Civil Rights at Duke Timeline

In the years prior to undergraduate desegregation at Duke University in 1963, pressure was building on the school to eliminate its racially exclusive admissions policy.  Once this historic change occurred, a new battle began to force Duke to confront elements of Jim Crow persisting at the university.  This struggle took place against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and Black student movements sweeping the country.  The timeline below highlights key dates in the decades-long fight for racial justice at Duke University.  



  • Trinity College becomes Duke University.



  • Segregated Hope Valley Country Club is established one mile from Duke’s West Campus, attracting Durham’s business, social, and academic elites, including doctors, faculty, and administrators coming to Durham to work at Duke.



  • Students and faculty at Duke Divinity School petition for the elimination of the school’s racially-restrictive admissions policy. 
  • U.S. Supreme Court rules in Shelley vs. Kramer that enforcing a racially-restrictive covenant in a deed to property violates the Civil Rights Act of 1866.  Duke continues to include such covenants in deeds for property in Duke Forest.



  • Future labor leader Oliver Harvey joins the Duke labor force as a janitor.




  • U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools are unconstitutional.




  • The University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia desegregate.


  • Duke administrators reject petition by university theater group to permit racially-mixed seating in Page Auditorium.

December 1

  • Rosa Parks ignites the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama.  Martin Luther King Jr. is propelled to the forefront of the protest.



February 24

  • Duke trustees reject petition by Divinity School to admit Black students, voting to keep the school segregated.

June 23

  • Protesters challenge segregation at sit-in at Durham’s Royal Ice Cream parlor.



Feb. 1

  • Lunch counter sit-ins begin at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, eventually forcing the store to abandon its segregation policy. Soon, sit-ins spread nationwide.

February 8

  • Sit-ins start at Durham lunch counters with Duke students joining the protest.

Feb. 16

  • Martin Luther King Jr. visits Woolworth’s in Durham to support the protest and gives speech at White Rock Baptist Church.
  • King meets with Oliver Harvey, strongly encouraging his labor organizing efforts at Duke. 



March 8

  • Duke board of trustees announces that students will be admitted to the university’s graduate and professional schools without regard to race, creed, or national origin.


  • Walter T. Johnson Jr. and David Robinson are the first African-American students to enroll in Duke Law School.
  • Ruben Lee Speaks is the first African-American student to enroll in Duke Divinity School, joining as a special student.




  • University ends segregation of restrooms in Physics building and certain Duke hospital areas.


  • White students from Duke and the University of North Carolina join Durham’s Black students to protest segregated seating in the city’s movie theaters.  

June 2

  • Duke board of trustees announces that undergraduate students will be admitted without regard to race.


  • Matthew A. Zimmerman and Donald Ballard are the first two African-American students to enroll in the Divinity School as official degree candidates; James Eaton, Ida Stephens Owens and Odell Richardson Reuben are the first African-American students to enroll in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.




  • Practicing nonviolence, protestors challenge segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.  Police confront the protesters, many of them children, with fire hoses and dogs, filling the city’s jails.  Martin Luther King writes his Letter from the Birmingham Jail.


  • Demonstrations occur throughout Durham protesting segregated eating establishments and other public facilities. Over 800 are arrested with Duke students joining the protests. In coming months, Durham restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters agree to desegregate.

June 12

  • Mississippi NAACP organizer Medgar Evers is assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. 

August 28

  • The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest political rallies in U.S. history, takes place in Washington, D.C.  Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.


  • Five African-American students enroll as undergraduates at Duke: Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Mary Mitchell Harris, Gene Kendall, Cassandra Smith Rush, and Nathaniel White, Jr.

Sept. 15

  • Four young Black girls are killed in a church bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.


  • Duke chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality is formed.

November 22

  • President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas.


  • Large-scale protests in Chapel Hill against segregation.  Eleven Duke undergraduates, one graduate student, and five faculty are arrested.



April 10

  • Duke president Douglas M. Knight tells the Duke Chronicle that he is “not aware of any form of discrimination at Duke or inconsistencies in the university’s policies.”

April 12

  • Samuel DeWitt Proctor is the first African-American to preach at Duke Chapel.

June 21

  • James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman are murdered by Klansmen in Mississippi.

July 2

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964 is enacted, banning discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations.

Nov. 17

  • Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the Duke community at Page Auditorium.




  • Duke president Douglas Knight signs first deed for property transfer in Duke Forest not containing a racially-restrictive covenant.

Feb. 21

  • Malcolm X is assassinated.

March 5

  • 110 Duke campus and hospital workers meet at St. Joseph’s Church in Hayti and form the Duke Negro Employee Benevolent Society, electing Oliver Harvey as its first president.

March 7

  • Police attack voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  Event becomes known as “Bloody Sunday.”

May 19, 1965

  • Public wards at Duke Hospital are desegregated.


  • The Duke Negro Benevolent Society affiliates with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, becoming Local 77, and commits to an organizing campaign for Duke service workers.

August 6

  • Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. 




  • Stokely Carmichael introduces the concept of “Black Power” into the national dialogue.


  • Samuel DuBois Cook becomes Duke’s first African-American faculty member. He enters the political science department as a visiting professor and is subsequently appointed a tenured full professor.


  • Prompted by pending federal regulations, president Douglas Knight directs Duke fraternities and sororities to eliminate all racial and religious restrictions to membership by September 1, 1967.

December 1

  • Duke students and faculty picket Duke-Durham Alumni Association dinner at segregated Hope Valley Country Club honoring the school’s student athletes. Black basketball player C.B. Claiborne is barred from attending and his white roommate picks up his “letter” for him.




  • Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael speaks at Duke.


  • Duke’s Black students meet as a group for the first time and establish the Duke Afro-American Society.
  • Duke Chronicle publishes roster of Duke senior administrators and faculty who are members of segregated Hope Valley Country Club.
  • In their first collective act, Duke’s Black students publish a letter in the Duke Chronicle objecting to the membership of senior faculty and administrators at segregated Hope Valley Country Club and the university’s failure to ban the use of off-campus segregated facilities by campus organizations.
  • 200 Duke students join workers in protest outside the Allen Building demanding impartial arbitration of employee grievances.


  • Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke is voted the first African-American May Queen at Duke.
  • Reuben-Cooke, Mary Mitchell Harris, and Nathaniel White Jr. become the first African-Americans to receive their undergraduate degrees at Duke.

June 13

  • Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African-American appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Court.


  • Duke prohibits the use of segregated facilities in connection with “official activities sponsored, financed, and controlled by University personnel and campus organizations,” but does not make the policy applicable to student groups.
  • Prompted by pending federal regulations, Duke requires that all owners of off-campus housing units available for rental by students sign a nondiscrimination pledge.


  • Duke student government votes 27–15 to prohibit the use of segregated facilities by all campus groups, including fraternities and sororities.
  • In a referendum, 60% of Duke students vote to overturn the student government ban on the use of segregated facilities by campus groups. Members of the Afro-American Society boycott the vote.

Nov. 13  

  • Thirty-five members of the Duke Afro-American Society conduct an eight hour study-in outside of president Knight’s office demanding that the university extend its ban on the use of off-campus segregated facilities to student groups.

November 17

  • Knight announces that Duke’s ban on the use of off-campus segregated facilities will extend also to student organizations.



April 4

  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

April 5

  • 400 Duke students and faculty conduct a memorial march to University House — home of President Knight. Approximately 250 students enter house, remaining for 36 hours.

April 7

  • Students leave University House in the morning and establish a Silent Vigil on West Campus, demanding that Duke take concrete steps to advance the cause of racial justice. By Wednesday, 1500 students and faculty join the protest.

April 9

  • Duke dining hall workers vote to go out on strike and picket dining facilities on West Campus. Students boycott dining halls.

April 10

  • Board chair Wright Tisdale addresses Silent Vigil, offering only minimal concessions.  Silent Vigil is disbanded.


  • African-American students present the administration with twelve areas of “concern,” including increase in the number of Black students and faculty, implementation of a Black Studies program and summer transitional program, and retention of a Black student adviser.



February 4

  • Under pressure from Black students, President Knight resigns from segregated Hope Valley Country Club.

February 4-11

  • Afro-American Society organizes Black Week, a celebration Black history, culture, and identity.  Speakers include local Black community leader and organizer Howard Fuller, activists Dick Gregory and Fannie Lou Hamer, attorney Maynard Jackson, author LeRoi Jones and historian James Turner.

Feb. 13

  • Approximately 45 members of the Duke Afro-American Society occupy portions of the first floor of the Allen Building, presenting the university with a list of demands.
  • Occupation ends after eight hours as Durham and state highway police are summoned to clear the building. In the melee that follows, police use tear gas, pepper spray and Billy clubs to clear the quad and approximately 20 participants require medical care at Duke hospital.


  • University establishes inter-departmental Black Studies major.

March 20

  • Allen Building takeover participants receive probation following disciplinary hearing.



  • Local 77 is recognized as the union representative for Duke’s service employees.



  • Duke president Vincent Price commits the university to taking “transformative action now toward eliminating the systems of racism and inequality that have shaped the lived experiences of too many members of the Duke community.” He acknowledges that in the past Duke had “often not fully embraced” its mission ”to be agents of progress in advancing racial equity and justice.”