Let's Talk About Race

From reflections by pioneers who broke the color barrier to frank conversations about the challenges that remain, a university-wide commemoration of integration offers an opportunity to assess Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.

Fifty years ago this fall, a black third-grader sat in the balcony of a Charlotte movie theater, segregated from the white children seeing the same movie, accepting as normal that his skin color meant he and his friends drank from separate water fountains, used separate bathrooms, rode at the back of the bus. On that same day, a few hours’ drive north, the first black undergraduate students to enroll at Duke University were finding their way on a campus that had admitted black graduate- and professional-school students only two years earlier. It would be another three years before Duke hired its first black faculty member.

Today, that Charlotte student, D. Michael Bennett ’77, is among dozens of people in the Duke community who worked throughout 2012 to plan and launch “Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke,” a nine-month series of events. Three of those original five black undergraduates in the Class of ’67—Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Nathaniel White Jr., and Gene Kendall—are still living, and serve as honorary co-chairs for the commemoration. (The original five were profiled in the September- October 1992 issue of Duke Magazine.) And while black faculty members can be found now in senior leadership positions in programs and departments across campus— as well as in the pulpit of Duke Chapel on Sunday mornings—the first black dean of a graduate or professional school wasn’t appointed until 2012.

As the university embarks on the official 50th commemoration series of events, we spoke with a number of faculty, staff, student, and alumni leaders on the progress Duke has made in the last fifty years—and what unfinished business remains.

Brenda Armstrong ’70 grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where she attended the segregated Booker T. Washington Senior High School. Armstrong was in the third integrated undergraduate class at Duke, where she cofounded the Afro-American Society and was its president during the Allen Building takeover in 1969. She is a professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric cardiology, the associate dean of medical education, and director of admissions at the School of Medicine.

Brenda Armstrong '70, professor of pediatrics and director of admissions at the School of Medicine (Credit: Jared Lazarus)

I had terrific high-school teachers. I was taught by faculty members who should have been college professors, but because of segregation were relegated to teaching high school. They gave up their Saturdays to teach us the advanced academics that they were forbidden to do during the regular school days. That was their gift to us, to teach us as if we were already college students, and make us prepared for the next steps that they were not allowed to have.

At Duke we were socially isolated. We had no transportation. There were no activities for us. If we went anywhere, we would catch a bus and go over to North Carolina Central. And in the process of that first year, we went into the Durham community to church, and that’s where we met Philip Cousins and Ben Ruffin and Howard Fuller. They helped us get back our self-confidence and understand the lessons that our parents and communities had given us, but that we just didn’t know how to call forward. It was such a wonderful gift, because I think had I not had it, I would have probably asked to transfer somewhere else.

The use of segregated facilities by the white students, faculty, and administration was the defining motivation for us to create the Afro-American Society. We wanted an organization to which we could retreat, which would embody our common heritage and culture in the absence of a formal recognition on campus, and that would give us a political voice. We decided to do a “study in” in the Allen Building in protest. And we realized that we had some power....

By the fall of our junior year, it was clear that we weren’t getting anywhere. And then Martin Luther King Jr. was killed [April 4, 1968]. We were devastated. We wanted the university to act in a much more obvious way, and they didn’t. We marched over to the president’s house and sat in for a while, and all the platitudes came out, but nothing of any substance. There were demonstrations on the quad, and the Silent Vigil.

In the fall of 1968, we decided that we needed to make a more powerful statement. We decided to take over the Allen Building. We had to learn the floor plan. We didn’t want to be obvious about it, so we would walk through and make note of where the doors and transoms and windows were. We had a meeting and drew up the list of demands. I think there

None of us had told our families that we were doing this, and we decided not to until we were securely in the building. We knew they would be terrified that we were going to get hurt. I think all of us grew up that evening. We prayed. We talked about the fact that we might get put out of school. It was just an amazing, amazing meeting.

The takeover of the Allen Building [in February 1969] was a remarkable moment for all of us. Taking up this cause and stepping out [in] faith made us different people. It was so transformative. We had no idea at the time how important it would be, but we left that building with the sense that Duke would be different. We just didn’t know how it would be different, and we were still frightened, because we didn’t know what the repercussions would be for us....

For those of us who went through that, it was the defining moment of our lives. We still talk about it now. We are such accomplished people, not just because we went out and got degrees, but because we have never gone back on what we felt was our responsibility to always tell the truth, to always stand up for those things that we believed in, and to be willing to marshal the resources that we had to back up whatever we did.

And Duke is a better place because we did that. It was such a dramatic, cataclysmic sort of intervention. And they brought in Terry Sanford as president. In the history of this school, Terry Sanford was a person who led the way for Duke to come out of being a cloistered, provincial school to being ready to be a player globally. And you can trace it back to his vision, to his notion of how to heal.

I remember the first conversation I had with him after Allen Building. He asked us to come and talk with him, and he looked me in the eye, and he said, “You’re somebody important.” And then he said, “You all were right.” We were stunned, because we thought everybody was just mad [at] us.

The 50th commemoration should be about reflection and the work we have to do now. What’s the work for the next fifty years? What haven’t we done well? In my opinion, the thing we aren’t doing quite as well is raising our students to be a new generation of leaders. Many of them come from very privileged backgrounds, and they need a dose of the Allen Building experience and what led up to it to understand that they have a responsibility to exercise their privilege in a visionary way. I tell them that the shoulders they are standing on are broad and that people made extraordinary sacrifices so that they could be here. They’ve been bequeathed a legacy that many people don’t have. And to not take it seriously, to not act on it, is a sin.

Duke will not be a great institution until it accepts the fact that everybody has an equal place at the table. The one lesson that I have learned in doing all of this work is that everybody has a gift, and nobody’s gift is better than anyone else’s. But that culture of sharing and appreciating each other’s gifts has not yet been achieved on Duke’s campus.

Luke Powery became dean of Duke Chapel this past September. Before arriving at Duke, he taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was the Perry and Georgia Engle Assistant Professor of homiletics. Raised in the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition and ordained in the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc., Powery is the author of Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching and Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope.

Luke Powery, dean of Duke Chapel (Credit: Les Todd)

As part of the 50th commemoration events, he is overseeing the compilation and publication of a Lenten booklet that will include contributions by faculty and staff members, students, and alumni around the themes of self-examination, suffering, lament, and renewal as they relate to Duke’s desegregation. The chapel also is hosting an interfaith conversation on race and Muslim-Christian relations in honor of the late religion professor C. Eric Lincoln, and a moderated panel discussion featuring black trailblazers at Duke and the role that faith has played in their lives.

From my understanding, Duke has made progress around issues of race, both institutionally and as it relates to the Durham community. But to have people whom I don’t even know, particularly African Americans, stop me and say, “You don’t know what it means to have you here,” I think implicitly says something about the desire and the need for a greater sense of truth and reconciliation around our racial history.

And so the Lenten booklet is a way to say that celebration is important, but so is lamentation and truth telling. Expressions of hope, expressions of gratitude, expressions of forgiveness, all of that is and should be a part of the conversation.

I think it’s also important to say that even though we have come far, there’s still much further to go, as evidenced by the fact that we’re still having “firsts” here at Duke. There was a lot of media attention around the fact that I am the first black dean of the chapel. The way I see it, I am the dean of the chapel who happens to be black.I think another significant difference between my predecessors and me is my denominational affiliation. The Progressive National Baptist Convention, which was started by such individuals as Gardner C. Taylor and Martin Luther King Jr., embraces a more extroverted, ecstatic, and celebratory tradition compared to what I would say is a more contemplative tradition at Duke Chapel, which happens to be interdenominational. So what does that mean, as we talk about a variety of ecclesial traditions, which are interconnected with cultural and racial realities? How do we live into our interdenominationalism? How do we live into our interracial identity? Not because we have a black dean, but because of the beauty of God. How do we dream of a world where difference becomes the air we breathe, the music we play or perform, where difference becomes apparent in a congregation that crosses generational, denominational, and racial/ethnic divides?

People often see the issue of race as a challenge, because of our nation’s difficult history. And it is a challenge because many times the language of diversity or the language of difference is demonized; it’s seen as a bad thing. But I believe that it’s actually the gift that we all need. It is the opportunity to be who, in my perspective, God has created us to be, in our particularity. Diversity expresses the beauty of God, but we don’t present it that way many times. It is presented as a struggle, as a problem that perhaps we need to avoid.


So the dialectic between diversity as struggle and diversity as gift continues, balancing negative and positive perceptions in both subtle and overt ways. There’s still a lot of teaching and understanding that has to happen around these issues, especially pertaining to the systems and structures that are in place, which perpetuate the cycle of racialized struggle. We need to have candid conversations about how resources are allocated or not allocated so we can do our part in stopping the ongoing cycle that too often never breaks down. It’s time to take each situation that arises as an opportunity to change what has been the pattern and, together, begin to weave something new.


Karla FC Holloway is James B. Duke Professor of English and professor of law. She also holds appointments in Women’s Studies and African & African American Studies. She has served as dean of the humanities and social sciences, chair (and member) of Duke’s Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure Committee, and an elected member of the Academic Council and its executive committee. She is founding codirector of the John Hope Franklin Center and the Franklin Humanities Institute. She currently serves as a member of the board of trustees’ committee on honorary degrees.

Karla FC Holloway, James B. Duke Professor of English and founding codirector of the John Hope Franklin Center (Credit: Chris Hildreth)

I wish we as a community were more courageous about addressing the most difficult issues on campus, including race. But we’re really quite timid. What do we value as a community? What are our core principles? This is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he talked about the content of one’s character. And if we take him seriously, as we say we do every January, then we really need to think about the difference between skin color and content of character.

Currently the Black Student Alliance Invitational recruiting weekend is designed by black students for black students. Rather than delegating that assignment, I want the Duke administration to demonstrate, “That’s our agenda. It’s our responsibility to model an infrastructure that assures successful recruitment of a diverse class of matriculants.” Instead, we’re saying, “Black students at Duke are responsible for getting black students to Duke.”

What would happen if Duke administrators felt it was their responsibility to make sure that Blue Devil Days [for admitted students] could attract and yield a diverse complement of students, while also showing white students that this institution is interested in a visible welcome extended to students of color? I’d like the institution's stitution’s practice to model its stated principles. Since we want students of color here, what do we have to know? I’d rather it be, “Oh, you like the flute? Let me introduce you to faculty in the music department,” rather than “You’re black? Okay, we’ll use your race as the designation that matters and make your primary introduction an engagement with other black students.”

Ideally, and especially in an educational institution, we should let students know about the past and celebrate their potential without the institution’s racial characterization of their identity leading the way. And I think it’s a failure of leadership to avoid the messiness that a conversation like that would spur. Goodness knows, I appreciate something that’s neatly packaged, but this isn’t it. We hold onto the notion that there are boxes of identity that you check and that this gives us some useful information. About what? Identities are far more complicated. Yes, it is a hard and potentially fracturing conversation. It’s hard nationally. We learned it in the last election. But the consequence of our pretense is far more damaging.

For me, this is part of a long history of understanding the mechanics in institutional infrastructures of race, culture, and identity and how they are utilized. For example, why doesn’t the Mary Lou Williams Center have a critically visible presence in all our recruitment weekends? Certainly we can’t think black culture is only for black people! But our practices suggest we do. I don’t expect my students to come to campus fully aware of that history or those complexities. But as an educator and member of this community, I have an obligation to point them out, which is why I wrote the letter to The Chronicle [criticizing the “segregated” Black Student Alliance Invitational]. Do I think it’s going to make a difference? No, because when a crisis involving race emerged, the BSA was given $20,000 to “enhance” the recruitment weekend and to ameliorate the dustup. That’s not much more than a payoff. It’s funding without portfolio. I understand the politics of that. But it’s a lost opportunity to do the difficult thing.

"Certainly we can't think black culture is only for black people! But our practices suggest we do."

Race need not be our students’ first or only metric of identity. But we act, institutionally, as if it is. The panic that happens around race and sexuality is very real. And if you haven’t been in a space that has consistently engaged issues of identity, it can be disabling. If the university has decided that it wants to pay attention to issues that affect women, as it did with the Women’s Initiative, or black members of this community, that should not mean that we look to women or blacks to do that work. Instead, it should be the expressed priority of the entire university community. But nothing encourages us to do that—and in fact, a lot discourages us from community ownership of a substantive engagement with diversity.

Marcus Benning is a junior from Stone Mountain, Georgia. He is president of the Black Student Alliance, a senator for the Duke Student Government, and a member of the Kappa Omicron chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. After graduating, he plans to attend Harvard Law School and pursue a joint A.M./J.D. degree, with an emphasis on social-sector consulting and urban planning.

Marcus Benning '14, president of the Black Student Alliance (Credit: Chris Hildreth)

Most of the colleges I applied to had strong academic programs, so I knew the differentiating factor would be where I felt most comfortable. I attended the Black Student Alliance Invitational weekend, and by the end of it, I knew I was coming to Duke. What impressed me was that Duke had a vibrant black community that was both intertwined with the larger community, but also able to stand on its own. I liked that the BSAI is not a minority recruitment weekend; it was specifically tailored to black students. I came from a high school that was predominantly African American, so having a strong black community was of paramount importance to me.

During some of the recent controversies that involved race, the BSA has served as the campus conscience. Last spring, it was hurtful to have people questioning the academic caliber of black students. [An unpublished study by Duke economics professor Peter Arcidiacono implied that black students are more likely than white students to seek out less-challenging majors; Arcidiacono says the study has been misinterpreted.] Duke students, of all colors, are here because we chose to come here. Many of us [black students] had other options and could have gone to any school across the country. Our academic records speak for themselves. So it was discouraging to have our intelligence and potential for success called into question.

The blackface incident [when a member of the Duke women’s lacrosse team donned blackface to assume the role of Buckwheat from the Little Rascals for her Halloween costume] was most upsetting because of the blatant lack of awareness—she had no idea that dressing up in blackface was a cultural taboo—a very offensive gesture, to be avoided at all costs. But we have to pick our battles. Not everything requires a public demonstration. Effective activism can take place behind the scenes, as well. Ultimately, the incident led to a policy change, so something concrete was achieved as a result. [Photos are now individually evaluated before being posted on GoDuke.com.]

My biggest role models are my mother, who is a two-time breast cancer survivor, and the men in my fraternity. After surviving two bouts with cancer, my mom enrolled in nursing school so she could help treat other cancer patients. She reminds me that no matter what difficulties you face, there is always someone who has had a more difficult experience.

I am also very proud to be a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, whose ranks include Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. Their thoughtful activism continues to inspire people around the world. I’m inspired by the Alpha men on this campus— men who are University Scholars, on the Chronicle staff, and members of the mock-trial team. Our fraternity sponsors an annual charity ball and mentors kids through the Boys and Girls Club. There is a level of political and cultural awareness that inspires me to do better. I want Alpha to be as proud of me as I am of it. So I have a lot of work to do.

As the university prepares to commemorate fifty years of black students, what’s missing for me is a strategy/plan for how the next fifty years will unfold. I look forward to working with the development office, senior administration, the alumni association, and the Mary Lou Williams Center to develop a comprehensive strategy for minority causes.

James E. Coleman Jr. is the John S. Bradway Professor of law and teaches courses in criminal law, legal ethics, negotiation and mediation, capital punishment, and wrongful convictions. He is codirector of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and the Appellate Litigation Clinic. In 2006, he chaired the Lacrosse Ad Hoc Review Committee created by President Richard H. Brodhead.

James E. Coleman Jr., John S. Bradway Professor of law and codirector of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic (Credit: Megan Morr)

During the lacrosse case, I got e-mails from people who criticized me for being involved and for defending the students, saying that I’m a traitor. I told them that they didn’t know anything about me and that I reject the notion that if you’re a black person, in a case where race may be involved, you’ve got to side with black people.

But I think that’s something that runs deep in our culture. This is one of the things that bothered me about the case, which is that a lot of people saw the injustice of it because the students were white. People reacted as if this was the worst case of false accusation that ever happened. False accusations happen much more often than we would like to acknowledge, but usually the public doesn’t know about it or doesn’t pay attention to it. You know, we have a case right now [through the Wrongful Convictions Clinic] where a guy has been in prison since 1976, and we’re pretty sure that he’s innocent. Where’s the outrage about that?

But that’s how race gets used. It gets distorted, and then it gets used to make a point. In the lacrosse case, there was the initial point, which was that these white guys are like plantation owners who go out there and exploit black women and sexually assault them and get away with it. That was the first story. That was [thendistrict attorney] Mike Nifong’s story.

Then, when the facts started coming out and public opinion changed, there was a backlash. A lot of people were angry at the black faculty, as if black people generally were responsible for the false accusation. And then there were a lot of people in the community who were irritated at privileged Duke students and how they behave on weekends and saw this as an opportunity to focus on that. So everybody was using this for their own platform; you could use it for whatever cause you had.

I think that’s why it’s so difficult to talk about race, because people just don’t know where the conversation is going to go. We have a big case in the Supreme Court on affirmative action and whether schools can take race into consideration during the admissions process. From a historical perspective, I think it’s important to look at what people were saying about the role of education at the time that the country was founded. The concern then was not about black people, but about Europeans, about different people from different countries coming here and forming a country and a nation. Basically, what founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush said was that education is necessary in a democracy, because you need educated people for a democracy to work. And that you needed to educate people broadly, not just the wealthy who could afford it. That was one of the impetuses for public education, a diffusion of knowledge.

So they started universities whose goal was to bring people from different backgrounds into a university and give them a common education, common values, so that they could work together. That’s what I think affirmative action should be about. For practical reasons, people aren’t going to support spending a lot of money on education if only a narrow group of people is being educated. But also, when you’ve got such a racially diverse country, we have an obligation to educate people from all of those groups, because they’re going to be the leaders. And if you don’t get leaders who are African Americans, who are Latinos, who are Asians, who are white—if you’re not educating people from all of those groups, then ultimately, you’re going to have problems because the group that gets left out is going to be powerless and not part of the national conversation. And that’s going to be a problem.

In the long run, I’m not sure that the lacrosse case has had any positive or negative impact on race relations and our ability to discuss and learn from situations involving race. Attorney General Eric Holder made a statement early in the Obama administration that Americans were cowards in talking about race, that we avoid dealing seriously with the issue, and he got roundly criticized for that by a lot of people. But I think he told the truth.

Chandra Guinn has been the director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture since 2005. A sociologist, she has taught at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and through Duke’s African & African American Studies department. Her research interests include Africana studies historiography and pedagogy, educational entrepreneurship, and philanthropy.

Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture (Credit: Megan Morr)

I’m honest when I say that this is a good place. I genuinely believe that. But I know we can do better. I just wish that everyone—faculty, staff, students, administrators—would embrace the collective capacity we have to transform this place in ways it hasn’t even imagined it’s capable of.

I didn’t study the history of race relations at Duke before pursuing  and accepting this opportunity. I just thought how amazing it would be to work with some of the brightest students in the country at a well-resourced institution. In taking this position, it was my intent to help cultivate a cadre of young people of African descent ready to change the world.

And though it is undeniable that progress has been made, from five black students in ’63 to well over five hundred in 2013, from my perspective, the question still remains: “What promises do we make to students of color who come to this predominately white institution that is well-resourced? And are we living up to what should be our promise?”

I have great respect for people who have preceded me at this university who have endeavored to transform this place for the good. But I don’t know that Duke has thought carefully about what it means to have black students as a part of this campus community. I think there was some acceptance of inevitability, but I don’t know that that’s the same as intentionality. And when I say intentionality, I mean to suggest the need for more culturally diverse professionals who can and who will properly support the students with sufficient attention and cultural resonance that would make the experience meaningful.

It’s one thing to desegregate because of a Supreme Court ruling or because you are facing the loss of federal funding. But that’s not the same thing as sitting down and saying, “How do we do this? What are the needs? How do we prepare for our changing campus community, our changing global context? How do we cultivate our own pipeline so that the students who arrive here on this campus are prepared to take full advantage of this place? How are we going to have space for students from Durham? What is the nature of our engagement with Durham Public Schools, with Durham private schools for that matter, such that students think seriously about us as an institutional option?” I just haven’t seen the evidence that suggests to me that this has been addressed.

What I see is a lot of reaction to things: “This happened so therefore we did this; that happened so therefore we did that.” To me, it’s a lot like my discipline. Sociology is a dynamic and interesting field that provides us with all kinds of tools for social analysis, especially in terms of race. But mainstream sociologists failed to predict the civil rights movement. That’s what this place feels like to me.

As a community we have to be willing to take risks, to get in there and wrestle with integration and accept that we may not get it right. But we’re going to do this. And we’re going to do it together; and even if we don’t succeed, we will have shown the muscle of an institution of higher learning that is wrestling with complex problems, questioning everything, and looking for ethical, intellectual responses that have application embedded in them.

As director of the Mary Lou Williams Center, I have made an effort to embrace the cultural opportunities presented by this place. Student advocacy is something we have encouraged. We have tried to help the students recognize their agency and to help make Duke as good as its promise.

Paula D. McClain became dean of the Graduate School in 2012. She is a professor of political science and of public policy at Duke. She is codirector of the university’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Social Sciences (REGSS). Her research interests include racial minority group politics, particularly inter-minority political and social competition, and urban politics. Before coming to Duke, she was a professor at the University of Virginia’s Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs and former department chair.

Paula D. McClain, dean of the Graduate School and professor of political science (Credit: Les Todd)

Desegregation, both at Duke and in higher education, began in the graduate and professional schools. In the 1930s, the NAACP brought a lawsuit against the University of Missouri law school, which had refused admission to an African-American man based on his race. Some schools paid for black students to go to schools in other states rather than desegregate. But in the [Missouri ex rel Gaines vs. Canada] case, which was argued in front of the Supreme Court, the justices ruled that institutions had to allow blacks to attend if there was no separate school for blacks.

When I came to Duke in 2000, I was recruited by political science colleagues who recognized that you couldn’t fully understand the role of government and politics in this country without taking race into account—and that in order to have a complete view of American politics, the study of race was important. (In fact, [current] provost Peter Lange was department chair when I was recruited.) They wanted me for my scholarship. The fact that I was African American was secondary, but clearly a plus in their efforts to diversify the faculty. I do not want to discount the last part, as it was important to diversify the faculty. What I am saying is that I did not have to make the case that the study of race was important; my colleagues had already reached that conclusion before I came. But that hasn’t necessarily been the case across campus.

In 2012, I became the first black dean of any of the ten schools and colleges at Duke. Duke should be asking the question of why it took so long to get to that point. Other Southern universities are farther along than we are. Emory, for instance, has had a black provost for a number of years, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has had a black dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Given that Duke is behind other institutions in this respect, I was encouraged and very pleased to hear President Brodhead address Duke’s history of race at last spring’s Academic Council meeting.

After I had left UVA, there were a series of racial incidents, and the president at the time, John Casteen III, addressed the campus from the Rotunda, the closet thing to sacred ground at UVA. He talked about UVA’s values and the community’s responsibility to condemn these incidents and stand alongside their colleagues of color who had been the targets of these events. He also talked about the fact that UVA only became a major, national institution when it opened its doors to blacks and women and that diversity and inclusiveness go hand in hand with excellence. At Homecoming that year, they replayed his speech on the jumbo screen at the football game (against Duke, by the way), so that all the alumni who were back on campus could hear it. That conveyed the importance that the institution put on the message. But that message—that diversity and excellence go hand in hand—wasn’t just something he said during that series of events. It was a staple of all of his talks about what it meant for UVA to move into the ranks of leading U.S. institutions of higher education.

 "In 2012, I became the first black dean of any of the ten schools and colleges at Duke. Duke should be asking the question of why it took so long to get to that point."

I’m proud of the work that’s taking place at REGSS. It’s a place where scholars interested in race, ethnicity, and gender, and the intersection of race and gender from a wide range of disciplines, can collaborate with others interested in exploring issues that require a [multifaceted] approach. For example, we have sociologists and colleagues from the medical center looking at how race affects health disparities. I have seen many faculty, administrators, staff, and students who are committed to making Duke a more inclusive and diverse place. We’re not there yet, but we are making progress. We have to keep working at it and remembering that diversity and excellence are two sides of the same coin. We have to keep pushing that boulder up the hill.

D. Michael Bennett ’77 is the senior vice president of information management and the chief information officer for BAE Systems Inc., a global defense, aerospace, and security company. He grew up in Charlotte and was recruited to play football at Duke, where he majored in political science. He helped launch DUBAC (Duke University Black Alumni Connection), is a vice president of the Duke Alumni Association’s board of directors, and serves on the executive committee of the 50th anniversary commemoration. 

D. Michael Bennett '77, vice president of the Duke Alumni Association's board of directors and executive committee member of the 50th anniversary commemoration (Credit: Les Todd)

In the fall of 1963, when I was in the third grade, students in the Charlotte schools went to see the movie The Sound of Music. I remember that we [black kids] had to wait in the back of the theater building until all the white kids were seated in the orchestra section. We then came into the theater through the back door and up to the balcony. There were still colored and white water fountains, and colored and white bathrooms. That same fall, just down the road from me, Duke University admitted five black undergraduate students. I was still riding in the back of the bus, by law in Charlotte, and could not have imagined that I would have been able to select Duke as the university I would attend. That is the context within which we should consider the significance of what happened in 1963 at Duke and the fifty years since then.

Duke was fundamentally changed by the presence of black students, but I’m not sure the broader Duke community always understood what it meant to be inclusive. This is the example I use. If you have a cup of coffee, and you put a test tube in the middle of it and add cream to the test tube, that cream is still separated out from the coffee. But if you add the cream to the coffee and stir it, it fundamentally becomes something different. You must embrace fundamental change to be inclusive. This 50th commemoration at the university level is a good sign regarding embracing fundamental change.

As I’ve been working on the 50th commemoration, I’ve talked to dozens of black alumni who have not meaningfully been engaged with Duke since they graduated. There is still a lot of pain from the racially negative experiences many of us had as students. Regardless, there is tremendous excitement about the fact that the entire university community is marking this occasion, and black alums want to be part of it. This is a big deal. We recently put out a call for volunteers in the D.C. area to plan and execute the D.C. 50th Commemoration event, and we had thirty-six people on our first conference call. We did the same thing in Atlanta and had twenty-five volunteers the first hour.

There are still black alums who have negative feelings about Duke because of their own personal experiences with racism while a student, but if anyone else says something negative about Duke, watch out! There’s an intense pride most African-American Duke alumni feel about Duke. Everyone I’ve talked to is excited about coming back to campus, reconnecting with the people who they were close to, and experiencing the Duke of today.

There is still unfinished business at Duke around issues of race, just as there is in our society at large. But I believe we are all on the journey together. The 50th commemoration is a way for all of us in the Duke community—not just blacks—to make progress together and chart our course for the next fifty years.

These essays are from interviews conducted, edited, and condensed by Bridget Booher.

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