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