Let's embrace Duke's entire history

It's ok to have a more complicated love of the university.

I am writing two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, as protests against white supremacy take place across the country. Many Americans are reckoning with the impact of racism, especially as it relates to American history. I, too, am reckoning with the past, especially here at Duke. There are hard truths to accept in a place where many people feel warmly embraced—a place that many of us love.

As university archivist, I also love Duke University. It is undeniable that Duke is a place of extraordinary scholarship and research, as well as beauty and wonder. And it is undeniable that Duke has parts of its past that are disturbing and ugly. How do we reckon with these two truths? The University Archives provides only glimpses into the past, but those glimpses can educate us on where we went wrong, and how we can go right.

While we became a university only in 1924, we began our life as an educational institution in 1838. Our records are scant about who worked at the school beyond faculty, but we have information from the 1850s that Braxton Craven, president of the institution, owned enslaved people. He also sought to purchase two children, according to an affidavit in the State Archives, but chose not to—the price was higher than he wanted to pay. I have spent a great deal of time looking into the financial ledgers and account books of antebellum Trinity. It appears that the school itself “rented” enslaved labor at times, a heartbreaking discovery. Although Trinity did not engage in slavery on the scale of many other universities, we cannot deny that the school participated in the practice.

After the Civil War, Trinity managed to survive and eventually to grow. It remained segregated, but continued to hire Black workers. The experiences of these workers seem to be lost to time, present only through names in financial ledgers. Their interactions with students are unknown. Later evidence in the Chanticleer and The Chronicle suggests that at the very least, Black workers were not taken seriously by the White students. For example, the 1921 yearbook featured photos of a Committee on Sanitation and an Officers McSweeney Club, which consisted of Black janitors and Black cooks, respectively. The workers were listed by their first names only or, in one case, simply as “The Bell Boy.” Women workers are not mentioned at all.

We do have one extraordinary document from Black workers’ point of view. It is dated September 22, 1919, and is addressed to President William Preston Few. Painstakingly typed, the letter is signed by eleven janitors and is a plea for an increase in wages. They conclude, “We hope that you will not forget us.” In doing further research, we found another letter from the janitors, written seven months later, again asking for a response. No response has yet been discovered.

As the university grew, more staff were required to keep up the immaculate grounds, work in the newly opened hospital, and serve a growing student population. Many of these staff were Black. The West Campus Union, designed by the Horace Trumbauer firm’s Black architect, Julian Abele, in 1928, built the divisions of race into the building itself. The floorplan for the basement identifies separate dining rooms for the “white help” and “colored help,” as well as separate men’s and women’s toilets for each group. In photographs of a holiday party for staff from 1946, you can’t help but notice the room is completely divided by race. There is a photo of grim-faced Black employees, and then another of grim-faced White employees. They’re in the same room, but totally separate. Again, the actual experiences of these employees are difficult to uncover in the archives, but photos like these certainly give us a glimpse of the story.

There is no doubt that the integration of Duke’s student body in the early 1960s was a paradigm shift. Duke desegregated slowly, first the graduate and professional schools in 1961, then the undergraduate schools in 1963. They incorporated the first five Black undergraduates into the student body with no fanfare in September 1963. A number of our earliest Black students have remarked on how Black staff members quietly encouraged them, invited them to their homes, took them to church, and helped them navigate an environment that often cast them as “the other.” These students relied on the staff for much more than cleaning and cooking.

In 1966, the arrival of Duke’s first Black faculty member, Samuel Dubois Cook, was another remarkable moment. Finally, an African American occupied a position of great esteem. There is no question, though, that for the vast majority of Black employees at Duke, their day-to-day lives had not changed with the desegregation of the university. The call for better treatment of Black workers, demanded during the Silent Vigil of 1968 and the Allen Building Takeover of 1969, remained a key issue. It remains an issue today. Does confronting these issues negate or diminish Duke’s successes? I don’t think so. To confront our real history of slavery, white supremacy, and discrimination is to recognize the complexity of our institution. Perhaps with this information we can become something better, more honest, and more powerfully transformative. Our history is not something to overcome or to get over—this institutional history is alive in our bodies, our experiences, and our buildings. We need to expand what we mean by the Duke community, past and present, and lift up voices not heard before.

As university archivist, I seek to tell the stories of Duke University, and some of the stories are painful. We can explore our past and learn about difficult parts of our history, and still love Duke and all the good that it does. But it’s a more complicated love, one that acknowledges past harm, and celebrates the good we can and will do. This is not an easy task, but for the sake of all future Duke community members, we must reckon with our history to build a better Duke.

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