Retrospective: January-February 2004

Autumn Leaves Lessons


Crossing the racial divide: Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, left, Nathaniel B. White Jr., and Mary Mitchell  Harris in 1963

Crossing the racial divide: Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, left, Nathaniel B. White Jr., and Mary Mitchell 
Harris in 1963. Duke University Archives.

Fall is the season for commemorative events. In October, 100 years ago, Trinity College history professor John Spencer Bassett published "Two Negro Leaders" in the South Atlantic Quarterly, a journal he had founded to promote "the liberty to think." The article contained a sentence praising the life of Booker T. Washington and ranking him second only to Robert E. Lee among Southerners born in the past century.

A firestorm of complaints, stoked by local newspapers, ensued and led to a call for Bassett's dismissal. Because of the controversy, Bassett submitted his resignation, but the board of trustees rejected it. Their stand, in what came to be known as the "Bassett Affair," reinforced the concept of academic freedom at Trinity, and elsewhere.

In September, forty years ago, Duke's first African-American students came to campus. They were:

  • Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke '67, now a law professor at Syracuse University, and a Duke trustee emerita;
  • Mary Mitchell Harris '67, who earned her master's and Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh and taught at Georgia Tech before opening Harris Learning Solutions in Atlanta. She died in March 2002;
  • Gene R. Kendall, who attended the engineering school;
  • Cassandra Smith Rush, who was enrolled in the Woman's College. She died in January 1996;
  • Nathaniel B. White Jr. '67, now director of the Office of Sponsored Programs at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Twenty years ago, in September, the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was dedicated, with novelist Toni Morrison as one of the keynote speakers. To celebrate a century of racial progress, A Prayer for Peace (Mary Lou's Mass) was performed in Duke Chapel this fall, and a series of seminars, speakers, and performances will be offered through January.


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