On February 13, 1969, members of the Duke Afro-American Society took bold, direct action to force the university to respond to their demands for racial change. Frustrated by years of delay, they occupied portions of the first floor of the Allen Building – Duke’s main administration building. They wanted change now. “We looked at it as an operation,” student leader Chuck Hopkins explained. “No more of these long meetings, no more of these long periods between meetings. We wanted to get people’s attention and get them to address [our] issues.”
By nightfall, police had been summoned to clear the building, firing tear gas at students in the melee that followed. Twenty people were taken to the hospital and many more injured.
Here is how that fateful day in Duke history – 52 years ago – began:
The Black students who spent the night at Charles Becton’s house on February 12 stepped inside the back of the U-Haul truck to travel to campus to take over the Allen Building just after 7:30 a.m. “There was a giddiness at first,” Brenda Armstrong recounted, “but when they closed the door and it was dark… it jolted everyone into [a] reality of how important and… potentially dangerous what we were doing really was.”
For Armstrong, the short trip to campus brought to mind thoughts of her ancestors. “I remember talking to my best friend… about knowing what it was like in the ‘Middle Passage,’” the brutal sea journey that took slaves from West Africa to the West Indies. “It was dark,” she recalled. “My hands were just full of sweat… It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever been through in my entire life.” Bertie Howard had more immediate concerns. “The gas fumes were terrible,” she vividly remembered. “It was early in the morning. I hadn’t eaten. I hadn’t slept… I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to throw up.’” For everyone, the stakes were momentous. Students realized, as Armstrong said, that if the takeover failed, “we had put [our lives] and careers on the line.”
The takeover was planned for 8:00 a.m. That time was selected because the safe in the registrar’s office containing the only copies of the permanent academic records of Trinity and Duke students going back to 1854 opened without fail at that hour each day. At precisely the designated time, Becton recounted, “the truck stopped, the back came up, the kids jumped out, [and] ran into the back of Allen Building. At the same time, kids were coming from all four points on the quad, running toward Allen Building.”
As the students entered the building, “the adrenaline was flowing,” Janice Williams remembered. “We wanted to do things just right so that they would know we meant business.” The first step was to usher employees already at work out of the building. In the registrar’s office, Mary Seabolt tried unsuccessfully to close the vault containing the university’s irreplaceable academic records. Clark Cahow, university assistant registrar, later described the students as having been “very polite.” Upon entering the registrar’s office, he said, the students informed Seabolt and others “that they were taking over the building. [They] asked them please [to] get their personal belongings… so they could be escorted out of the building.”
The Black students then proceeded to secure the space. A metal bar and chains were inserted through the handles of the glass doors that opened to the Allen Building lobby, and furniture was piled in front of the doors. A pair of wooden doors at the opposite end of the first-floor corridor was nailed shut. Other access points were chained. Windows from the lobby into the offices on the first floor of the Allen Building were covered with a hand-lettered sign announcing that the area had been renamed the “Malcolm X Liberation School.” The entire operation was completed in just two minutes.
William Griffith, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, “heard some pounding on [the] back double doors” of the Allen Building as he headed up the stairs to his office on the second floor. “I went to see what was going on and I couldn’t get in,” he explained. “I looked through the crack and… knew it was being barricaded. I said, ‘Look, let me talk to you.’ … They came to the door and [said] that they couldn’t talk to me…. I went around the other side of the building and saw it was also barricaded.” With Duke president Douglas Knight out of town, Griffith called university provost Marcus Hobbs, telling him, “We’ve got a situation here.”
Above is an excerpt from Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University published by Duke University Press. Copyright 2021 Theodore D. Segal. All rights reserved. Point of Reckoning is available as an open access book.
Ted Segal is a Duke graduate (A.B. 1977), retired lawyer, and a board member of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. He is the author of, POINT OF RECKONING: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University. You can find him on Twitter @theodoresegal.