“From a White Perspective”

Each fall, a new freshman class of Black undergraduates enrolls at Duke. They enter an institution that Duke President Vincent Price has acknowledged has “often not fully embraced” its mission ”to be agents of progress in advancing racial equity and justice.” They encounter, according to Price, “systems of racism and inequality that have shaped the lived experiences of too many members of the Duke community.” Earlier this year, Price outlined an expansive anti-racism agenda at the school. It includes hiring initiatives for diverse faculty, steps to strengthen the student community, programs to foster pay equity and growth for university staff, as well as anti-racism training for all members of the Duke community.

Despite these steps, many are pessimistic about the prospects for change. “Duke has been here before,” Trina Jones, Jerome M. Culp Distinguished Professor of Law, observed at a campus-wide symposium. Jones cited the “long list of symposiums, committees, and task forces” addressing racial issues at Duke over the years and said that “the narratives of personal discrimination we’ve heard today have echoes across the decades.”

What is required for real change to occur? One key factor is that white university administrators and faculty must undertake the difficult work needed to understand the daily lived experience of Black students and faculty at Duke. Failure to do this work dooms the prospects for lasting change. The events following undergraduate desegregation at Duke in 1963 illustrate the point.

The Black students who arrived at Duke in 1963—and those who followed them in the Sixties—were among the most gifted youngsters in their communities. Each had excellent grades, strong SATs, and an impressive record of leadership. Many were National Merit or Achievement scholars. R. Taylor Cole, the Duke provost, told the board that the five Black undergraduates enrolling at Duke in 1963 “would have merited admission to almost any college or university in this country.”

Predominantly from the South and born in the 1940s and early 1950s, these students grew up in segregated communities. “We came up in all-Black churches, all-Black schools, all-Black communities,” student William Turner commented. “All-Black everything.” Because of Jim Crow and segregation, white administrators and faculty at Duke knew almost nothing about these communities or students. “We did not know what the Black experience was or what problems they would face,” assistant to the provost William Griffith explained, “except everyone knew . . . for a Black student who came from a predominantly Black school [attending Duke] would be quite a different experience.”

Given this blind spot, how did Duke administrators prepare themselves and the university for the arrival of these remarkable freshmen? What did the education professionals at Duke do to ensure that the university’s new Black students would thrive from a “Duke Experience” that had been crafted over the decades to meet the needs of white students only? The answer: Almost nothing.

There were planning meetings over the arrival of Black students, Griffith recalled, “but not in a really in-depth kind of way.” Duke, he said, “didn’t make a lot of changes.” This failure extended to Jim Crow policies and practices that remained in place at Duke even after the Black students arrived. Although the classrooms, dorms, dining halls, and football stadium were desegregated, separate wards for white and Black patients remained in place at Duke Hospital. No effort was made to require fraternities and sororities to eliminate provisions in their charter documents prohibiting Black members. University organizations remained free to hold off-campus events at segregated facilities. The university continued to use racially restrictive covenants for its Duke Forest homesites.

In the view of president Douglas Knight, the university’s failure to plan for the arrival of Black students was due to the deep ambivalence many felt about desegregation. According to Knight, many at the university believed that “once we have admitted Blacks, what more do they want?” The university approached desegregation passively and without preparation. “In retrospect,” Griffith reflected, “one of the things one might have wanted to do was to go to some institutions that had already been through [desegregation].”

Having failed to educate themselves on issues and challenges likely to be faced by Black students arriving on campus, Duke’s leaders simply assumed that the new enrollees would adjust to campus life. “There was a general feeling,” Griffith recalled, that the Black students would “go right into the student body.” Many in the administration felt that Duke was not “going to set up specialized situations because a person is a different color. We’re integrated now.” It was expected, according to Griffith, that Black students would take their place as members of the Duke community through a “natural kind of amalgamation.” We thought it was “a great opportunity for that student to get a good education and [we] lost contact with the . . . problems that student would face.”

Once Black students arrived on campus, Duke did not establish any internal mechanisms to elicit feedback from them on how they were managing. Initially, the Black students did not come forward with concerns. But even when potential problems came to light, no follow-up occurred. Griffith recounted, for example, that he was “aware of” episodes of physical harassment of Black students. “I never saw things going on,” he explained, “But there were problems of harassment, some subtle and not so subtle.” Even these reports, however, prompted no administrative action. If the Black students “had problems, I was certainly unaware of them,” recalled Marcus Hobbs.

We looked at it from a white perspective,” Griffith explained. “We were . . . far too simplistic about [the Black students’] presence,” Duke president Douglas Knight wrote. “We tended to feel that once we had . . . overcome the admissions hurdle, the rest would be easy.” In making this assumption, he explained, “we were . . . saying ‘Come in, be white,’ and that was not what these young people wanted.” In Knight’s view, “much too much was expected from the simple act of admitting relatively few Black students, and much too little thought was given to what it really means to have Black citizens of this country be part of the institution.”

Over the next six years, the relationship between the university and its Black students deteriorated rapidly. In February 1969, frustrated that discussions with the university on Black student demands were yielding only limited results, members of the Duke Afro American Society took over parts of the university’s main administration building in a dangerous confrontation. The takeover had many causes, but it started with the failure of the university to plan for the arrival of Black students who enrolled in 1963 or to monitor how they were doing. Duke “was not ready to have Black students here. They didn’t realize that integration meant they had to make some changes, too,” Black student leader Chuck Hopkins thought. The administration’s view was that “bringing us [to Duke] was like bringing the natives into civilization.” Duke administrators and faculty “had no clue as to who we were,” Turner observed. “You don’t just accept Black students . . . without trying to sit down and think about what affect it is going to have on them and . . . on the university,” student Brenda Brown explained. “I remember feeling . . . that with a little bit of forethought, Duke could have avoided most of what happened.”

Where does real change start? New policies, initiatives, and investments to counter decades of systemic racism are essential. But so too is the human act of getting to know the daily lived experience of Duke’s Black students and professors. In the absence of this work, it is far too easy for white administrators and faculty to simply assume that, in the absence of protest, everything is fine. Duke’s own history shows how perilous this assumption can be.

Ted Segal is a Duke graduate (A.B. 1977), retired lawyer, and a board member of the Center for Documentary Studies at the school. His book, POINT OF RECKONING: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University, will be published by Duke University Press in February 2021. Special thanks to the Duke University Archives for preserving the historical records quoted in this piece and for making them readily accessible. You can follow Ted on Twitter at @theodoresegal.

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