Commemoration of black student enrollment ends

During the second quarter of this year’s football homecoming game against Troy University, Michael Holyfield ’79 finally got the respect he deserved. The first African-American Duke Blue Devil mascot was given a letterman jacket by the athletics department.

“We wanted to honor him and the historical contributions he made,” said Jon Jackson, associate director of athletics for external affairs, in a statement.

Moments like that, bigger and smaller, filled the nine-month commemoration of the 50th anniversary of black undergraduates enrolling at Duke. During “Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future,” the university hosted dozens of events across campus and in Durham focused on issues of race, diversity, inclusion, and civil rights. The celebration culminated with a weekend that brought back hundreds of black alumni, some who had skipped other Duke reunions. President Richard H. Brodhead noted that the number of returning alumni indicated that they were “more than Duke diehards, but people without unequivocally happy memories” who were choosing to reconnect.

Indeed, they did more than reconnect. On behalf of black alumni, Brodhead was presented with a check for $1.5 million to help endow the Dean Martina J. Bryant and Reginaldo Howard Memorial scholarships. Alumni also gave to the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.

The final weekend coincided with Founders’ Day. State Senator Dan Blue J.D. ’73 gave an address in Duke Chapel that honored the courage of the first black undergraduate students, noted the civil rights progress the university has made and the work that still remains, and commented on the state’s current political and social situation. “Too many children are not getting the education that will enable them to have a shot at competing to come to Duke. And too many people have fought and bled and literally died for the fundamental right to exercise their right to participate in this democracy for us to sit idly and complacently by while that right is being eroded and weakened and even taken away from some of our fellow citizens.” 

“Nothing, however, was more heartbreaking than to discover that I had been excluded from university alumni functions when visiting other cities with the cheerleading squads, evidently due to my obvious blackness.” 

Among the most emotional elements of the commemoration were the recollections posted on the memory wall of the event’s website and on Facebook, in which African-American alumni wrote of their experiences at Duke. They remembered challenges, slights, triumphs, mentors, and transformations. That’s where Holyfield posted a reflection on his experience of being a mascot, of being taunted by racial slurs and dodging projectiles thrown at him.

“Nothing, however, was more heartbreaking than to discover that I had been excluded from university alumni functions when visiting other cities with the cheerleading squads, evidently due to my obvious blackness. This alienation was further driven home when I was excluded from the annual athletic banquet held at the end of the academic year. Not only was I not invited, but I also was never offered, nor did I receive, the customary athletic jacket that previous Duke mascots received,” he wrote.

That changed on a Saturday in September. “Unfortunately, we cannot erase the past relative to the injustice faced by Michael,” said Kevin White, vice president and director of athletics. “However, we are proud to do what’s right.”

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