On May 5, 1939, Louis E. Austin visited the Duke University campus. Austin, the publisher and editor of The Carolina Times, the leading Black newspaper in North Carolina, observed a school undergoing rapid transformation. Only 15 years had passed since the gift from James B. Duke that transformed Trinity College into a prominent southern university. During that time, 11 red-brick Georgian-style buildings were constructed on the original Trinity College campus. Much of the work on Duke’s new, Gothic-style, “West Campus” had been completed. Iconic Duke Chapel towered over the West Campus quadrangle. Austin knew that Black workers had labored to build these impressive structures.
Austin saw a school that fully embraced the Jim Crow rules, customs, and attitudes that were entrenched throughout the south. Duke had no Black students, administrators, faculty, or clerical workers. Black people dominated “unskilled” subordinate positions, serving as maids, groundskeepers, janitors, dining hall workers, and switchboard operators. These workers received barely subsistence wages. Dining facilities were segregated, as were the wards and public areas of Duke hospital. Duke Chapel was segregated. At the football stadium, a sign labeled “colored entrance” marked off a separate section—in the corner of the end zone—for Black people.
Walking the grounds of East Campus, Austin saw final preparations for Duke’s annual May Day festival underway. Work had been ongoing for over a month. Stage scenery consisting of housing and thrones decorated the campus. At the celebration, maid-of-honor Marli Pedeflous would crown Gwen Adams May Queen. Described by the student newspaper as “reminiscent of medieval princesses,“ the twelve members of Queen Gwen’s court would wear pastel gowns. “What a festival it will be,” the student newspaper quoted co-eds as saying.
Returning to his office, Austin wrote of the anguish he felt visiting a school built largely by Black hands but serving the needs only of white people. His searing editorial, entitled “Duke University,” was published in The Carolina Times on May 6, 1939. See the full original newsprint in the archives here.
We stood yester-morn on the campus of the great Duke University, amazed at its vastness and magnificence. We thought of the stupendous sum of money spent by the Dukes to make this one of America’s greatest educational institutions. We thought of the tobacco industry and its rise to one of the largest business enterprises in the world.
We thought of the blood of Negro men, women and children that had gone into the buildings to make up Duke University, and we likened them unto the bodies of Chinese slaves thrown into the Great Wall of China when it was erected. Like a great panorama, this throng of our forefathers passed before us. . . . .some with stooped shoulders, bowed heads and pinched brows made so in order, that a great institution of learning might come into existence. As they trod their weary way, the earth shook about us.
We thought of the great God who sits in judgment over the affairs of mankind and thought of questioning him about the justice of permitting the blood to be squeezed out of black bodies to build a university for white minds . . . . only white minds. “My Lord what a morning.”
If white people have labored in the factories of the American tobacco industry for less than enough on which to live, they have had the satisfaction of knowing that their children may reap the benefits in a school that provides the very best training. If Negroes have done the same thing, it must pierce their hearts to know that Duke University has been built for every other race under the sun but theirs. Chinese, Japanese, Germans, Russians or any other foreign race may be admitted to the school; but the American Negro stands alone as the one human being on earth, too loathsome in the eyes of the American white man to share the benefits of Duke University.
Is this the price of humbleness? Is this the price of faithfulness? Where is justice? Where is right? Where is God?
We left Duke University at high noon. The sun had reached its zenith and was casting its brilliant rays upon the school’s massive buildings. Everything was in contour and detail; but they tell us the sun went down and that there was darkness — black darkness. My Lord, what a night!
L.E. Austin, Publisher
The Carolina Times
May 6, 1939“