Duke University Alumni Magazine



A Home For History
Recording Duke's Evolution
by Bridget Booher


Duke's first literary magazine
From private correspondence and departmental memos to photographs and ephemera, University Archives manages the materials that illustrate where the university has been, and where it's going
rust William King '61, A.M. '63, Ph.D. '70 to know the certain truths and the persistent rumors about Duke's past and present. As university archivist, he handles in- quiries ranging from the scholarly to the superficial. Whether it's a fifth-grader seeking details about Duke Chapel's stained glass windows, an undergraduate perusing student publications from the turbulent Sixties, or Hard Copy hoping to find evidence of Doris Duke's early eccentricities, King patiently shares his encyclopedic knowledge and available historical resources with all comers. From a third-floor office in Perkins Library, King and the archives staff--associate archivist Tom Harkins, assistant archivist Todd Crumley, and administrative assistant Carol Walter--keep track of where the university has been, and where it's going. Its 7,000 linear feet of records dating from 1838 to the present are a repository for a wealth of materials. Annals from the pre-Duke days of Union Institute and later, Normal and Trinity colleges, give poignant testimony to the university's modest yet hopeful rural beginnings. There are written and visual accounts of turning points in the university's history: architectural drawings showing East and West campuses taking shape; grainy photographs of Duke Chapel during its construction, reaching higher toward the heavens each month; directives from benefactor Washington Duke regarding the equal education of women; the demands of students who took over the Allen Building in 1969; presidential appointments. And there are the curious items that most visitors will never see: a supposed remnant of Christopher Columbus' flag, donated by Trinity students; a beaver top hat worn at the organization of Union Institute in 1838; postcards proclaiming that Duke University is located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


A rare souvenir, above, of the only time that the Rose Bowl was played outside California

     "You never know when the phone rings or someone walks in the door what they're going to ask," says King, a trained historian who has been the archivist since the office was created by then-president Terry Sanford in 1972. "Day in and day out, we get the most questions about the architecture and design of the campus. But we also get some very unusual requests. We got a call from a young woman with a very obvious British accent calling from London. Someone on the board of her company, BAT Industries, asked her to discover if there were any connections between their organization and James B. Duke. And since BAT stands for British American Tobacco, the answer was, 'of course!' "

     Among its other holdings, Archives boasts a remarkably complete set of university presidential records dating from 1838; athletic department records including a film of the Rose Bowl game Duke hosted (and lost) in 1942; Interfraternity Council and Woman's College records; and News Service scrapbooks dating from 1916. There are also reports from dozens of committees through the years, including a Committee on Committees, created to determine why there were so many committees on campus and if anything could be done to reduce that number. (Others reflect the tenor of the times: the Fallout Preparedness Committee met from 1961 to 1963.)


The collector: Archivist King, above, among the annals
Photo: Jim Wallace


     As a regular contributor to the campus publication Duke Dialogue and a popular speaker for alumni and campus groups, King says he has an obligation to inform and enlighten people about both the university and Archives' mission. "There is general confusion about what we do. The simplest thing is to say we're in charge of the records and history of Duke University. We collect records of offices and programs, arrange them, describe them, make them available for current administrative use, and then we determine ultimately what should be kept for the permanent historical record and what should be discarded. So many people think just of the old records and don't realize that we have a current administrative role."

     Internal academic and administrative records are closed for a period of twenty-five years but can be accessed by gaining permission from the head of the office of origin and the archivist. (Naturally, a department can review its own records.) "If people on campus write a memo or a letter to an administrative officer and then see it quoted in The Chronicle, they might be hesitant to express themselves. So it's a protective policy as well as a collections policy," he explains. (The board of trustees has set its own policy at fifty years.)

     Throughout the year, visitors come in search of answers. Visiting scholars from other universities have pored over the meticulously organized files and boxes of letters, newspaper clippings, and old yearbooks looking to fill in the missing pieces of their research projects. King says it is always exhilarating to be part of someone's "Eureka" moment, as when historian Margaret W. Rossiter, researching what would become her two-volume Women Scientists in America, finally found evidence of explicit discrimination in a letter written by a renowned physicist to President Few in the Thirties. "She literally shrieked when she found it," says King. "She knew that there was a prejudice against hiring women faculty in the sciences, but she hadn't been able to find written proof. She told us she'd been looking for [such proof] for years." King proudly points out that Few ignored Robert A. Millikan's advice and hired Hertha Sponer, who had a successful career at Duke.



Hands-on history: Left to Right, nineteenth-century Trinity College graduation announcements; a Trinity College "dink," 1920; photo of faculty member John Spencer Bassett, central figure in Trinity's stand on academic freedom in 1903; trowels used in the construction of the new West Campus in the 1920s; Duke's Mixture, a popular tobacco product at the turn of the century; coverboy Wallace Wade, nationally known Iron Dukes coach
Photo: Jim Wallace


     Older records can also assist present-day obsessions. There was the undergraduate who wanted to know--ostensibly for a statistics class he was taking--the results of every men's varsity basketball game between Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to determine if there was a home-court advantage. "We ask anyone who uses our materials in a paper to deposit it with us, but we never heard from him again," says King. "We would have liked to have known what he found."

     Other students have weightier topics in mind. Chronicle reporters and first-year writing course members, for example, delve into themes ranging from campus controversies to the histories of Duke Gardens and student drama productions. History professors emeriti Irving B. Holley and Anne Firor Scott have asked students to explore topics in higher education using Duke as a case study. "We've gotten excellent research papers from those efforts," says King. "We have an honors paper on the desegregation of Duke that's as good as any Ph.D. dissertation. When it's a supervised research project, like an honors paper, we will recommend to the office of origin that they permit use of those records." So while it's possible to access closed records for specific, focused projects, "we do not allow fishing expeditions--where people come in and start rummaging for items of interest." (Archives maintains a copy of departmental senior honors theses.)

     Among the familiar faces to the Archives staff is history professor emeritus Robert Durden, author of The Dukes of Durham, 1865- 1929 and The Launching of Duke University, 1924-1949. As a scholar and historian, Durden says he appreciates the thoroughness of the collections and the helpfulness of the staff. "It is an absolutely magnificent facility, and I couldn't have written my books without it," he says. "But most people don't realize that there's a great deal more there than just the history of the university. They have a number of excellent collections, including many from our faculty members. Given the fact that the interests of faculty are far-ranging, there's a lot there you wouldn't necessarily expect to find."

     About a hundred people per month find their way to Archives. Most visitors are students and off-campus folks, either alumni, independent researchers, or members of the media. Staff looking at their own departmental records account for about a quarter of the average traffic, and faculty use hovers around 5 percent. December is the only slow month; during the summer, King and his staff are busy processing the end-of-academic-year changes. E-mail requests are beginning to come in at the rate of about fifteen per month.

     One of the most persistent queries is the origin of the Blue Devil. "Questioners are universally surprised to discover its origin is more military and patriotic than religious," says King of the university mascot. It traces back to a 1921 campaign by the student newspaper, The Trinity Chronicle, for a "catchy name, one of our own possession that would be instantly recognizable nationwide in songs, yells, and publicity." After an inconclusive campus vote, student editors pushed the Blue Devil, a reference to a French Alpine fighting unit in World War I. Their military successes were modest, but, notes King, the Blue Devils' "distinctive blue uniforms with flowing cape and jaunty beret captured the public imagination."


Nineteenth-century Trinity College graduation announcements;

     Given the volume of information already housed in Archives, and that continues to pour in every month, King says he still discovers overlooked chapters in the university's history. Correspondence from the early Thirties between President Few and Edward R. Murrow, then the assistant secretary of the Emergency Committee of Displaced German Scholars, reveals that Few agreed to employ six emigre faculty members. Not only did the arrangement provide safe haven for such professors as psychologist William Stern and scientist Fritz London, but it also elevated the still young university's status to have such prestigious international faculty on campus. King wrote up the account for the Center for the Study of the American South. This fall, a collection of King's informative Dialogue columns, plus additional materials, will be published in a book, If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University.

     Every now and then, someone on campus will call Archives to tell them a box of papers or assorted memorabilia has been located during an office renovation or relocation. Other times, older alumni or their family members will offer to donate personal mementos. While such items are often of interest, King says that Archives has to be prudent when considering potential donations. This fall marks the office's twenty-fifth anniversary, and the stacks are nearly full. Tom Harkins estimates that the office is now receiving about 250 feet of records per year--visually, that's more than the height of Duke Chapel.


An initial rendering of Woman's College by architect Horace Trumbauer

     "We accept materials if it's understood that we have the say-so on whether to retain it," says King. "It's touchier with artifacts than it is with written or paper records. We collect artifacts that have display value, but we do not have the space to be a museum and we do not keep a large number of items as a museum would." Off-site storage helps ease some of the burden, and an expanded off-campus facility--available several years down the road--will further alleviate crowded conditions.

     An expansive website (www.duke.edu/web/Archives/) managed by Harkins allows browsers to learn about holdings in general, as well as specific episodes and overviews of Duke's history. A virtual visitor can learn, for example, that the Richard M. Nixon collection contains "correspondence, memoranda, transcripts, printed matter, ephemera, and other materials," including a term paper he wrote for a legal ethics course ("Automobile Accident Litigation: The lawyer versus the public"); the debate over the proposed Nixon library; and assorted caricatures and cartoons. Or, you might learn more about the mostly Italian immigrants who built Duke Chapel, the last of whom, Louis Fara, died in July 1990. There's also a handy guide to help people learn (or remember) for whom particular buildings are named, or how they came to be called what they are. The East Campus Ark, originally named the Angier Buchanan Duke Gymnasium in 1899, earned its modern moniker in the Thirties "because stairs leading to it were so narrow that only two people at a time could use them." And then there are essays about the enduring Duke myths: that James B. Duke offered his money to Princeton on the condition it be renamed for him (other versions substitute Yale for Princeton), and that the statue on East is Johnny Appleseed (it's the Sower).

     King says he's a bit mystified why the Duke-Princeton rumor persists in outside circles, as well as within the university community itself. "It was President Few's idea that the school should be called Duke University, not James B. Duke's," he says. "So it was Few's insistence--persistence--that caused Duke to reluctantly agree, but only with the understanding that it was to honor his father, Washington Duke, his brother Benjamin, and his family."

     Duke University has also been in King's family for generations. His father graduated from the last class of Trinity College in 1924; his mother, Mary Elizabeth Eskridge, was in the first class of Duke University in 1925; his brother, Carl, graduated in 1954; and his wife, Helen Brewer King, and son, Carl, earned graduate degrees in 1979 and 1995, respectively. "It's the only school I applied to," he says. "I've been Duke blue all my life."


Heralding the Dead's performance on campus in 1982

     Despite his personal and professional investment in the university, there are still a few questions that remain unanswered. "We haven't been able to determine when Graffiti Bridge began," he says, referring to the popular East Capmus painting site for student groups. "Some alumni do not remember it from the Thirties and some do remember it from the Forties. Our guess is that it took off when the crush of students arrived after World War II. The one other thing we do not know is why the Chanticleer is called the Chanticleer."

     If you can answer that question, you'll earn a place in history--or at least in the well-tended environs of the Duke Archives. You'd be in good company.                           


Inquiries can be mailed to Duke Archives, 342 Perkins, Box 90202, Durham, N.C. 27708-0202, or e-mailed to archives@acpub.duke.edu. The website is www.duke.edu/web/Archives.

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