Our year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first black students to matriculate at Duke University will celebrate diversity and inclusiveness by illuminating our history and fostering forms of expression that are academic, artistic and service-oriented.
An honors student at Durham’s Hillside High School, Harris knew by 10th grade she wanted to attend Duke.
The mechanical engineering degree candidate chose Duke because it offered a full scholarship.
Reuben-Cooke hesitated to attend the same school as her father, who was enrolled at the Divinity School.
The zoology major applied to Duke twice. She was denied admission before the university desegregated.
Growing up three miles from campus, White said attending Duke was “like going to a whole new city.”
In the fall of 1963, the first five African-American undergraduates entered Duke, joining the black students who had enrolled in Duke Law School in 1961 and the Divinity and Graduate Schools in 1962. These pioneers set the university on a path toward becoming a diverse, global institution.
Duke has planned a series of events throughout 2013 designed to encourage students, alumni, faculty and staff to reflect upon this important moment in our university’s history, honor the “firsts,” celebrate our diverse community today, and ask ourselves where we want Duke to go in the future. The commemoration will feature intellectual, social, artistic and service-oriented events that are inspiring, thought provoking and meaningful.
We invite you to explore this website and:
During the 9-month commemoration, Duke University plans to compile a rich archive of photos and other visual material to help tell the story of black students, faculty and staff over the past 50 years. Alumni, as well as faculty and staff, may have their own materials that offer a glimpse into black life at Duke. We invite you to send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1963, the first five black undergraduates enrolled at Duke. At that time, the university had only two
black professors, and no black administrators or trustees. The small numbers set the stage for culture
shock and little integration. These videos present memories from some of the people involved.
Below, some early black students share their memories of Duke. We invite alumni to follow suit and share memories of their time at Duke on our Facebook page. During your days as a student, who or what made you feel like you belonged at Duke? What obstacles did you encounter that challenged your sense of belonging? Fifty years from now, what do you think the legacy of the African-American community at Duke will be?
And Brenda Armstrong saved us… We arrived about 20 years after the first students. When we arrived at Duke, she was already a Pediatric Cardiologist in the Duke University School of Medicine. She made herself an accessible role model for us. She was always willing to come and speak at events and remind us that, as the first black students had succeeded, we, too, could as well. She also stressed the importance of being an accessible role model in the larger community. I remember her telling us that because every student in the medical school had to encounter her, if they came to the program never having encountered a black person in a leadership position up close, she was there to make them, at least, have to reconsider whatever stereotypes they may have brought with them. She helped us to understand that even when some tried to make us feel that they were doing us a favor to let us in, we needed to understand the power and gift and opportunity for growth our presence there was to them as well.
Darlene Wiggins Dockery, T’84
My undergraduate journey through Duke University covered a span of 12 years. From being a part of the last class of January freshmen to be admitted to the university to being one of the oldest in my graduating class, I have seen and experienced some things that have helped me grow, broken me down, built me up, made me believe, made me disbelieve, questioned my endurance, proved my strength…
My mentors made me stay focused and saw something in this indecisive insecure young African-American woman that I could not and would not have seen. They saw success. Not success that looked like everyone else’s definition of it, but success that looked like me and would conform to the gifts and abilities I had yet to utilize. Dean Martina Bryant would not allow me to get missing in the struggles and the life realities that kept me in a state of constant questioning of my worth and my abilities. Janet Dickerson saw and went after provision for me where I saw none. Maureen Cullins offered love in unconventional ways…sometimes just a smile and a nod were enough to push me through the obstacles I was facing. The late Professor Ed Hill created safe space for my spirit to be nurtured. In the moments I felt most lost, I simply had to follow the path of breadcrumbs that they laid out for me.
I am watching Duke grow and expand in many ways while some things have not been as amenable to change. I grew up here. I’m learning to lean into the curves so as not to crash and burn. I am here, as are many others, to ensure that change is gonna come. My legacy at this great institution will consist of success, failure, mentoring, being a mentee, tears, laughter, poetry, songs, love, life, building bridges, crossing bridges that were already built, sharing my story, helping to create and develop the story of those who come behind me, leaving breadcrumbs…lots and lots of breadcrumbs.
Kimberly McCrae, T’00
As a 1981 graduate of Duke University, and the granddaughter and daughter of former Duke employees, I have a unique perspective relative to the university’s history. Someone in my family had been associated with Duke from the early 1930s to 1995, which afforded me an oral history of Duke over a 65-year period.
My grandparents and parents prepared and/or served food to almost every Duke student who walked the grounds of West and East Campus from the early 1930s to 1995. As a young girl, I experienced the segregated lunchroom for the African-American food service employees in the East Union Dining Hall. I heard my grandparents and parent contemporaneous conversations regarding a number of black firsts at Duke including, but not limited to the first African American food service supervisor, food service manager, students, May Day Queen, football player, basketball player, student body president and faculty. Each conversation from my grandparents and parents regarding these milestones possessed a sense of pride that Duke University was embracing change.
I also remember the fear, not for my grandparents or parents but for the students, regarding the takeover of the Allen Building by African-American students and the pictures of the police on campus. Yet there was a sense of pride exhibited in my parents’ conversation.
I had the pleasure of living in Gilbert-Adams Residential Hall my freshman year, where my mother was the food service manager at the Gilbert-Adams Dining Hall. The greatest pleasure of all was my graduation day. The pleasure, however, was not receiving a degree from Duke University, but for providing my parents the opportunity to attend the Saturday catered reception held on the East Campus lawn for graduates and parents. On that day my Mom and Dad were proud parents rather than the food service personnel for the first time in more than 30 years.
So, when I visit Duke University on October 5, 2013 for the 50th year commemoration I do so not only for myself as a Duke graduate, but also for my grandparents, parents and the many other African-American food service workers who have contributed as much to the history of Duke University as anyone else.
Susan Simms Marsh, ’81
Much of the focus on the 50 years of black students at Duke has focused on the undergraduate experience and on the early years of Duke’s integration. The Fuqua School of Business celebrated 30 years of minority recruitment in 2012. It was also the 30th year of the Black MBA organization, which blended into the Black/Latino MBA organization. This group was founded by black MBA students in 1982 after there were only 3 black students enrolled in a class of more than 180 in 1981.
Lionell Parker, Fuqua ‘83
I grew up in a small segregated town in North Carolina where people were considered either black or white. It was not until I reached sixth grade that the school I attended included both black and white students. It was the backdrop of this personal history through which I experienced Duke when I arrived in the fall of 1977 as a freshman.
Although my Duke experiences include a few unpleasant memories that I attribute to racism and racial and cultural insensitivity, I also had many very powerful and positive experiences. At times, I felt as though I was navigating two sides of the train tracks as existed in my hometown – one where the blacks lived and the other side where whites lived.
I frequently sat and ate at tables in the on-campus dining halls that were made up almost exclusively of black students and I became a member of the Duke chapter of one of our nation’s historically black sororities. But, I also lived in the same women’s dormitory on East Campus for all of my four years—and loved it. For most of those years, I remember being one of fewer than four blacks living in that same dorm and I attended classes in which I was either the only black or one of fewer than five in the class.
Nonetheless, throughout my undergraduate time at Duke, I always felt as though Duke was where I belonged. Oddly enough, the one person who stands out in my memory as making me feel as though I belonged at Duke was a person whom I never got the chance to meet face-to-face: Terry Sanford.
When I think of Duke, I think of President Sanford and the fact that, despite Duke’s mixed history on racial matters and the work still to be done, it has become the great university that it is today in large part because of his example of leadership and commitment to quality education for all people, irrespective of race and color. President Sanford’s example has helped to challenge and guide me in my career today as a lawyer and administrator in higher education.
For his example, the example of those first black undergraduate pioneers, and for my Duke education, I am grateful.
Alvita Eason Barrow, T ‘81
It was painful at first, but then got much better. I arrived in the fall of 1980 as a city kid from Chicago. Duke kicked my butt academically but prepared me well. My freshman advisor told me that I could forget about medical school. Having graduated from Duke, then med school I came back as house staff and enjoyed every moment! I am grateful to my mentors and especially Professor C. Eric Lincoln for believing in me. I wouldn’t have changed a single challenge.
Imhotep Kevin-Anthony Carter, ‘84, M.H.S. ‘93
When I came to Duke in May 1986 to attend the Summer Transitional Program (STP), I never imagined Duke would be my professional home for the next two decades of my life… It’s been 23 years, but I’ve stopped counting. Duke has always felt like home. I have held a profound sense of belonging in Durham and at Duke that began with family. Both my parents are Durham natives and proud graduates of Hillside High School, also Nat White, Jr. and Mary Mitchell Harris’ alma mater. At Duke I was enriched by caring faculty such as Gerald Wilson; coaches, including Bob Sanders, Tommy Bowden, Marvin “Midnight” Brown; and staff like Nancy Austin, Joby Branion, Dean Caroline Lattimore, Dean Sue, Caroline Nisbet, Linda Capers, Maureen Cullins, and a bright cloud of faithful witnesses who comprise the house, grounds, and food service staff. Several of my relatives were on staff, including my late, great uncle Thelma Downey, who retired after 30 years as a head chef, and my dear aunt/second mother Mary Ann (Pat) Ruffin, a retired Duke Hospital RN who passed in 2009. The litany continues.
Thank you Durham and Duke families who make Duke so beautiful, and to our esteemed pioneers and trailblazers for paving the way and inspiring our university to become greater. Thank you for making the challenging times seem but a light affliction compared to the glory revealed through God’s grace in your courageous ambitions and amazing accomplishments. It is a joy to celebrate with you during this momentous year. I pray we honor you as we contemplate and take action during the next half century.
Keith Daniel, T ’90, M. Div. ’05, Candidate for the Doctor of Ministry, Duke Divinity, 2016