Notable African Americans

Notable African Americans at Duke

African Americans at Duke have made intellectual and cultural contributions to life beyond Duke’s walls. Below is a sample of some of the people who have made lasting impact in their respective fields.


Julian Francis Abele

The chief designer and architect of Duke’s grand styled campus, Abele’s identity was not widely known until 1986. Abele worked for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer and had not even visited the campus he designed because of his revulsion of segregation. His portrait hangs in the foyer of the Allen Building.


Daniel T. Blue, Jr.

A 1973 graduate of Duke Law School, Blue is the first black chair of university’s Board of Trustees. Blue was re-elected to the North Carolina State House of Representatives 11 times and served as the state’s first African-American Speaker of the House from 1991 to 1994.. He now serves as a state senator and is recognized throughout the state and the country as an outstanding political leader.


Benjamin Chavis
A civil rights leader who was groomed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Chavis rose to international prominence after being convicted of arson as the leader of the Wilmington Ten. After serving time in prison, his conviction was overturned on appeal, and he completed a Master of Divinity at Duke in 1980 and later became executive director of the NAACP. He is currently chairman and CEO of the Hip-Hop Action Summit.


James Coleman, Jr.

The co-director of Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, Coleman is also an adviser to the Innocence Project, a program run by law students that helps exonerate innocent people in prison. The most well-known case is that of Darryl Hunt who was imprisoned for 20 years before DNA testing exonerated him. Hunt was featured in an HBO documentary. Coleman joined the Duke Law faculty in 1991 and teaches criminal law, legal ethics and capital punishment.


Samuel DuBois Cook

Cook is Duke’s first black tenured professor, joining the faculty in 1966, three years after the university’s student body desegregated. He is also the first African American to hold a regular faculty appointment at any predominantly white college or university in the South. A graduate of Morehouse College, he was classmates with Martin Luther King, Jr. He later became the president of Dillard University, a historically black university in New Orleans. Now retired, Duke honors his legacy annually with an awards banquet.


Bishop Philip R. Cousin, Sr.

The first African-American faculty member at the Divinity School, from 1967 to 1979, Cousin was a pastor at St. Joseph A.M.E. Church on Fayetteville St. in Durham, N.C. He was elected as the 96th bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1976 and in 1979 he joined the national board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His son, the Rev. Cousin, Jr. a Duke Divinity graduate, is now pastor of St. Joseph A.M.E. as well as a local civil rights activist.

Johnny Dawkins
One of the most decorated players in Duke basketball history, Dawkins was a two-time All-American and 1986 national player of the year his senior at Duke. He subsequently played nine seasons in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons after graduation. From 1998-2008 he served as a Duke assistant basketball coach. Dawkins was named as one of the 50 greatest players in ACC history by the league office.


John Hope Franklin

Franklin, an historian, intellectual leader, and civil rights activist, was the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke, and for seven years a legal history professor at Duke Law School. In 1947 he published “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans,” the first definitive history of African Americans. He later served on the legal team that helped the Supreme Court reach a decision to desegregate public schools in 1954. He’s held numerous national academic appointments and served on many national commissions and delegations, including the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. In 1995 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1997 President Bill Clinton appointed him to chair The President’s Initiative on Race.


Grant Hill

A 1994 Duke graduate, Hill played on two national championship teams at Duke, where he was a three-time All-American and won the Henry Iba Corinthian Award as the nation’s top defensive player in 1993. A six-time NBA All-Star, he was selected to play on the 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medal–winning basketball team, he now plays for the Los Angeles Clippers. He and his wife, singer Tamia, run a foundation supporting numerous children’s and educational charities.  In 2003 he published “Something All Our Own,” a book documenting 46 pieces of his African-American art collection.


Erich Jarvis

Jarvis is an associate neurobiology professor at Duke’s School of Medicine as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. He joined the Duke faculty in 1998 and researches how the human brain generates, perceives, and learns behavior by studying the vocal communication of songbirds. His findings show similarities in brain pathways in birds and humans and could lead to discoveries to help restore speech and repair brain damage. He has received the National Science Foundation’s Waterman Award and the National Institute for the Humanities’ Director’s Pioneer Award.


C. Eric Lincoln

Lincoln joined Duke faculty in 1976 as a professor of religion and culture. He wrote ”The Black Muslims in America,” the first scholarly examination of the religious group, and was a co-author of ”The Black Church in the African-American Experience,” a study of the political and social influence of religious institutions in black America. Lincoln wrote or edited more than 20 other books, including “The Avenue, Clayton City,” a novel published in 1988. An ordained United Methodist minister, he was a friend of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Alex Haley, and in 1990 was cited by Pope John Paul II for “scholarly service to the church.”


Reggie Love

Former Duke basketball and football player, Love graduated from Duke in 2005 with a degree in political science and public policy. Love joined the Obama campaign in 2006 and the following year became the president’s personal aide, or “body man,” anticipating the president’s needs. He and Obama often played basketball together, always on the same side. Love left the position in December 2011 to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.


Clarence G. Newsome

A triple alumnus elected to the Duke Board of Trustees in 2002, Newsome, T ’72, M.Div. ’75, Ph.D. ’82, has a distinguished career in higher education. He is past president of Shaw University, former Dean of Howard University Divinity School and is past president of the Society of Black Religion, a nationwide think tank of scholars who study African-American religious experience. He served as a member of the Duke Divinity School faculty for eight years and on the school’s board of directors. He has also served on several major committees of the Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada. He is currently chair of the Trustee Committee on Honorary Degrees and a member of the Academic Affairs Committee at Duke.


Melissa Harris Perry

Host of her self-titled MSNBC show, Perry received a doctorate in political science from Duke in 1999. She is a professor of political science at Tulane University and previously served on the faculties of the University of Chicago and Princeton. She is a columnist for The Nation. . She provides commentary on U.S. elections, race, gender and religion. Her first book, “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET,” won the 2005 best book award from the race and ethnic politics section of the American Political Science Association. In 2009 she became the youngest scholar to deliver the W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture at Harvard University.


Arlie Petters

In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences included math professor Arlie Petters in a permanent collection of Outstanding African Americans in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Petters developed a mathematical theory of gravitational lensing, bringing pure mathematics to bear on astronomy. He researches how light is affected by the warping of space and time. Petters wrote a series of problem-solving textbooks for elementary and high school students. He is the first black tenured math professor at Duke, the first to be elected to the university’s Bass Society of Fellows, and the first to hold a triple appointment in mathematics, physics and the Fuqua School of Business.



William Raspberry

A Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, Raspberry, taught at Duke for 13 years as the Knight Professor of the practice of public policy and journalism. He commuted weekly from Washington, D.C., to teach journalism to Duke students. As a young reporter his break came when he covered the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. The following year Raspberry began his career at the Post writing about street violence, drug abuse, poverty and criminal justice. By 1974, Time magazine declared him the most respected black voice in white newspapers. He received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists for his socially moderate, “unpredictable and uncommonly wise” columns on social issues, including race relations. He died in 2012 at the age of 76.


Mary Lou Williams

 Renowned pianist, composer, teacher and humanitarian Williams performed with numerous jazz legends, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. She wrote arrangements for Duke Ellington and Bennie Goodman and others. Williams was among the first jazz artists to perform at Carnegie Hall and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Williams taught the history of jazz at Duke as an artist-in-residence and co-directed the Duke Jazz Ensemble from 1977 until her death in 1981. Two years later, the university established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.