This weekend's events will honor the 50th anniversary of Duke's desegregation. What now is history, though, was for many years just a distant possibility until the Board of Trustees gradually caught up with student support for racial equality.
As early as 1953, 10 years before the first black undergraduates came to campus, the student body voted in favor of admitting students of all races, original documents from the time period show. Barriers to integration, such as widespread segregation in the surrounding Durham area and a resistant administration, pushed back the timeline, but could not hold back the change.
A front-page Chronicle article from Nov. 3, 1953—placed below a much larger headline: “Sororities Pledge 188 Coeds To Climax Rushing Program”—reported that the sociology department and the Student Religious Council teamed up to poll the student body, men and women, on their opinions on admitting “qualified Negroes.” Of the 54 percent of the student population polled, 62 percent favored immediate admission for qualified black students. Of the students who identified as southerners, 56 percent supported negro admission. Of non-southerners, 71 percent voted for immediate admission.
The editorial in the next Chronicle issue expressed support for black students coming to Duke, but cautioned that this was not the right time as long as the community around Duke was “not prepared generally to see Southern universities willingly become de-segregated.”
“In our opinion, the chances of success are too slim to justify the admission of Negroes next year or for several years to come,” the Nov. 6, 1953 editorial reads. “Time should be given an opportunity to solve, as it has before, a problem of such major reform.”Duke reference librarian Carson Holloway, who grew up in Durham in the 1950s, recalled that the city was highly segregated at the time. The black community had separate libraries and schools, and racially divided water fountains were used throughout the city.
"Durham was pretty much a typical North Carolina and southern town in terms of the relative proportion of African Americans and white people and how slow the process seemed," he said. "[Desegregation] was not fast and it was not an instant process and it was not clean."
Nat White, one of the first black undergraduates at Duke and T '67, grew up three and a half miles from campus, but said it felt like "a completely different town, a city within a city."
Back at Duke, graduate and undergraduate students were pushing for change. Among the undergraduate population, women in particular led the charge for desegregation—rallying for the cause in 1956, with their male student counterparts hopping onboard in 1960.
A Chronicle article from May 8, 1956 reports that students of the Woman’s College voted 465 to 192 to advocate college admissions regardless of race or religion at Duke and all institutions of higher learning.
In a statement, junior Polly Price, president of Duke’s Woman’s Student Government Association, lauded the mature discourse that led to the decision.
“We can never hope to ease the existing tensions, to clear up the misunderstandings and misconceptions concerning the problem facing our nation and the South, in particular, if we allow prejudice to determine the course of our action,” Price wrote.
The detachment of the school administration, however, is evident in President A. Hollis Edens’ comment on the women's vote.
“Our students are, of course, at liberty to express themselves on the issue as they see fit, and the University recognizes the importance of the problem. However, as is well known, there has been no change in the University policy on this matter,” Edens said.
The male student government on West Campus held a desegregation referendum a few years later in April of 1960, according to The Chronicle archives. Of the West Campus students voting, 56 percent favored admissions without regard to race either immediately or within three years.
In 1960, Julian Deryl Hart assumed the presidency. His office files paint a picture of the tense social environment he stepped into. Several documents archived in the desegregation file from Hart’s office warn of the danger of racial agitation as a ploy in the global Communist campaign to overthrow capitalism. One letter, unsigned but typed on stationary from Mrs. Willard Steele of Chattanooga, Tenn., states that, “I am FOR segration as God,s plan and the BEST solution for our problems and FOR it because the Communists favor INTERGRATION of the Races (sic.)”
A year into his presidency, though, Hart and the Board sided with the pro-integration members of campus. A Chronicle article dated March 8, 1961 announces the Board's decision that applicants for graduate and professional schools may be admitted “without regard to race, creed, or national origin.” The article does not address the Board’s reasoning for the shift in policy, other than a weakly substantiated claim that “A possible diminution of revenues may have led to the action by the Trustees.”
After the decision to open the graduate schools to all races, Hart’s office was flooded with letters, many in favor, some opposed. One letter, from Edwin Poulnot III on March 10, 1961, asserts that the separate but equal doctrine “has been tried and proven to be not wanting.” He concluded with a vow to discontinue pledges to the Loyalty Fund as long as Duke upheld the policy of desegregation.
Another letter came in from a Robert Powell at Clark Air Base in the Philippines commending Hart for Duke's desegregation and noting that its effect on international opinion would be a great boon to U.S. national security.
“Every step taken toward overcoming segregation helps to redeem our moral integrity and our reputation in the world. You have rendered a valuable patriotic service,” Powell wrote on March 14.
Congratulations even came to the president’s office from Secretary of State Dean Rusk. According to a memo from Provost R. Taylor Cole, Rusk heard about the Duke Board’s decision from a former colleague and passed on his congratulations: “This is indeed a landmark in the development of higher education in the South.”In January of 1962, assistant professor Peter Klopfer submitted a proposal to the Undergraduate Faculty Council to push for undergraduate admissions without respect to race, religion or national origin. The proposal worked its way through the bureaucracy, and by June 2 of that year, the Board of Trustees had approved the change, 15 months after the graduate school decision. According to the Duke press release, Board Chair B. S. Womble “said that Duke is neither setting a precedent nor waiting until last to make this change…”
When White arrived on campus as a member of the Class of 1967, he said he found that the students and faculty had long been supportive. The resistance had come at a higher level.
"The joke was the Board member hadn't died yet that would shift the vote," White said.
White's first semester at Duke included a few unexpected obstacles, like a prank in which a classmate hid a black cat in his dresser to jump out at him. All in all though, White said there was not much overt pushback at Duke, especially compared to the violence that met civil rights activists elsewhere in the South that year.
With only five black undergraduates, though, it would take years before the black population built up a a critical mass on campus, which led to support structures like the Black Student Alliance and the Mary Lou Williams Center.
"Because the students had lobbied and because the faculty in large part had lobbied, there was a kind of readiness, but that still didn't change people's attitudes that they had been raised with," White said. "Duke was still largely southern school."