Sarah and her seven sisters play music and dance. Sarah and Mutt’s wedding included all of the sisters. Mutt helped walk all of the Nachamson sisters down the aisle when they got married because their father, Eli, was no longer living.

When Mutt’s business in Fayetteville was having difficulty, he decided to join the Nachamson family business in Durham. Evans United Department Store was very involved in downtown Durham. One time in the Great Depression, people stopped buying anything. When President Roosevelt worried that the banks would close, he declared a bank holiday, with banks set to reopen on Monday. Mutt and Jenny went to their local bank, and Mutt jumped up on a table, saying “listen…if we all stay together, the bank won’t close…if we all take our money out, then the bank will have to close”. He told the crowd that “Mrs. Nachamson and I are not taking our money out of the bank and we urge you to join us now and stay together and we can survive together.” The bank never forgot that, and Mutt ended up being Chairman of the Board of Fidelity Bank, which ultimately became Wachovia Bank. Mutt gave to all of the churches during the Depression to help them from going under, and he was the Young Man of the Year in Durham.

In 1950’s, a group of leaders came to ask Mutt to run for Mayor of Durham. Mutt ended up as Mayor of Durham for 12 years, through the whole civil rights era. Mutt believed in an integrated workforce for Durham, ensuring there were black fireman and policemen. At a fireman’s retirement dinner many years later, they toasted Mutt because of his good deed of integrating the city workforce. Mutt’s success in helping Durham navigate the civil rights movement was recognized nationally during this time when he was named by President Kennedy to represent small communities on the National Urban Development Commission. In this role, he went to Russia, Turkey and even Israel.

Mutt was President of the statewide United Jewish Appeal for many years, even while Mayor. When asked if being Jewish was good for his political future, Mutt said local people would respect his “church work”, and he wanted people voting for him to know that he was Jewish. Mutt and Sarah helped to recruit new members for Beth El. Mutt recruited five men in town to help guarantee the money with the bank to build the Beth El synagogue in the older location. Mutt was president for a decade, and he helped to finance the current Beth El location, taking on the burdens early on of sustaining the congregation.

When Mutt’s son, Eli, went to UNC, he told his father he didn’t want to come back to the family business, but wanted to go to law school. Mutt secretly always wanted to go to law school, so he supported Eli’s decision.

Mutt was considered a giving person, and over 700 letters came to his family after he died. One letter described how Mutt would give a job to any immigrant who came to the store, signing affidavits to help people get to America, with 55 people coming over the years. A letter said that Mutt “saved my life by lending me money”.

A Chevra Kadisha member who stayed with Sarah when she passed away was the child of one of the immigrants that Sarah and Mutt had helped earlier in their life. Mutt would say “Any Jew in trouble anywhere even in another country was your responsibility”.