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Samuel DuBois Cook remembered for his passion for civic engagement, social justice

Samuel DuBois Cook, Trustee Emeritus and the first tenured African American professor at Duke, passed away in May 2017. Fifty-one years after he first joined Duke's faculty, his colleagues remember the legacy the "towering figure" left behind. 

Cook's influence on the University was not limited to the classroom, where he was a professor of political science from 1966 to 1974—Cook also served as a member of the Board of Trustees from 1981 to 1983His colleagues and friends in the department of political science spoke highly of his scholarly accomplishments and admirable personal qualities, and noted his consequential legacy at Duke as a whole.

“Sam Cook and his lovely wife Sylvia were good friends and very valuable contributors to Duke and to the Department of Political Science during their time here,” wrote Tom Spragens, professor emeritus of political science. “Sam had a remarkable career of accomplishment at all the places he served during his career—all the way from his undergraduate days through his time as a college president and into his retirement.”

Before joining Duke as the first African American professor to hold a regular rank appointment, Cook earned his B.A. in history at Morehouse College in 1948 and his M.A. and Ph.D from Ohio State University. He also held teaching appointments at Southern University and Atlanta University.

Cook's colleagues attested to his passion for civic and political engagement, evident in his early involvement as student body president at Morehouse and through his founding of Morehouse’s campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

At Duke, Cook's influence continued to grow.

Georg Vanberg, professor of political science and current chair of the department at Duke, described him as a “towering figure.”

"The department feels extremely privileged to have been a part of this important legacy," Vanberg wrote in an email.

According to Paula McClain, dean of the Graduate School, Cook was not just a prominent political scientist with intellectual heft, but also a scholar-activist committed to social justice and civil rights. Cook sought to galvanize his students into political action.

McClain recounted one example. In his book on Liberian politics, the late Hanes Walton—a political scientist at the University of Michigan and a master’s student at Atlanta University—noted the advice that Cook gave his class while serving as the chair of the department of political science at Atlanta University.

“Walton stated that Dr. Cook told his students that the socializing import of segregationist ideology of the South and North had poisoned the very well-spring of American democracy,” explained McClain. “Cook encouraged his students to use their intellectual gifts and their activist energies to remove the poison from American democracy.”

Perhaps Cook's greatest influence on Duke lay in how he shaped the mindsets and behavior of his contemporaries.

Peter Fish, professor emeritus of political science, recalled an incident during which Cook called his attention to an "unfortunate race-status issue" in the early 1970s during their time together at the University. Then the newly appointed director of graduate studies, Fish wrote messages on subjects relating to the graduate program and handed them to his secretary for production and distribution to faculty via the departmental mail.

"I would proof the text, make corrections—but, to my regret, never paid attention to the style used to list the addressees—until one day Professor Cook appeared in my office to complain vehemently about the list that began with 'Professors' by name, followed by 'Associates,' and 'Assistants,' followed at the end by Sam Cook!" Fish wrote.

Describing himself as "mortified by [his] oversight," Fish promptly addressed the issue with his secretary and instructed her that all addressees must be by either rank or alphabetical order, with no exceptions.

At a professional meeting years later, when Fish would jokingly ask Cook how he was treating his administrators, Cook paused and replied, "I am making them better people."

He did all this, Fish wrote, with great integrity and good humor—and exerted an influence in their department for which Fish remains grateful.

“Dr. Cook was a generous and gracious person with a formal air that is rare today,” McClain noted. “He was a pioneer at Duke and continued to press the University to do better, to be more, to create the ‘beloved community’ that was at the heart of whatever he did.”

Cook moved on from Duke to become president of Dillard University in 1974. He remained at Dillard for the next 22 years. Duke's Cook Center on Social Equity was named in honor of Cook’s contributions to the University—a gesture which Spragens described as “a fitting tribute."

Ultimately, Cook was a learned scholar, an admired teacher and a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word, wrote David Paletz, professor emeritus of political science.

“All who knew him will feel diminished by his loss. And we all send our condolences and our very best wishes to Sylvia and their family,” Spragens wrote.


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